Amy McIntosh is former managing editor of WQP. For more information, email [email protected].
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Although its history spans more than four decades, the team at American Aqua is constantly looking ahead, striving to meet short- and long-term objectives.
American Aqua was founded in 1975 in Saline, a small town in eastern Michigan.
“It started out as a, just kind of a small, mom-and-pop shop with very few employees, maybe three or four,” said Wes VandenBrink, vice president of sales and operations for American Aqua. “It was then purchased in the mid 1980s by Darwin Watts, who ran it then for probably about another 20 years.”
According to the company’s website, Watts remains the company president, but VandenBrink said John Fauster purchased the business from Watts around 2011. Around two years ago, Fauster was looking for someone to help run the business and found VandenBrink, who worked in the water industry in a different capacity running a large division of a Michigan water treatment company.
The business is seeing a lot of consumer concern about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), lead, and copper. VandenBrink also is seeing increased concern about Legionella, but that is not something American Aqua handles.
The dealership serves residential and commercial customers—VandenBrink estimates a 65% residential, 35% commercial split—and is working on adding more specialty commercial and industrial clients.
“Something that I’ve kind of brought to the table was helping with proposals for larger commercial/industrial projects,” VandenBrink said. “They take more extensive time to design with consulting engineers and mechanical contractors before you actually would be providing them with any equipment or any services.”
Finding & Keeping Talent
VandenBrink cited human resources as the biggest challenge American Aqua faces.
“You have to hire people—almost everybody—at entry level and then they work their way up to a higher level,” he said. “It’s just difficult to find the people that have the patience to do that.”
To find these people, American Aqua is always interviewing, even when there are no job openings. The company’s evaluation process involves looking at more than just technical skills. Interviewers use a “metric-based way of ranking them in relationship to [the company’s] core values,” VandenBrink said.
Once an employee is hired, they go through an intensive training process. Because of the specialized nature of the business, VandenBrink said this type of training is key to developing qualified employees.
“We take a very intensive look at their schedule every day and we make sure that we’re scheduling them every day throughout the day with the right people to work with,” he said. “We try and do that for really the first 30 to 90 days so that they’re constantly working with somebody that we think would have a positive impact on the person. Then we’ll review them at the end of that training period and provide them with feedback on how they’ve done and where they need to improve.”
Most employees have Water Quality Assn. (WQA) certification, and everyone has been tasked with taking their certification to the next level. According to VandenBrink, even delivery drivers and customer service representatives will have some form of WQA certification.
These employees are loyal to American Aqua for a few reasons, according to VandenBrink. One is the company’s consistent growth and positive reinforcement. Another is a program that rewards employees when the company meets its goals. When the company exceeds its profit targets for a quarter, some of that is distributed to the employees.
Goal setting is huge for American Aqua, and when VandenBrink came on board two years ago, he helped implement a business operations system called Traction within the Entrepreneurial Operating System.
“In that [platform], we establish goals every 90 days, for the next 90 days, for the year,” VandenBrink said. “And then we evaluate what our goals are for the next seven years because we have a ‘$7 million in seven years’ plan.”
American Aqua’s shorter-term goals, which VandenBrink said were developed to help the company attain the ultimate $7 million goal, include increasing commercial and industrial services, maximizing efficiency in the bottling and deionization plant, upgrading routing software to a cloud-based server, and building up the company’s marketing efforts.
VandenBrink thinks other water dealerships could benefit from this system.
“Traction is a methodology of continuously improving your organization, your operations and your process,” he said. “It’s a system that’s designed for small sales organizations.”
The company’s current marketing strategy spans a few categories. EcoWater dealers are encouraged to work with Costco stores to sell treatment systems via what VandenBrink called a “cross marketing” program. If a customer purchases an EcoWater system from a Costco, they receive a Costco cash card.
Other forms of marketing includes retail, which means capturing people who show up in-store; internet marketing, which includes the company website; advertising on the radio, in print, and digitally on websites like HomeAdvisor and Yelp; and referrals. VandenBrink said referrals are by far the most successful, while advertising is the least.
Since he joined the industry more than 20 years ago, VandenBrink has seen a change in technology and data usage.
“I would say that the industry has become more engineering- and scientific-based, and more data-based than it was when I first started,” he said. “I would say obviously just with any company in any business sector, just the technology that has been incorporated into our business from a communications point of view has just greatly enhanced productivity of everybody.”
He also sees American Aqua’s future in larger, more specialty projects a growing trend in the industry.
“I think that water in general is just going to continuously be a bigger and bigger industry, and I think that the companies that have the ability to engineer and design unique solutions for their customers will have the biggest advantage,” he said.