Brittany O’Reilly is web content editor for WQP. O’Reilly can be reached at [email protected].
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In the spring of 1973, Gordon Duisterhof saw an advertisement in the Kalamazoo Gazette that caught his attention. The ad was seeking dealers for Lindsay Water Conditioners in Michigan, and he decided to embark on an entirely new career in an industry with which he had no experience. Gordon Water Systems was formed, but the early days were humble.
“We started with pretty meager stuff, with dad sitting on the edge of the bed making phone calls in the evening,” recalled Gordon’s son, Tom Duisterhof, vice president of Gordon Water Systems. “From there he hired a full-time guy and found some space in downtown Kalamazoo,” Tom said.
Tom remembered his father reaching out to others in the industry during the early years of Gordon Water Systems, trying to learn all that he could from others so his business could grow.
After switching from Lindsay to Kinetico products in the mid-1970s, Gordon Water Systems continued to expand. Tom’s brother Steve Duisterhof joined the business in the 1980s and is now the president. With a commitment to serving the water quality needs of its customers and a focus on bottled water delivery, which “took off” in the early 1990s, the company was able to expand to its current four locations serving Western Michigan with more than 40 employees.
In the nearly 50 years since his father started the business, Tom views its success as a direct result of the people involved.
“It’s about relationships,” Tom said. “Finding the right people that match corporate character, and we’ve got a great team.”
While it may not always be easy, Tom noted the company has made great strides in recent years when it comes to attracting the best, most appropriate people for the job. When employees are well-trained and happy in their workplace, they are better equipped to handle new challenges.
Changing Business Landscape
The past 18 months have been challenging for the team at Gordon Water Systems, which saw its business model upended.
“Our bottled water business saw a significant, dramatic effect,” Tom said.
The bulk of its bottled water business had been with corporate clients, and that dropped off with the lockdowns and work-from-home policies enacted in 2020. Deemed essential workers, the team at Gordon Water Systems found a safe and efficient way to deliver clean water to their customers and noticed their bottled water clientele shift from mostly corporate to more residential.
“We came out the other side of that,” Tom said. “Bottled water has come back, not completely, but we have expanded our residential business. People had us at work and wanted us at home, so we have more residential business than we’d had.”
The ability to quickly adapt to changing demand has proven successful for the company, and they are now seeing business starting to return to a new normal with a spread of residential, commercial and industrial business.
Facing Today’s Challenges
Current economic fluctuations and changes in consumer confidence, along with local and state regulations, have provided many challenges throughout the years to Tom and the team. The current economic situation is no different, and as prices for materials have increased, honesty and clarity with customers has become crucial. While no one likes to talk about price increases, they are a reality of the current economic climate. Gordon Water Systems has remained upfront with customers. Tom sees the customer experience as essential during economically tumultuous times.
“It’s always a balance, because you don’t want to lose customers. Be appropriate and timely with pricing,” Tom said. “Taking care of people with a good attitude. A smile, an appreciation. Just be nice, be polite, be thankful. Let’s find the little nuggets of joy along the way.”
Along with economic hurdles, operating a water treatment business in Michigan has become increasingly dynamic for Gordon Water Systems. While Tom noted that, “Color and odor make the phone ring,” the water crisis in Flint, on the other side of Michigan, has taught the larger public to be aware of what they may not be able to see, taste or smell. Tom has noticed a general concern among customers and residents of Western Michigan, but the company has refused to profit off of fear, and instead seeks to learn and help in any way it can.
There has been an uptick in per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) awareness and concern, in particular. Gordon Water Systems had a request to help a state-owned building at ground zero for PFAS contamination in Western Michigan. After doing research and reaching out to others, they came up with a plan to help, and ended up developing solutions for families and businesses.
“We didn’t capitalize on fear,” Tom said.
Making Meaningful Connections
With regards to the future of the water industry, Tom emphasized the need for people to take charge of their drinking water.
“People deserve clean, safe water,” Tom said.
The demand for quality water is bigger than ever, with the increasing popularity of reverse osmosis technology in homes. Tom noted that while government regulatory agencies try their best to detect problems with drinking water, there is only so much they can do. Clean drinking water starts at home, and Tom and his team are ready to grow and reach more customers.
In order to reach out to any potential customers, Gordon Water Systems uses SEO and online marketing. The question of how to find new customers pushes the company to have an active web presence, with social media and email campaigns that drive the viewer to call or go to their website. Tom noted it can be difficult, as many people base their decisions on online reviews and other unpredictable sources, but their advertising and marketing efforts all have the collective goal of making it easy for people to find and learn about the company.
Along with a focus on good marketing practices, Gordon Water Systems has embraced modern technology. Employees are utilizing completely paperless transactions in the field. The company is also working on a new training center for basic water quality and product training for employees.
The Path Forward
The employees of Gordon Water Systems are an invaluable asset to the company, and Tom emphasized the importance of taking care of the people he works with. According to Tom, having a happy workforce means more than just a paycheck. Treating employees fairly, valuing their opinions, and understanding their abilities and life circumstances results in a better overall experience.
Appreciating people, customers and employees, is the thread binding Gordon Water Systems’ past to its future. As Tom noted, the way to survive is through growth.
“How do we grow and help more people have clean, safe water?” Tom asked. His answer lies in the quality of their products and services. He understands the impact of infrastructure going forward, and keeps Gordon Water Systems employees up-to-date with the latest certifications.
Gordon Water Systems is a member of the Water Quality Association (WQA), as well as the Michigan WQA and many other local sponsorships and affiliations.
“WQA is a source for training and certification for sales people, and that credibility is really important,” Tom said.
For Tom and the team at Gordon Water Systems, the path forward is illuminated by lessons already learned. Keeping his father’s guiding principles in the forefront, Tom highlighted the key to a strong, successful future, “People, community; meaning your employees, your coworkers. Regardless of the industry you’re in, your people are your most important assets.”