Generational Dealership: Atlantic Filter Corp.

Oct. 22, 2020

This article originally appeared in the 2020 Faces of the Industry issue as "Reign of Relationships"

About the author:

Bob Crossen is associate editor for WQP. Crossen can be reached at [email protected]

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Going on more than 60 years of business is impressive. 

To do so without corporate backing adds a set of challenges—although personal satisfaction of full ownership of the business is rewarding in its own right. 

Combine those two aspects with a business model that manufactures, retails and distributes its own water treatment products to end users, and a testament to perseverance and business philosophy are revealed.

“Integrity and ethics. It’s a huge thing for me,” said Amanda Moore, Atlantic Filter Corp. vice president. “In this industry, I’ve always been taught I’m going to say the right way to do it. I’ve always been brought up on education, learning, training and understanding what we’re doing beyond just selling a product.”

She and her family are the faces of the business and the products they sell. If something goes wrong or there is fault at some point in the process, the consequence falls on her and her family due to their visibility.

Moore, 44, said those two traits—integrity and ethics—can carry one far in business, especially in the water industry where those core values are critical to success and credibility. Without them, relationships are difficult to build, let alone maintain. And Atlantic Filter would not be in the position it were today without those relationships. In fact, it may have never even been started.

“I don’t think you can have enough friends in the industry,” Moore said.

A Real Job

Moore’s grandfather Wallace Wakem moved from Chicago to south Florida in 1952. Before he had moved, he made a connection and established a relationship with Clack Soft Water—now Clack Corp. At the time, Clack had repositioned itself as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of water treatment equipment, and Wallace Wakem became an OEM distributor of manual water filtration products in south Florida, where water treatment dealerships were a rarity, Moore said. 

Water treatment seemed like the natural fit in that case, although Moore said her father likes to joke about the real driver behind starting the business.

“He’ll tell you that my grandmother told him to ‘Get a real job,’ because he was a horseman coming out of the service,” Moore said with a laugh, noting that the water treatment industry was largely based out of the Midwest at that time. Her grandfather’s friendship with the Clack family only encouraged the idea of a water treatment business in Florida where nobody else was doing it. “He was an entrepreneur. He always was.”

That business landscape has changed dramatically since Atlantic Filter opened its doors in 1955, and the company has changed with the times. Wallace’s son James Wakem joined the company in 1969 after serving with the U.S. Air Force, and he succeeded his father in 1980. James was instrumental in growing the company by pushing it into the retail distributor market, while still maintaining its OEM side of the business. James, now 74, still retains the title of president and several high level business functions, but Moore has had some control handed down to her from her father.

She understands the company from several perspectives because growing up in the family business, she worked in every department.

“I learned a little bit about purchasing. I learned a little bit about accounting. I learned a little bit about service, and really just went around working from department to department,” Moore said.

Like a Chameleon

As the business landscape changed and the company moved into the retail distributor space, keeping up with technology became a challenge in parallel to normal business growing pains.

“When I remember coming in—when I graduated from college—email, internet and what not, that was still getting started out,” Moore said. “We were still operating on an MS Dos operating system typing in hieroglyphics for stock numbers. The speed with which technology has moved forward [has been rapid].”

Technology has changed business workflow with paperless systems and computerized support dispatching. These advancements improved efficiencies, but some aspects of the business retained their human touch, namely the phones still are answered by a human rather than an automated system. 

While it still holds on to some traditional values in that way, Moore said it is most important that Atlantic Filter is a “maneuverable business,” a value she learned from her father. A business can expand, establish new brick-and-mortar stores and build new branch locations as growth is discovered. But that growth does not exist in a vacuum.

Moore said being a smaller company allowed the business to remain nimble during all the ups and downs of economic trends during the past 20 years.

“We have really been able to evolve, and as a chameleon would, change ourselves as need be just a little bit here and there; slightly adjust our business model to work with the current economic trends,” Moore said, noting that the current trend shows a rise in Atlantic Filter’s retail revenue.

One such trend in 2019 has been a swath of mergers and acquisitions. Moore said looking to the past can inform expectations for the present. Twenty years ago, U.S. Filter began acquiring Culligan along with several other notable mergers and acquisitions, she said. That caused a shift in the industry, which took around 15 years to be fully realized. And at present, the outside influx of interest into the water quality industry will have similar ramifications for the future, although Moore sees it as an opportunity to advance the industry forward.

Another trend Moore noted is the shift toward e-commerce, but Moore said Atlantic Fitler has not made the jump to an internet model. She values the human connection and customizing the product to the end user’s needs. Providing that service remotely over the internet can be tricky, and it loses the human touch Atlantic Filter considers an important value.

Training When Losing Legacy Knowledge

Providing customized options to suit a specific end user requires a strong understanding of water treatment products and their outcome when put to use. As such, Moore said a critical business function lies in providing training employees for which Atlantic Filter leverages courses taught through the Water Quality Association (WQA) Modular Education Program, an online training portal similar to those of an online college.

“The WQA’s program is one of the biggest tools that we have in our industry that falls in line with [online college models],” Moore said. “It doesn’t get them all the hands-on experience they need, but it does get them out in the field doing these things with some guidance. That’s really important, especially when we’re being called in now to do work with governments … a small municipality.”

Atlantic Filter fluctuates between 20 and 25 employees at a minimum, but Moore was quick to note that losing one employee could feel like losing a lot more. In 2019, three legacy employees of Atlantic Filter, who Moore said had been with the company almost as long as she has been alive, retired. These three employees amounted to a wealth of institutional knowledge—one even developed the very first reverse osmosis unit the business manufactured. Holding onto that information, recovering it or distilling it from them before they left presented a serious challenge that many in the industry have become familiar with in recent years.

“You can’t put a value on loyalty, and as they transition out of your company, you realize what a loss it is. I call them Encyclopedia Britannicas, which we don’t use those anymore, but you could find the answer to anything!,” Moore said. Training employees in current market trends and technologies is not very difficult. “But one of the things with struggle with is the history of water; what we did 20 years ago, 25 years ago, what we tried and didn’t work, what we tried and did work.”

That historical perspective, she said, is an internal challenge for many dealerships with a retiring core of employees.

The Yin & Yang

One of those encyclopedias still on staff, however, is Moore’s father, James, with whom Moore said it is an honor and privilege to work. There exists a pressure on the next generation of a multi-generational dealership to carry the family torch forward while maintaining the character of the business. In spite of that pressure, Moore said she is blessed with the opportunity to carry that torch, notably because she has such a great relationship with her father. He is a master class in leaving work at work, she added.

“Literally, he turns the light switch out on work when we go to family dinners, and we’ve maintained that relationship,” Moore said.

That compartmentalization is an integral piece of their relationship as it provides a balance. Moore is outgoing and enthusiastic, while her father is more methodical in his personality. 

“It makes good balance. There’s a yin and a yang to that,” Moore said. “Our strengths are not the same, so we are able to balance each other in the teeter totter of life.”

Their differing personalities and generational thinking impact the business side, too as they do not always see eye-to-eye on business decisions. But they both keep the door open for discussions on decisions that can at times be divisive. And they always hash out those differences at the office. When it is family time, they close the door to business talk temporarily.

“My father has always been my idol. In the industry, he is hugely involved and always has been with WQA,” Moore said, adding he now is on the board of directors for the Water Quality Research Foundation. “We make an effort to get together on a weekly basis outside of the business with the grandkids, and at that time it’s all about the grandkids; it’s all about the family.”

Because even outside the business, relationships are key to Atlantic Fitler’s success.

About the Author

Bob Crossen