A Half Century with Hellenbrand
By Jeff Hellenbrand
In October, Hellenbrand dealers, employees, family and friends were welcomed to our 2017 Fall Dealer Meeting, where we kicked off our celebration of 50 years in business! This is the speech I gave, a company history that nearly everyone at Hellenbrand has shared in over the years.
It was July of 1967, hot and humid. With August fast approaching, our parents loaded the family (Jeff, Terry, Sue and Kevin) into the family station wagon for a trip to South Dakota. We would visit an army buddy of Dad’s on a ranch for a few days and see some of the sites, like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Badlands, Corn Palace and more. We were told, “enjoy this vacation as it may be the last one we have for quite awhile, as we are going to start Hellenbrand water softener in August.’” Our parents, Jim and Florence, were a real team. Without their support for each other, Hellenbrand would not exist today. My guess is that many of their family members and friends thought they were a bit crazy starting a water softening business from scratch, with no existing customer base and five children, all under the age of 10. How were they going to make ends meet, selling water softeners? Both of our parents came from large families where working together hard to accomplish all of the chores for the day was the norm.
Mom grew up in a family business that had a slaughter house, butcher shop, locker plant, grocery store and tavern. Imagine that, a tavern in Wisconsin! Little did she know that upbringing, working various jobs in the family business (from washing and starching the uniforms daily that her older brothers wore in the slaughter house and butcher shop, to working in the grocery store and bartending in the tavern) would provide her with a wealth of hands-on business knowledge that one cannot get just anywhere. Dad grew up on a family farm and like anyone who has grown up on a farm, you automatically develop a great work ethic, as the consequences of not doing so were not an option. He left high school after his sophomore year and worked on the farm. Eventually he was drafted into the Army and served our country in Korea. (At this point, I asked all the veterans in the room to please stand so we could recognize them with a round of applause. They are a very important part of our company.)
During Dad’s two-years in the Army, my parents wrote countless letters to each other. After returning home from the Army in 1956, Dad worked a couple of different jobs and then landed a job with Capital Water Softener in Madison. They were married in February of 1957 and over the next 10 years, Dad learned the water softening business from the ground up. He had a great working relationship with and respect for Norm Peterson, who owned Capital Water Softener Company; Dad shared his visions with Norm on how they could grow that business. With Norm’s family becoming more involved in the business, however, Dad began to see his options for growth limited. Although Capital and Hellenbrand competed daily against each other (and still do today), Dad and Norm Peterson remained very good friends, until Norm’s passing.
One night, Dad shared with Mom that he wanted to start his own company and with the encouragement from Mom saying, “Jim you can do this,” Hellenbrand Water was born. While Dad knew the water business, Mom had the business experience from her family upbringing and the two of them made a great team, with a lot of give and take to get through those very difficult first years. I remember Dad wanted to start the business from our home and Mom did not think that was a good idea. The business started in downtown Waunakee. Dad’s vision was to sell water softeners to the plumbing-contractor market, as well as repair and replace existing systems. Capital Water Softener had their own proprietary capital valve and Bruner was a giant in the business back then. Bruner owned the plumbing-wholesaler and plumbing-contractor markets for both residential and commercial throughout the US. Fortunately, Clack Corporation was located just down the road in Madison. Dad met with Bill Clack, who distributed various components, like Apex mineral tanks, rotational molded brine tanks, Ionac resin and Erie control valves. From those components, the Hellenbrand A-Series of water softeners and filters was born.
I remember accompanying Dad to Clack Corporation in his International pick-up truck to pick up a few mineral tanks, brine tanks, resin and valves—whatever we could pack into the bed of the truck. Being new in business, he was on a COD (cash on delivery) payment plan and wrote out a check to pay for the items each time. We’d then drive back to the shop and build the units for inventory. Dad began knocking on the doors of plumbers for business, as well as selling doubles to the many farmers he knew: one for the milk house and one for the farm house. Softeners were simple, seven- or 12-day time clocks, 15k, 24k, 32k or 48k grains. Iron filters were either birm or greensand with KMnO4. Water softeners with meters, twin-alternating or demand-recall, along with ROs, etc., did not exist.
While Dad was busy trying to get the business off the ground, Mom was busy raising five challenging children (Jeff, Terry, Sue, Kevin and Paul); Jay and Jodi would join the family a few years later. Those early years were very tough and money was tight. While Mom had a full-time job with five children at home, she also had a part-time job in the fall, working nights at Wisconsin Cheeseman to help make ends meet and to make sure we had some gifts under the tree at Christmas. Dad would arrive home at 5 p.m., the meal was cooked, they would give each other a hug and kiss and off she would go. Each evening when Mom was not working at Wisconsin Cheeseman, everyone sat down at the dinner table for a great home-cooked meal. Eventually Mom would ask Dad how the day went and all of us kids gradually learned about the water business and Dad’s day. Many of you in the room are too young to know what a party line is. That was the phone system back in the day that you shared with your neighbors and everyone knew everybody’s business! They worked hard at getting the phone company to agree that we needed a private business phone that could actually ring at the business and at home. Eventually technology allowed that to happen and during many an evening dinner it would ring and we would answer it. Little did we know then we were doing Customer Service 101.
I remember riding to Clack one day with Dad in that International pick-up truck to pick up inventory to build. We loaded the truck and went back inside to pay the invoice. Dad was sitting at a table with his big pad-folio check book, the three-checks-per-page type. He was writing out the check when Bill Clack came up behind him as he was signing the check and grabbed the pen. Dad turned around and said, “Hi Bill” and they had a short conversation on how things were going. He then turned back to finish writing out the check and Bill once again grabbed the pen and said, “Jim, you have earned a line of credit with Clack and you no longer have to pay when you pick up product.” That brought tears to my Dad’s eyes and that ride home is something I will never forget.
When we started out in 1967, we had a small space on Main Street, with no loading dock. Eventually we needed more space and moved across the street but still, no loading dock. As the business grew, we added a small metal shed for extra storage, then we started storing brine tanks and mineral tanks on Dad’s home farm. With too much time spent running back and forth and the business continuing to grow, we built a 6,000-square-foot building on Main Street in 1974. That was also about the time we hired our first employee, Joe Carson. He was hired to do inside sales, handle walk-in traffic and assemble systems as his time allowed. In addition to selling water softeners and iron filters, we also sold Kitchen Aid dishwashers and Speed Queen washers and dryers. Joe took us boys under his wing and often told us that someday we would be bigger than Sta-Rite, an independent OEM down the road in Deerfield, and a much smaller version of a Culligan or EcoWater. In the late 70s, Fleck came out with the 5600 time clock and even I could take that apart and put it back together. We boys convinced Dad to switch control valves from Erie to Fleck. In the early 80s, Fleck came out with the 5600 metered valve and Hellenbrand began expanding into the dealer market, calling on dealers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. At the same time, we entered into the commercial market, calling on engineers who were designing the water-softening systems and the mechanical contractors that were bidding those jobs.
My brother Terry was doing service work and was looking for a better way to remove iron than having to deal with greensand and KMnO4. Eventually the Iron Curtain was developed. As the success of the Iron Curtain began to spread from dealer to dealer, our dealer business really began to grow. Many of you here now were part of that movement back then and we are very grateful to you for giving Hellenbrand a chance. That vision that Joe Carson had of Hellenbrand someday being larger than Sta-Rite was beginning to become a real possibility. As our business continued to grow throughout the 80s, we were outgrowing our building once again. Our parents reinvested in the business and in January of 1991, we moved into a new 15,000-square-foot building. We kept the existing building and started the Hellenbrand Water Center. In all, we had approximately 10 full- and part-time employee’s. In 1994, my brothers Terry, Paul and I purchased the business from our parents and with a huge debt load and a second-generation business (and not wanting to fail), we worked hard at growing it.
From our very first employee, Joe Carson, we have been blessed with a great group of employees who embraced the Hellenbrand culture. They are some of the water treatment industries finest individuals. They are the face of the company and they are the ones who have grown the Hellenbrand name in the water treatment industry. Along the way, we have had many industry friends who have mentored and/or coached us (many of whom are no longer with us) and we are grateful to each of them. My two business partners (my brother Paul and Pat Ford) have taken a great deal off my plate the last few years and I am very grateful for that. More importantly, all of you in this room, without your support, we would not be here celebrating 50 years! Some of you have been with us for a short time, others for 10, 20, 30 years or more. You believe in Hellenbrand and we believe in you. By listening to each other and working together, we will continue to grow each of our businesses and we thank you for your support.
Today, five of the Hellenbrand siblings are in the water treatment business. We are very proud of our brothers Kevin (who has KH Water here in Wisconsin) and Jay (who has Advanced Water Treatment Solutions out in California). Both of them have very well-run and respected dealerships in their markets. Our sister Jodi works at Hellenbrand bidding projects in the new-construction market and knows her craft very well. Terry sold out in 2008 and has a business outside the water treatment industry and our sister Sue works in the medical field. Lastly, we are forever grateful to our parents for believing in us, making the hard decisions along the way, for allowing us to expand the business in the 80s by entering the commercial market and to start the dealer channel; and then for them to reinvest back into the business near their retirement, constructing a new building in 1991, when they could have just as easily said no. On behalf of everyone in the Hellenbrand family, my business partners Paul and Pat and all of the employees, we thank you for your support during our journey these last 50 years and we look forward to many more.