At Age 26, She Told Customers “Just Trust Me!”
Norma Lara Leep discovered her passion for water a couple of years out of high school. “I got involved as an outside sales representative for Hague Quality of Las Vegas, NV in 1998. I have remained in the water treatment industry because I love the benefit clean water provides for the end user. I love water chemistry and solving difficult water issues,” she said. Leep learned her trade from the ground up.
By 2003, Leep opened her own company, Water Solutions of Imperial Valley, in El Centro, CA. Her hometown of Calexico is part of the fertile Imperial Valley at the southeastern tip of California, roughly between the Salton Sea to the west and the Colorado River to the east. The hot, dry area is known for growing an abundance of fruits and vegetables, grain and cotton, with irrigation from the river.
“What I find most rewarding about my business is having the ability to employ others, to share and teach them my passion for water quality.” Leep said that when she came home to the Imperial Valley, “I was 26 years old. Others had come into the market, sold systems, then left. I would say, ‘Just trust me—I’ll be here for a long time.’ So luckily they did trust me and the rest is history.”
Overcoming the odds
Leep faced plenty of challenges along the way. “The biggest challenge my company faced was during the Great Recession of 2008. The way we overcame that was downsizing. Ultimately, I rolled up my sleeves and became our service tech, receptionist, bookkeeper and sales rep. Looking back, the Great Recession was the best thing that happened to my business. It sounds cliché but truly it was the best teacher. That’s actually when I learned how to service equipment and troubleshoot. I already knew how to do my own books, sell, market and manage my business.”
The region that Water Solutions now serves (from Yuma, AZ to San Diego, CA) has plenty of water challenges. Imperial itself has exceeded the maximum contaminant level for total trihalomethanes for the last four quarters and its well water is very high in arsenic, she said. “Other issues involve treating surface water for residential and commercial purposes to meet the California Environmental Health Department’s (EHD) water potability standards. We offer POE water treatment systems that reduce turbidity, combined with ultraviolet light and fine sediment filtration.
“Our best-selling system by far is the Hague Water Max, which is a multi-media, multi-compartment unit designed to treat specific water issues. Our company also offers water-sampling services and we work together with a California certified lab to analyze the water after treatment, as well as assist the end user in filling out all paperwork required to be in compliance with EHD. We recently completed a project in a neurosurgery center and plan to pursue more medical facilities. The gentleman from that project was very pleased with our work and as a matter of fact, said he wants to refer all his medical offices and hospitals in the region to us.”
Most of the Water Solutions business comes through referrals from satisfied customers “and now their children are already buying homes and we’re selling to them. In fact, when we had our grand opening on May 3 for our first showroom, we had several of our very first customers attend.” Another strong resource is the Internet. “Because of our consistently high customer reviews (4.9 out of 5), we get a lot of business through Google.
“I started my business so I could have an opportunity to build an organization that was based on my own values and principles,” Leep said. “I learned a long time ago that you have to create an experience for consumers to ensure they return and that is exactly what has happened. We make the sale very personable from the initial contact. We have great customer service from all our staff—dispatch, sales, installers—and follow up to check that everything is a-okay, then maintain ongoing contact. We have a really great preventive maintenance program. They are not calling us for service—we remind them of that before they even think about it. We truly enjoy servicing our customers and helping them to have the highest quality water possible.”
Where training really counts
A commitment to quality and customer service goes hand-in-hand with training. “It’s really exciting. We have training here in-house. My admin assistants, my technicians, my sales people; everybody is very knowledgeable. We try to solve whatever needs our customers have.” Leep has a California Water Conditioning Contractor’s License and will graduate in June from Imperial Valley College with Water Treatment Technology certification. Technician Bryan Bethea held a water treatment specialist Class 3 License from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for 14 years before joining Leep’s company and is now working on getting certified through WQA.
“Bryan came to us a little over a year ago. His background in Texas was working for a large Culligan dealership. He brought a lot of that commercial knowledge—that was not something I was not too confident with until he came. He builds our RO systems. That’s one reason we’ve expanded commercially beyond hotels, restaurants and coffee shops to medical facilities. We have two major competitors and one of the things we hear most is: ‘Your company seems to have a better product that is priced fairly and you’re quick and clean.’ The word is spreading through the business community.”
Leep’s enthusiasm extends to teaching youth about the career opportunities in the water industry. At Imperial Valley College, she met a professor who was astonished that a young woman was doing water purification installations, exclaiming, “You do what?” Leep said he was “totally surprised that I owned this company and what I did. In time he started involving me. He wanted more girls to be in industry workshops. We have a career day at the local college and I’m called by elementary and high schools as well. I wear a pink hard-hat as a prop for the kids—they like that.
“I want to be involved in the Water Treatment Technologies program to mentor our youth and promote growth in our industry. In this area, there are a lot of lower-income families and not too many get the opportunity to send children off to a four-year college. After attending the annual Amsterdam Water Week Conference, I thought I could inspire kids. I want to raise funds to take them on field trips. I’d like to get kids to see the world of water. These kids are so smart; they are brilliant in the water program. The professor and I are putting our heads together to see what we can do to facilitate students to have more opportunities to travel out of the area and be inspired for careers in water beyond the local water department. A lot of these students came to the grand opening of my showroom.”
Growth begets success
Leep’s staff of eight is likely to get much busier in the near future. “This area’s growing a lot. A lot of new homes are being constructed and new businesses are starting up. They’re relying on us to make the water meet potability standards so the bank will approve the loan.” Down the road, “my five-year plan is to open another branch somewhere in southern California and expand our outreach.”
Currently the state of California, with the Environmental Health Department, is piloting a two-year program in which funds have been allocated to assist lower-income families in installing POE systems in rural areas. “The water smells bad and is not safe for people to even bathe in. This is pivotal in our business as it brings a spotlight to our industry and the importance of safe and potable water. We plan to set up consumers on an operations and management program to ensure appropriate maintenance and care of their equipment.”
Today, more women are entering the water treatment industry as sole proprietors or entrepreneurs in their own right, not as part of the family business. Leep was well ahead of that trend. “I enjoy breaking the norm. It’s okay to be under a sink and change a filter and wear boots when I have to go to the farms. When I started, I worked mainly with men. I am a competitive person by nature and a runner; I like to run faster than the boys. It is a privilege to be one of the few female Hague distributors in the country. I was especially proud when they invited me to serve on their board of directors. And I always enjoy being asked to speak at Hague dealer conventions on various subjects, ranging from marketing/social media to how to take your business to the next level.”