The Business Model Was ‘Pure Magic’
Lou Petty founded Aqua Systems in 1959, “at a time when many people did not even know what a water softener was, let alone own one,” said Pat Miller, Vice President of Partner Services and company spokesman. “Petty was successful from the start. Then his son Bret joined the business full-time after graduating from college. Bret believed that the customer experience was more important than anything else in growing a business, so he wanted to eliminate sales commissions. He felt that was contradictory to having a stellar customer experience. He also wanted to revolutionize the way water softeners were serviced, creating less expense and less inconvenience for the customer. He wanted to increase warranties to enhance customer service. In short, he wanted to change the way the industry approached almost everything.”
And the elder Petty agreed. The goal was to make it simple for customers to do business with Aqua Systems. This meant clear pricing, no sales commissions, no pressure and a 90-day, money-back guarantee—all unheard of three decades ago. “Information is readily available for our customers: on the website, in the store, by phone or in the home. In our business model, our retail centers serve as a place where customers come in, get water tested, gather information from a no-commission water expert, obtain pricing and documentation. They are free to shop around. It’s all about what is convenient for you the customer.”
In 1989, Miller could see that Petty and his son were onto something with their modest company in Danville, IN. The two family members “were moving three to four times the number of drinking water systems than any of my other customers in much larger markets,” said Miller, who was a factory representative at the time. He found their business model was pure magic. “I began bothering them to let me take what they were doing to the dealer market. It took almost a year and they finally gave me the opportunity to begin setting up a national program to market quality products and, most importantly, their business method.”
Aqua Systems helps its dealers (who they call partners) do more business, make more money and have more time for things outside their business. “It’s really that simple and basic. This is a different, better, more profitable and easier way to run your business,” he said. “After about six months, we were really successful setting up new dealerships. Bret and Lou asked if I would move to Indianapolis and continue to build the business from their main facility in Avon.” He would and he did.
Growth became the norm
“Over the next two years, we had to double the size of the almost-new facility that had just been constructed in Avon. Two years later, we had to build another facility as large as the first two buildings combined, to house the production facilities. We just kept outgrowing space. In that same period, we also built two additional 5,000-square-foot retail centers on the south and north sides of Indianapolis. Growth was taking place and it was happening at light speed,” Miller said.
Today, Aqua Systems is one of the largest suppliers of water softeners and RO systems in the Midwest and has a national presence from New York to Oregon and from Michigan to Florida. Miller said, “Aqua Systems now owns 14 retail centers, plus the main 50,000-square-foot production facility in Indiana where we build the equipment and bottle large-package water, along with a facility in Ohio, which incorporates an additional bottling facility,” he said. “With our breadth of water knowledge over the last 60 years and the team we have, we really know what we’re doing when it comes to fixing water. We do business around the country. Each region has its own water problems and we’ve dealt with all of them.”
Expanding by helping others achieve success
Aqua Systems is eager to share its success with its partners. “We now have a team of seasoned regional managers in the field with one objective: to help our partners grow their business and assist them in achieving a business that truly serves them. Our field representatives have extensive water knowledge and unique qualities to help our partners build their business. We have real-world answers to business and market challenges where we can offer a unique support system. This includes not only technical help for water problems and equipment, but for real business consultation to build their businesses. We also provide many marketing services to help partners stay focused on taking care of their customers.
“When potential partners visit Aqua Systems headquarters, that’s where most of the magic happens. When they can see a working model, it makes a huge difference. They know this is real world and not just hyperbole. It allows dealers to gain control of their own lives while their business continues to grow. Most importantly, Aqua Systems services are provided at nominal to no cost, because when our partners sell more they have to buy more, and that is a win-win.”
Merging into a top-level team
Donald Line has been President of Aqua Systems since 2004, after merging his company into Aqua Systems in 1997. He said, “Most of our softeners are built to be the last water softener you’ll ever need to buy. We’ve engineered the components in such a manner that they easily separate so that every component that goes into your water treatment system can be replaced, years down the road if you have a problem. You just swap the part out and don’t have to buy a new unit.”
“Aqua Systems currently is focusing on technology support (things such as web management, PPC campaigns, WiFi integration) to allow our systems to communicate when they need service, warn you before you run out of salt and even provide remote diagnostics, which can actually prevent service calls in homes when the problem is not due to a hardware failure. Dealers who wish to thrive in the future will need to stay on top of consumer demands for smarter products,” Miller said.
Miller said, “Aqua Systems is a complete one-stop supplier for our partners. We have pretty much anything that a water treatment professional needs to run his or her business. We assemble or manufacture everything from water softening, purification, bottled water, filters, parts and fittings. This includes our patented Eradicator Series of iron- and sulfur-removal systems, our integrated ozone systems, as well as our proprietary lines of equipment like the SmartChoice series of softeners and filters. We also have a full line of products from every major valve supplier.
“Beyond products, we provide a custom marketing department to develop marketing materials and broadcast advertising for television and radio, as well as postcard mailers and newsprint advertising. We provide sales and technical training and support. We help our partners analyze competitive assessments to see where their strengths and weaknesses may be in their markets and offer suggestions to help them maximize those strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. We provide partner websites, along with key wording and search-engine optimization. All this allows our partners to focus on their businesses, while we help drive customers to their doors.”
Miller has worked in the water treatment industry for decades. “In my mid-20s, I owned three companies, two of which were in the direct-selling business. At that time, many magazines including Time, Newsweek and others were dedicating full issues to water pollution and drinking-water issues. It struck me that water problems were always going to be something that would sustain businesses that genuinely knew how to alleviate the problems associated with the things we do to water when we use it, as well as naturally occurring environmental problems. My dad and I started a small water treatment dealership where I met some of the supplier/manufacturers and eventually was asked to be a factory representative.” That’s how he met the Pettys.
“Today people are busier than ever. The way they interact with companies is changing dramatically. People use their cell devices for almost everything. In the near future, digital marketing and technology advancements will be a driving force, changing the water treatment industry. We intend to help our partners stay ahead of the pack.”