A Challenge with Boundless Opportunities
Ronald Gagnon was born in France. “I was an Army brat and lived all over the world. I lived in seven states across the nation, two and a half years in Okinawa. I was all over the place.” His first language was French and he was a Cub Scout in France, then a Boy Scout in Okinawa. “When my eldest son crossed from the cubs to the Boy Scouts, I signed up as Assistant Scout Master and within three years, I was Scoutmaster. I’ve held that position now for 14 years.” Both of his sons became Eagle Scouts and Gagnon himself received the Scoutmaster Award of Merit in 2008.
He went into the US Navy a year after graduating from high school. “I was just barely 17 years old. As soon as I turned 18, I enlisted.” Gagnon spent much of his service on the east coast, then Memphis, TN, and finally the naval station near North Chicago in Lake County, IL—the largest training station in the navy, where he was a Recruit Company Commander and Recruit Division Commander. He retired as Chief Petty Officer in January 1996. Gagnon’s Facebook page features a photo of the USS John F. Kennedy. “That was my last ship. It’s been decommissioned and it’s waiting for a possible home as a museum—hopefully in Providence, RI. We are working hard to get the funding necessary to give it a home. We hope she’ll make it.” His other ship was the USS Saratoga. “That’s now down in Texas being scrapped. That brings a tear to our eyes.”
After serving for 21 years, Gagnon was searching for a new career. “My brother-in-law (Mike Gross) owned a well-drilling business that his father started in the late 1940s and asked if I would like to start a water conditioning company with him, as long as I would run the business and he would be a silent partner,” Gagnon said. That’s when they established Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning in Antioch, IL 22 years ago.
“I had absolutely no education in the world of water conditioning,” he said. “I was unsure about where to start. I managed to connect with several manufacturers of water conditioning equipment and attend their educational seminars and water conditioning schools. I also became a member of the WQA, where I found an enormous amount of educational resources. I currently hold Master Water Specialist and Certified Installer certifications. Personally, I have attended every WQA convention since I joined (the year I started the business) because of the education and networking opportunities.” His brother-in-law provided the start-up capital “and said that if I managed to pay back those funds within five years, he would sign over 50 percent of the company to me. Aqua-Pure had many successes over the course of several years and I was able to pay back all start-up costs in four years and two months. I have since purchased his half of the business,” Gagnon said.
“I have remained in the industry because I find it to be a challenge with boundless opportunities. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about my industry. I enjoy helping the public find the right solutions to their water quality problems. What I find most rewarding is when I work with a customer who has had several bad experiences with other water treatment companies (ending in multiple system failures) and I find the right solution to make them a happy customer.” Those problems often come from not doing a full water analysis and missing something that needs to be taken care of by a different type of system, he said. The key is to do a thorough analysis of the water. “People call and want a quote over the phone. I tell them I can’t begin to tell you over the phone because I’ve got to get intimate with your water—feel it, touch it, smell it, test it, taste it—that’s the only way to know exactly what it will cost to fix your water,” he said.
“The most important motivating factor that led me to starting this business is that I didn’t want to work for someone else. I wanted to be my own boss, to be able to make the decisions that would lead me to my own successes. The biggest challenge at first was just to get myself established as a water conditioning dealer, getting the necessary education and to prove myself as a professional. Once I succeeded in doing that, it has been smoother sailing.”
Aqua-Pure serves the northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin areas. “Our specialty is sulfur treatment systems but we also handle water softening and iron removal. A lot of people are on wells. We have many types of problem water: iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide in combination with hardness. The most challenging problem water that we encounter is iron and hydrogen sulfide. We sometimes encounter water with up to 10 ppm of iron and as much as 50 ppm of hydrogen sulfide. As for the iron, we use a combination of ion exchange and oxidation/filtration systems. As for the hydrogen sulfide problems, the most common method that we employ is chemical oxidation with follow-up filtration. We also use some chemical-free systems that work well with low-level concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. We serve primarily the residential market but work in the light commercial market as well.
“Another challenge we faced a few years ago was getting involved in the installation of a system that was much larger than we had been accustomed to installing. It really was a very large commercial system, actually bordering on industrial. About midway through the installation, I realized that we’d bitten off more than was comfortable with chewing. But, with lots of hard work and perseverance, hiring a couple of additional laborers, we managed to do a very professional job of the installation. I’m just not comfortable with saying ‘I quit.’ What’s satisfying about the water industry is things are ever changing from one day to the next. It’s not the same thing day in and day out.”
Gagnon believes that “providing on-the-job education and training for employees is very important. When possible, I have my employees attend state association training and also the WQA conventions. All of my installers also hold WQA certifications. The employee who has been with me the longest is Mike Anthony. He’s been with me for 13 years,” except for summers, which he spends fishing in Canada. “That was part of our initial agreement,” Gagnon said. Anthony’s absence opens an opportunity for high school and college students to have summer jobs with Aqua-Pure.
“There have been industry-wide challenges in recent years, with new contaminants in our water systems being found. I hope that our industry leaders will continue to find treatment methods to eliminate these new contaminants, making all water that is destined for human and animal consumption the safest that it can possibly be. My five-year plan is to have someone well into the training cycle with the prospect of taking over my business. The 10-year plan is to have my business sold and be doing the retired thing: spending time with my wife and doing some traveling.”