‘They Call Me The Chiller Guy’
Years ago, Guy Lafortune’s mother gave him a piece of advice that paid off. “Back in 1988, my mother suggested that I get into the water treatment industry,” he said. “She told me, ‘There’s a big future in the water business.’ ” Turns out mom was right. “When I saw my first POU unit back in 1989, I said to myself, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the companies in North America drink bottled water. Let’s go!’ And I never looked back. I’ve worked hard to develop distinction and renown in our industry. They call me the Chiller Guy.”
Lafortune is the owner of G.T.W. Inc., a business that sells and services water systems throughout North America, headquartered in St-Bruno, Quebec, Canada with a virtual office in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He said: “We concentrate fully on major corporations. We sell filtered, chilled water with a very efficient carbon filter on municipally treated water. Ninety-eight percent of my business is commercial, including FedEx, Montreal International Airport, Rebook, Scotiabank (which is one of the 10 biggest banks in the world) and Aldo Group, the largest shoe retailer in the world. We have more than 1,000 water chillers installed and more than 50,000 people drinking our water every day.”
Lafortune admits he’s a natural-born salesman. “Thank God I was given the brains and had the perseverance to become a sales person. You’re either born with it or not. Making sales is in your genetics,” he said. “My selling brain is connected to the water business.”
If you look up Guy Lafortune on LinkedIn, you’ll find he has an interest in interior design. That may seem curious for the President of a water-cooler company, yet it’s one of the secrets to his immense sales success. He doesn’t sell water systems to one homeowner or business at a time. He sells entire networks. His strategy is to install sample units at no charge and let the improved taste of the water convince interior designers and architects to specify those systems in the homes and companies of their customers.
“I give them the chiller. They drink my water every day and the taste of coffee and tea is much better. Then every time they have a water project, they spec my chiller,” he said. “Interior designers are the orchestra leaders of commercial installations. And they like clean lines. They do not want to install anything on the counter except a coffee machine.” He attends their trade shows, including Montreal, Paris and “the largest on the planet, NeoCon in Chicago.” He also attends Aquatech Amsterdam, the world’s leading water trade show for process, drinking and wastewater, as well as a variety of other industry trade shows.
Another key strategy is to meet people face to face. Lafortune flew from Montreal to Los Angeles this past April to meet a potential customer, only to find out he’d gone to a Dodger’s baseball game. So he talked to the man’s partner. “He had never laid eyes on me before. I said ‘I came all this way…’ so he said ‘I’ll give you five minutes.’ That turned into 20 and ultimately resulted in a sale. It does make a difference; people think ‘this person flew here to come and see me.’ ”
One corporate client sought him out because she wanted a filter that would last more than six months to a year and she wanted someone who would provide both sales and service, Lafortune said. He guarantees his products and stays in regular contact. “That’s all I do, just talk to the network,” he said.
“At Scotiabank, we started with five, then 10, then 20 machines. Over the last three years, they’ve bought 250 water chillers from me. That’s a lot of chillers.” The bank has 90,000 employees with headquarters in Toronto and branches from Vancouver to Halifax.
This dynamo of a businessman has no employees. “I had one for five years, then I decided to use subcontractors. In 2005, I looked at where I was heading and said, ‘I have to change my business model.’ Why? Because working alone I had to get rid of all my stand-up water coolers that necessitated cleaning the holding tank. Why again? Because I wanted to use sub-contracting plumbers to do my work and they were not going to clean water coolers. So I chose short-term pain for long-term gains. Over the next few years, I changed all of my standing POUs for either under-the-sink water chillers or direct-chill, stand-up water coolers. We used to have two to three service calls per week. Now we have about that number of calls per month and we only need to change the water filters once every two years.”
His mother’s career recommendation turned out to be good for him professionally and personally. That’s how he met his wife, Odette, General Manager of a non-profit housed in a business center below the Olympic stadium in Montreal. He said when they met “my jaw dropped. She looked like a young Natalie Wood. I thought ‘I’m going to marry her.’ ” And he did. Lafortune had sold her a stand-up POU unit and when he went to pick up his check, they talked until the office closed, then continued talking on the median in the middle of the road until it was dark. “We have been together 22 years now. We have two boys, 18 and 21. One is studying to be a pilot and the other a lawyer.”
Lafortune travels a lot and is always on the run, in business and for leisure. Long a competitive athlete, he’s run numerous marathons and done several triathlons. Now, at age 61, he still hopes to quality for the Boston Marathon. Looking ahead, he foresees another six years of running the company and then “who knows?” he said. Right now he expects more people in the industry will start to use leak detectors that automatically shut off water and prevent damage. “It’s the way our industry is going.” In one case he knows about, a water leak damaged a computer server room in a high rise, which resulted in the doubling of insurance premiums and a deductible increase from $1,000 to $5,000. He also predicts that “sparking water will totally explode in the next two years.”
Lafortune appreciates his decades of success across the continent yet notes, “I’m not a millionaire. I don’t care that much about money. But it is good doing our little part for our planet by eliminating bottled water. That’s key. We basically go where our karma takes us.”