By Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor
More than five generations of Lambournes have called the valley between Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake home. They were among the wave of Mormon settlers that made the Rocky Mountains crossing over a hundred years ago, descending from the Wassatch Range onto the green desert floor below.
Today, a million people live here.
The Lambourne family runs Superior Soft Water Inc. in West Valley City, a community to the west of Salt Lake City. It was launched by Jake Lambourne in 1956, who had spent several years in sales (even selling grave plots) before he sold water. Today at age 70, he’s the CEO and president of Superior and is in the office most days to oversee finances and offer management direction and advice; but it’s general manager, Rob Anderson, and his son Mark, as vice president, who runs the operation. Anderson, who’s been with them for five years, is in charge of a day-to-day basis and Mark runs the office drinking water division. It’s mostly a family business.
“My mom has been a housewife who raised eight children and never worked outside the home—but she is our treasurer,” Mark said. “Our service manager is my younger brother, Scott; our payroll manager is our younger sister, Kristen, and our youngest sister, Holly, and her husband, Dustin, are on our door-to-door sales team and do very well.”
Superior has an old-fashioned outlook focused on tried-and-true sales methods and modern ones in tandem. Mark, 39, recalls the early days when his father was younger than him now and would get out into neighborhoods with his sales staff and knock on doors, prospecting for customers. That’s still a central feature of Superior’s sales approach, but the company has a telemarketing operation these days as well.
The dealership employs between 85 and 100 people, depending on the season, with a biweekly payroll of $90,000. About a dozen are salesmen, 15 are general office, about 20 are installers, three are warehousemen and the rest are in lead generation through telemarketing and/or door knocking to collect water samples and make the initial pitch.
“We’re aggressive marketers,” Mark said. “Our principal lead generation is door knocking the old fashioned way. It still works today as much as it’s ever worked. We have good door knocking managers who run teams of door-knockers and they’re tremendous about getting us in the door. They’re paid a flat rate based on an installation.”
He says Superior’s marketing strategy is unlike anything heard before: A free trial program, with a unit installed free of charge for 30 days, no obligation.
“We install between 60 and 80 units a week on average. We call it a “double” if we get a softener and drinking water purification (reverse osmosis) system in at the same time. We’ll end up pulling only about 20 percent of those,” said Mark.
A popular approach
They started the free trial program about 12 years ago and, at one point, the company was putting in roughly 100 units a week. “It was so popular, we couldn’t keep up,” he said. “It works for us, though. Other companies have come to town and have tried to imitate us and have failed miserably. It’s a very difficult program to run. It’s very expensive.”
That’s because Superior carries its own paper for those customers that don’t qualify for outside financing.
“We find we’re able to sell about 60 percent of our contracts,” he said. “We guarantee financing to our customers. They’re not going to be refused because a finance company says they’re not creditworthy. We take our losses. Still, we find it prudent to buy that paper. We carry about $7 million that way.”
That practice tends to make cash flow a challenge, but that’s just the “nature of the business,” Mark adds. Another problem is personnel turnover, but that’s less a question of dissatisfaction and more one of competitors mining its staff: “We train very good people and then they come in and buy them away. That happens a lot. In fact, many of our competitors are managed by Superior-trained personnel. We take that as a feather in our cap.”
Water here is hard, anywhere between 10 and 50 grains per gallon—on occasion as high as 74. In surrounding towns, mining competes with skiing to buffer the local economy. Unusual contaminants that can be found include perchlorate and antimony, both of which can be removed with reverse osmosis (RO) systems, which the company began carrying about a decade ago. About two years ago, it switched from a generic brand to CUNO/Water Factory Systems’ SQC line.
“They actually came to us and showed us their program and we were very impressed,” Mark said. “We liked the idea of having a proprietary cartridge and, quite frankly, they had an excellent representative in David Carlile.” Superior assembles its own softener systems using Erie valves.
Bottleless office coolers
About 95 percent of business is residential water treatment, with the balance mostly in office drinking water services—reverse osmosis coolers—and, to a smaller degree, commercial jobs.
The office segment really didn’t take off until about 2½ years ago, when Mark returned to Utah from New Hampshire, where he ran the “summer office” of the business in Hudson, N.H. He opened the branch there about five years earlier, but had lived in New England since he was 21.
“When I was young and curious, … a friend and I wanted to go see the big city of Boston; I liked it and stayed,” he said.
But after running a landscape, design and build business for several years, he came to a crossroads in what he wanted to do with his life and, talking with his father, was encouraged to go into the family business on the East Coast. Jake sent him six softeners and six RO systems and came out to show him how to market them, even taking him door to door to learn how to close a sale. In 1997, though, Mark sold the business to an employee there and came back to run the cooler side of the business in Utah.
“I’d been looking at office drinking water systems for a while. We wanted to find a vehicle to provide residual income for us month after month such that even with a bad sales month, you’re office checks would always be there. We install about 40 systems a month on a free trial basis as well. If I can put a bottleless water unit next to a bottle in an office, I’ll kick that bottle out every time… We’re now the leading company, with 1,350 to 1,400 different customers.”
Give and take
Giving back a little to the community that supports it, Superior just donated a large office system to the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City that can handle drinking water needs for several hundred employees.
Other prominent clients in general for the business include several Utah Jazz basketball players and Franklin Covey, the executive planner, calendar and organizer guru whose latest product includes palmtop computers.
The economy has boomed in Salt Lake City for the past several years, prompted first by the early ’90s business flight from California because of a downturn there and next by the extended positive U.S. economy and promise of the Winter Olympics to be held there in 2002. The peak was 1997, Mark said, with revenues doubling to $7 million that year. Recently, they’ve stabilized closer to $4 million.
Even with the merger mania of the water treatment industry in the past five years and sale of Culligan to U.S. Filter and then U.S. Filter to Paris’ Vivendi, he remains positive: “I was happy to see Culligan sold to the French. I don’t think the average consumer would be happy to find out it’s no longer an American company and, frankly, I use that in my pitchs—although Culligan isn’t really a competitor to us. It’s about the greatest thing to happen as far as the independent was concerned.”
The Lambournes see the Internet as the next wave of marketing for water treatment equipment and their continued success. Scott, the service manager, also is developing a website that Superior hopes to have up and running early this year.
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on our industry,” Mark said. “As more people get accustomed to shopping online, there’ll be a lot of sales that way. There’s speculation that all water has to be sold belly to belly, but not all customers have to be educated that way. If they can educate themselves with other mediums, know they want a product and are just looking for price and performance, the Internet will be a big benefit.”
Superior Soft Water Inc.
3521 S. 1950 W.
West Valley City, Utah 84119
(801) 974-5502 (fax)
Principals: Jake Lambourne, president and CEO
Mark Lambourne, vice president
Rob Anderson, general manager
Employees: 85-100, depending on season
Revenues: $4 million annually
Business: Residential equates to 95 percent of business, with 40,000 customers. Office bottleless drinking water systems and commercial jobs make up the balance. Softeners are assembled in-house using Erie valves. RO units come from CUNO/Water Factory Systems.