By Christine Gillette
Secondwind Environmental prides itself on taking a different approach to the business of water purification.
One of only five companies in New Hampshire that lists certified employees with the national Water Quality Association, Manchester-based Secondwind has nine people who hold varying levels of certification, including all three owners. The other four list only one certified employee. Five more companies in the state were listed as WQA members in 1999.
“We set out to be the most technically competent company,” said company president Christine Peach Fletcher.
Prior to launching Secondwind, Fletcher and her husband Crispin worked for Digital Equipment Corp., she for 12 years, he for eight. When the computer company decided to shut down the New Hampshire operation at which she was plant materials manager, offering a generous buyout package that included two years salary and stock options, they took advantage of it to fund the new business.
“Crispin had been wanting to do something more related to what he got his master’s degree in, environmental studies, and this gave us a chance to do that—sort of a second wind, which is how we came up with the name,” Fletcher said. “The idea of getting your second wind, rather than being burnt out by corporate America.”
The company got its start in 1989 in Wilton, N.H., in the home shared by the couple. It was his graduate work at Antioch College’s Keene, N.H., branch that led them to partner Jan Beauvais, who also studied at Antioch, and to an interest in water purification. Together, the trio decided to go into business, securing the necessary certifications and licenses in areas like radon mitigation, water treatment operation and small systems operation.
“When we started Secondwind, we thought it was going to be an environmental company,” she said. “Little did we know we’d be selling water softeners.”
A decade later, Secondwind operates from newly renovated mill space along the Merrimack River, with teams of technicians and salespeople making the rounds around the Granite State in vans to see and serve customers.
The company payroll has grown from three people to 15, yet the owners’ outlook on the business remains today much as it was a decade ago.
“In the simplest words, we fix water,” Fletcher said.
While Secondwind’s role is to diagnose and treat common problems in drinking water, the job is really anything but simple. The company does everything from drawing water samples for outside lab testing to designing and implementing purification systems.
Secondwind’s clients range from individual homeowners to small public water supplies like those at condominium complexes and schools or daycare centers with their own wells. For such water supplies, Secondwind does everything from act as the certified system operator to serving as the sampling agent, regularly taking samples of the water, determining it meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) drinking water standards and filing the necessary reports with the USEPA and other regulators. When necessary, Secondwind, an authorized Kinetico dealer, will also install and maintain any systems to ensure water quality.
“Our goal is to really give the institutions one-stop shopping and take it off their hands,” Fletcher said.
About 60 percent of the company’s business comes from residential work, while 20 percent is represented by small public water supplies and another 20 by non-residential customers, such as commercial or light industrial water systems, according to Fletcher. For residences, the average cost of a system is about $2,250, and financing is available through Kinetico, as well as options to lease or rent equipment.
“The whole package is problem assessment, configuring the hardware to match the building and the water use patterns of the building, and—what’s real important to us—warranty service,” she said.
A multi-prong approach
Secondwind, uses a variety of means to solve water problems, including softeners; reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection and radon mitigation (air stripping) systems; and filters. Fletcher said Secondwind’s use of the various water remedies is split fairly evenly between those methods, particularly softeners, air strippers and filtration systems.
She said the most common water problems in New Hampshire—which has naturally soft water—are radon, large amounts of iron and low pH. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas associated with lung cancer. The other two can stain fixtures, dissolve copper pipes and make water taste metallic.
Secondwind went with Kinetico early on as its product of choice because of its quality and efficiency, Fletcher said. The products tend to be more expensive than some of the competition, she said, but are a good value because they work better and last longer.
Fletcher says her company has no problem finding people in New Hampshire willing to invest in a Kinetico system.
“We’ve grown from 10-to-40 percent every year in revenue,” Fletcher said. Gross revenue for 1999 was $1.7 million, “which for our business is pretty big,” she said. With residential systems the biggest portion of 1999’s business, the new millennium’s resolution is to increase the commercial side.
Surviving the odds
Secondwind has beaten its share of challenges to survive over the last decade, including its first few years, which coincided with a deep economic downturn in New England.
“When we started in the recession, no one was putting water softeners in for fun,” Fletcher said. Instead, the company was treating problems like water that smelled so bad people would not drink it, bathe in it or do laundry with it.
No matter what the problem, Fletcher said Secondwind always stuck with jobs, trying more than one system to purify water when necessary. That approach evolved, she said, into the company’s total satisfaction, money-back guarantee.
The company views itself as marketing not just water treatment equipment but solutions to water problems. Its guarantee, she explained, covers not only the hardware but the application—including unexpected occurrences like a change in the quality of well water that requires a whole new approach to purification. Repairs or replacement of systems are covered by this guarantee if something goes wrong or if a different course of treatment is needed to solve a water problem, including crediting customers 100 percent for what they spent on the first system if a new one is necessary within two years.
The only limits set on the guarantee is the company won’t cover problems that result from events like a power surge, lightning strike or freezing—or improper use by the customer. And to help customers properly maintain their systems, Fletcher said Secondwind carefully labels the system’s parts and provides detailed diagrams and descriptions for each.
“We ended up with a very loyal customer base because we interpreted that guarantee liberally,” Fletcher said.
Seventy percent of Secondwind’s new customers come from referrals by former clients or real estate agents and builders who’ve heard of the company’s reputation for customer service. The company has drawn in other business through participating in trade shows and advertising but has taken a pledge not to use telemarketing, unlike many of its competitors.
“It’s really a philosophy,” said Fletcher, who feels telephone soliciting is too intrusive and has negative connotations because of overuse by the residential water treatment industry. Instead, Secondwind opts for direct mail to reach out to new prospects. “I feel like that’s the least invasive.”
Fletcher said Secondwind also does not use techniques like the “bottle drop”—where water companies leave a bottle on a door or mailbox pledging a free water quality test—because it rarely results in a real water test. Instead, she said, companies just use the names and addresses of those that reply to the offer of a free test as a way to see who in a community might be interested in buying water products or services.
“Our feeling is it is a little bit of a trick,” she said.
Finding the fun
That customer-focused philosophy is one of the things Fletcher believes sets her company apart. From its use of independent labs to test water down to its guarantee and refusal to push hardware on customers, doing business in an ethical manner is a priority for Secondwind. But doing business ethically doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the work. In fact, you can enjoy it more.
The company’s unique philosophy also extends to its employees, which include technicians, water samplers, a customer service representative, marketing manager, salespeople, bookkeeper and stock room help.
“I think one thing that sets us apart is there’s something about working for Secondwind,” she said. “(The employees) have fun.”
As a result, the company has very low staff turnover, which pays off for Secondwind because it results in more skilled workers.
“It takes a year for a salesman or a technician to get good at what they do,” Fletcher said.
Since the three founders were once the three sole employees, Fletcher said they’ve done every job in the company, which also helps them relate to the current workers and vice versa.
The commitment to customer service and to employees is all part of what the company calls “The Secondwind Way.” That commitment also extends to the community, where Secondwind is active in projects through its affiliate memberships in the Manchester, Nashua and Granite State South boards of Realtors.
Fletcher said making people happy is one of the things she likes best about the business.
“I like the process of pleasing people,” she said. “I’m never, ever bored. I have not been bored in 10 years.”
About the author
Christine Gillette is a freelance writer and the business and economic development editor for the Portsmouth Herald and its parent company, Seacoast Newspapers, based in Portsmouth, N.H. She is the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 1999 Small Business Media Advocate of the Year for New Hampshire. She lives in Dover, N.H.
Christine P. Fletcher, CWS-V—president
B.A., Middlebury College
MBA, Boston University
New Hampshire Treatment & Distribution, Operation Level 1A
Jan Beauvais, CWS-V—vice president
B.S., Antioch College
New Hampshire Treatment & Distribution, Operator Level 1
Crispin Fletcher, CWS-V—director
B.A., Boston University
M.A., environmental studies, Antioch University
Founded: 1989 in Wilton, N.H.
Annual gross revenue: $1.7 million (1999)
Equipment: Authorized Kinetico dealer
Quotables: “We kill ourselves to make it work… Water treatment, it’s a combination of an art and a science, not just science.”