By Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor
In December 1963, Curt Abendroth—at age 25—got a job offer he “couldn’t refuse.”
That’s because it came from his father, Renville “Pat” Abendroth, who started Abendroth Water Conditioning 10 years earlier in Fort Atkinson, Wis.—halfway between Madison and Milwaukee in Jefferson County.
Just out of college, the younger Abendroth started out in retail merchandising and worked for in several areas of a Milwaukee department store before moving up to assistant buyer in housewares. He left for Chicago for a position with Reese Finer Foods, a manufacturer where he worked for two years, when an offer came in that would have taken him back to Milwaukee.
“My father got wind of it and said: ‘Instead of taking a big fat increase in pay, why not take a cut and come back home?’” Abendroth said. “At that point, I’d been out in the industry and had retail and manufacturing experience. I’d been where the grass is greener, but it can be a bit tougher to chew. So, in January of 1964—I always remember because that’s the year I got married—I came home.” His wife, Diane, was the daughter of his secretary in Chicago. They got married the following June.
When Curt took over the business almost four years later, it wasn’t because his dad was retiring. Rather, it was because they’d built a car wash and the elder Abendroth had gravitated toward that end of the business.
“It was supposed to be self service and didn’t require any attention, but we found that was not the case and so he went to that and I took over the water area,” Abendroth said.
Evolution of softening
His father grew up on a farm but was a natural salesman. He started in the basement of their house, expanded into the garage, got a bigger house with a bigger garage and then moved into a remote office, which was when Curt’s mother, Lila, joined him in the business. He took care of installations or contracted with area plumbers for them.
“He had farm work ethics,” Curt said. “There’s 24 hours in a day and you worked through most of them if necessary. If a customer had a problem at midnight, you went out and helped them at midnight, not in a couple days.”
When his father first started selling water conditioners in 1950, he was only doing it part time. His full-time job was as a sales representative for the Johnston Company in Milwaukee, selling cookies and candy.
“A lot of the people he talked to said, ‘Hey, if you rented, we’d be interested but we can’t afford to buy this.’ At the time, you see, Culligan was doing all rentals with exchange tanks. He didn’t want to be in the exchange tank business because he felt it was just too labor intensive.”
About then was when Lindsay, predecessor to EcoWater, came out with an automatic rental that regenerated onsite, i.e., it was a manual unit that you put the salt in on the premise to regenerate, set the timer and let it go. After that, the fully automatic units came out with brine tanks for easier regeneration.
“From that point on, it was strictly the evolution of softeners—automatic with time clock and then demand automatic—which was the term used in the industry because all the other good terms had been used up. Next, you had your twin alternating units,” said Curt.
Independent and proud of it
In 1967, the Abendroths built the building they work out of now, located on a railroad spur in downtown Ft. Atkinson—population 10,277. Engines used to pull railcars right up to the warehouse and unload up to 200 tons of salt for delivery to dealership customers. Today, salt deliveries come via truck and the rails have been removed.
“A truck was more reliable about when it was going to get there, and far more cost effective. It took three semis to carry one railcar load, for example, but the cost to unload it was a lot lower because it took a half hour for a semi and 8-10 for a railcar.”
The business started out as a Lindsay franchise, became an authorized dealer—an independent using a specific product—and then a fully independent dealer.
“As time wore on, we learned there’s a lot more in the marketplace than just what a particular brand name may offer,” Curt said. “Being an independent dealer, you’ve got the opportunity to shop the market for better value, better quality products, newer ideas and better engineering. This isn’t just to help yourself. You’re in the rental business. You want something that’ll last a long time, operate effectively and be relatively trouble free. That makes for happy customers you sell to as well. And that makes business profitable.”
For 38 years, Abendroth’s sold Lindsay/EcoWater products. Twenty-seven years ago, it began selling another line from Hellenbrand. Today, it buys parts from EcoWater, but sells primarily Hellenbrand and Clack products: “They’re both close to us and family businesses that have given us excellent service.” These include Clack’s reverse osmosis units, Ametek filters and softeners with Fleck valves and a “brine-fill-first” feature that reduces water in the brine tank to avoid mushing and bridging. The dealership also test markets others products that come out on the market that may appeal to customers, for instance, Water Right’s Sanitizer softener. Salt sales also figure largely into Abendroth’s bottom line.
“We’re residential, commercial and industrial,” Curt said. “We have six trucks on the road for service, installation and salt delivery, not to mention bottled water and coolers. We stay within about 15 miles from our office. We’re not interested in going all the way across the country or state for that matter—just within the boundaries of the county. We deliver salt to several thousand homes.”
Trucks all have radios, allowing instant communication when a customer needs help. The motto is same-day service.
There are no commissioned sales people: “We’re able to compete with the Big Boxes; but if a person is paid on commission basis, their primary interest is in themselves; otherwise, their primary interest is in the customer’s well being—and we’re nothing without the customer,” Curt said.
Advertising is primarily via personal reference: “The only advertising we do is on our trucks, yellow pages, a little radio and newspaper. Our main thing is satisfied customers and word of mouth. It’s called using the user. They advertise for us.”
When a customer comes in, Abendroth gives them 5-to-10 names of neighbors the dealership services and let’s them sell the product for it: “We’re dealing with fourth generation customers and if it’s good enough for Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, then it’s good enough for them and the kids. It’s a combination that’s hard to beat.”
That’s helped the Abendroth’s survive the competition, of which there’s been plenty in nearly 50 years. There are five Culligan dealerships and six independent dealerships in the area. But Curt calls it friendly competition that’s kept everyone on their toes and working together amicably.
Where growth is expected in the next few years is in commercial/industrial jobs, which is being spearheaded by his son-in-law and vice president, Vince Kent: “It’ll probably be the biggest year we’ve had and again, it’s all by reputation. We’ve got a rash of quotes out and it looks like we’re going to be favored on most of them,” he says.
Jobs in this category the dealership has done include brewpubs, food processing, mobile home parks and an operation that breeds frogs—50,000-60,000—for high school biology labs to teach anatomy.
Business remains good in general if only because well water—which is the primary drinking water source—is in the range of 20 grains hardness. A small pocket of iron bacteria and hydrogen sulfide and tannins, which Abendroth said he hasn’t seen in years, has popped up in one area that’s been newly drilled.
If he has any issues, he says they’re moreso related to what he calls “razor blade” business practices, an analogy on selling razors to keep customers buying blades. Bigger initial profit comes from selling the blades as opposed to the razor. But if inline filters, for instance, are being sold to an assembler who sells them to a distributor then to him, his profit margin has been cut each time someone touches it. On the other hand, the manufacturer may sell the same inline filter directly to a mass retailer with a bulk discount, making his prices less competitive.
“Service is still an aspect of it, but there’s a fine line on how much you can charge before you drive the customer away,” Curt said. “But I’ll be damned if I let the Big Boxes have that.”
He also is concerned that more dealers aren’t participating in the Water Quality Association. A former Wisconsin WQA president and WQA Board member, he and his wife haven’t missed a convention in years. Abendroth is still active in the Retail Dealer Section and Ethics Committee.
“In fact, I was part of the board chapter that voted on the merger to form WQA and on the board of directors under Roy Russell II when he was president of its predecessor, the WCAI, and when his son Roy Russell III was WQA president. I think that’s a distinction not too many people have today.”
Abendroth attributes part of his dealership’s success to the longevity of his staff, which has undergone very little turnover through the years. Employees have been with the business 33, 29 and 22 years.
“In fact, one of our employees had the audacity to retire last year after being with us for 19 years,” he said. “The youngest gal in the office has been with us for over two years and replaced one that was here 19. We include them all as part of the family. They’re wonderful people.”
His wife, Diane, has been integral to the business for 26 years. Daughter, Linda (Vince’s wife), joined a year ago.
Abendroth Water Conditioning Inc.
327 Janesville Ave.
PO Box 106
Fort Atkinson, Wis. 53538-0106
(920) 563-3411 (fax)
President: Curtis O. Abendroth, CWS-III
Vice president: Vincent M. Kent, CI
Employees: 11 part- and full-time, including five service technicians/installers, one master plumber and four journeyman plumbers
Revenues: Declined to release specific figures—Commercial/industrial jobs up 15-20% for first quarter 2000; averages 40-50 residential installations a month
Equipment: Hellenbrand, Fleck Controls, Erie Manufacturing, Clack Corp., Ametek, Water Right
Quotable: “Our main thing is satisfied customers and word of mouth. It’s called using the user. They advertise for us.”— Curt Abendroth