By Steven Delgado, WC&P Executive Editor
In 1969, the Tri-Lakes area of Southwest Missouri didn’t have the notoriety across “country” it does today. Neither did water conditioning, for that matter, but that didn’t stop Larry Simmering. After his first day of sales training at the Culligan dealership in Springfield he disappeared, even though the company had given him a $100 draw.
Simmering showed back up on the third day and was called into the office. He was told the company usually didn’t give draws—cash advances for commission-only sales—on a salesperson’s first day, and he’d already missed a day of critical sales training. He replied that if he were stuck in training all day, he wouldn’t have been able to sell the two deals he signed the day before and had then in his hands. Needless to say, the Culligan Man hired him on the spot.
Wake up call
Simmering worked as a softener salesman for five months then bought a satellite dealership a little further south in Hollister, now a bedroom community a stone’s throw from Branson—which in the past decade has become the Las Vegas of country music, second only to the Grand Ole Opry. He supplied it with equipment he would buy from the Springfield dealership. Business was steady but not exactly booming in the early-’70s.
“Branson was just a sleepy town then,” Simmering said. “But I did my own thing down here in the lakes area.” In 1973, he became fully franchised by Culligan and has remained a franchised dealership ever since.
Culligan of the Tri Lakes area—named after lakes Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shores, where most of the celebrities live—has been one of the top award-winning dealers four times over the last 10 years, with inclusion in Culligan’s “Winner’s Circle” six or seven times. “We’ve got a good dealership,” Simmering says.
It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that Branson started to take off. What started with one music show in 1959—the Baldknobbers Jamboree—increased to 16 in the late-’80s and today exceeds 30 shows. With the recent addition of the “Ozark Mountain Christmas Celebration,” an extended show and entertainment schedule for the winter, the tourist season there has increased to nine months out of the year.
Without doubt, Simmering’s 30-year-old dealership is still running just as strong as growth in nearby Branson. Sales encompass residential and commercial water treatment systems as well as private label and office bottled water services.
Riding the boom
Things really “went wild” for the dealership during Branson’s initial boom years, around 1989-91. “For a while, we were selling something like 150 commercial units a year. That’s a lot for a small dealership,” Simmering said. The dealer was also selling salt at a pace of “a couple tractor trailer loads a week”—just an indicator of how robust the commercial side of the business was.
The Branson boom continues today. Marriott Hotels is in the process of building new condos, starting with a 400-unit timeshare complex almost directly adjacent to the many theaters.
“They’re going to build these condos right on the strip, right by the Presley Family Theater,” Simmering said. “That’ll be a big project. It used to be all commercial for years here, but now the household market is also getting strong and there’s a lot of people coming here to retire…” and enjoy the music.
Aside from the Presleys, the Tri Lakes Culligan’s commercial client roster reads like a radio playlist: the Andy Williams Theater, Box Car Willie Theater and the Soji Tabuchi Theater, where a full-size pool table in the men’s restroom mixes functionality with entertainment.
“There’s an awful lot of motels and hotels, restaurants and time shares in Branson. We get a lot of commercial business from this. Plus we get business on the purification side from the outskirts of town, because we get iron bacteria and a lot of objectionable stuff in the water we have to contend with.” Simmering said. Oh yeah, there’s water challenges in Branson, too.
Homes on the lakes
In addition to iron bacteria, there’s hydrogen sulfide, iron and your usual list of other suspects challenging Tri Lakes’ water technicians. In one region, Simmering measured 75 grains of hardness, but he says municipally supplied water is roughly 4-to-15 grains hard with well water about 15-to-30 grains in the area. All of Hollister has deep wells as a water source, and Branson’s source water is a combination of deep wells and surface water from the surrounding lakes.
The three area lakes are what originally brought tourists there before the music shows, and practically all of the celebrities that live there live on the lakes. “Most of these homes have major iron bacteria and hydrogen sulfide problems,” Simmering says. “Anywhere on the lake has iron in the water.”
In answer to these varied water challenges, Tri Lakes Culligan just added an in-house, state certified water laboratory, one of only 54 in Missouri. Sales Manager Brad Landrum is proud of the dealership’s new service. “We’ve done this laboratory strictly by the book,” Landrum said. “The inspector told us we were in the top 15 labs in the state for proper format and procedure.”
Landrum says Hollister is predicted to have one of the largest residential growth rates in the country in the next year, and Simmering adds that newcomers are typically not sure of their water. “Outside of town, you can’t take it for granted anymore like you used to. Now, we can provide this service to our customers right here,” Simmering said. “We can not only check out our work, but we can see if the customer even needs our service.”
Says Landrum: “We can give them full service, the total home treatment. When people call they almost never know what they need. They typically don’t understand that the water softener takes care of their working water and reverse osmosis takes care of their drinking water.”
Offering full service, they’ll test the water, explain how systems works and provide everything they need to treat their water.
“A lot of dealerships are going this way now. Years ago they were just selling softeners,” Landrum says. “If they want their water fixed, then that’s the way to do it.”
Bottles and beyond
One niche service for the dealership evolving from demand generated by the theaters is production of customized 6.9-ounce private label bottled water touting the image of the theater and its stars. Most of the theaters carry these to sell in concession stands or place in the rooms of the bigger hotels as a guest courtesy. Tri Lakes Culligan gives complete pricing, from concept to loading dock and including everything from production to the artwork costs. The Culligan dealership in nearby Olathe, Kan., does the actual bottling for Tri Lakes customers, including its 5-gallon business.
Simmering is all-Culligan and doesn’t even dream of going to a non-company source for his supplies. “In the 30 years, I’ve been a dealer, I’ve never sold an off-market product,” he said. “I’ve never sold something I’ve gotten from a wholesale warehouse and called it a Culligan. We don’t do things like that.” A number of years ago, he made a TV commercial for Culligan’s corporate office after being selected from a group of 300 dealers to be the spokesperson. He’s still proud of having earned that honor today.
Simmering and company will continue their evolution in what would be a sleepy part of the Heartland under any other circumstance. Instead, he owns a dealership in one of the busiest parts of the country.
And with busy comes big, as in big boxes. Three major malls are now in the area, with a fourth rumored to be on the way. Lowes is coming to town, building a store right in Hollister. A major plumbing retailer in the area already carries a $400 softener, but the dealership hasn’t flinched.
“People here already know that ‘cheap-o’ softeners on this problem water are going to require service, something you can’t get unless you have a Culligan man,” Landrum says. “Service is the advantage with buying equipment from us.”
Simmering adds his own wisdom: “It’s just like buying oats… if you want good, clean fresh oats, they’re $5 a bushel. If you want them after they’ve been run through the horse once, they’re a lot less. You get exactly what you pay for.”
Tri Lakes Culligan
BB Hwy and St. James St.
Hollister, Mo. 65672
(417) 334-3856 (fax)
Year started: 1969
Owner: Larry Simmering
Sales manager: Brad Landrum
Service manager: Tom Henderson
of employees: 15
Quotable: “We’re not interested in sales gimmicks. The things we’ve built this business on are integrity and pride. We’re proud of our name and proud of what we do.”