By Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor
Custom sports bottles, gourmet office coffee, ozone air purification, softeners, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet and water filtration systems, multi-stage point-of-use treatment coolers, a retail showroom, home builders program, commercial/industrial sales, Internet marketing…
You’d never think with how he rattles off ventures his company is into that operations for Rory Sherman’s United Distributors are only a fraction of what they once were a little over a dozen years ago.
He likes it that way.
Home on the range
Since 1984, he’s operated an independent water treatment dealership in Omaha, Neb. Three years later he consolidated his offices there, moving from Cheyenne, Wyo., to be near his brother. That same year, he hired a woman, Julie, who later became his wife and mother to their six children. She now heads public relations.
Today, the business employs 15 people—five installers and service technicians, five office/administration staff and five sales representatives. It churns out enough business to generate about $1 million a year in sales. It serves clients in Nebraska, Iowa (Council Bluffs lies just across the Missouri River) and Wyoming.
At United Distributors’ peak in 1984, though, it had 10 offices throughout Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The company employed 225 people—25 in Cheyenne and 200 at the franchise offices. Sales topped $6 million.
Less is more
Asked if he minds doing less, Sherman says he’s actually doing more.
“Ten years ago, I really felt the industry was going through a change from in-home demonstrations and sales to more of a fast-paced world. I knew the Internet would play a role. It seemed as if it was really going to be a situation where people would come more to us instead of us going to them,” he said. “There’s an old adage—people love to buy, but hate to be sold.”
With that in mind, he built a large showroom that attempts to recreate the comfort a customer may feel in their home. On display are a host of products—from simple end-of-faucet filters to whole house softening, RO to UV to ozone, packaged bottled water to POU systems. Commercial/industrial (C&I) systems are showcased as well.
“We have some big units, but we do that more with pictures,” Sherman said.
Pursuing commercial/industrial bids, United Distributors has done jobs at Jenny Edmundson Hospital in Council Bluffs, the Naval Reserve Center in Omaha, a Jewish Community Center and many food service applications for supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels. Two years ago, it picked up a new product—a six-stage, two-pass ozone/RO/filtration cooler—that’s expanded office water services.
“I first read about it in your magazine and called and inquired about it,” Sherman said. “The people at the company, PHSI, care a lot more about their clients’ success than they do. We’ve now got the American Red Cross, Warehouser, Lucent Technologies and other large corporations. It’s been growing phenomenally and we really feel we’ve just scratched the surface.”
Also, he’s partnered with a local coffee roaster run by a friend to provide gourmet coffee: “Since we’re there already, it only makes sense.” Why should customers have to make separate arrangements and cut another check? They simply say how much they want and it’s delivered on the next service call. Eight flavors are available with the dealers logo from French caramel creme to Hawaiian kona. The coffee also makes a good door opener and prospect giveaway at shows where it has a booth.
And don’t forget the Internet. United Water’s website, although still under construction, has netted several calls about its water softener line from as far away as White Plains, N.Y., and Sacramento, Calif.: “Yesterday, I shipped a timing motor to a guy from Pennsylvania. We help them diagnose things over the phone. They’re more appreciative since we’re not just trying to grab some cash from them. It’s amazing the buzz I get off it.”
Lastly, he works with homebuilders in a program for customers to come into the showroom and choose what type of system they would like installed in their new home. The company will also move a system from old homes to new ones and provide service.
Great Plains drifter
Ask him how he got to where he is today, and Sherman will tell you he was an unhappy man 23 years ago.
“Actually, I used to be a mechanic in Phoenix, and my life was going nowhere fast,” he said.
In early 1977, he was hired by Lowell Foletta, head of Phoenix’s Water Resources International, and within six months was that company’s top salesman.
“I did pretty well, earned a couple trips for my parents—one to Acapulco, Mexico—and was No. 1 in sales at the convention,” said Sherman. “We still carry their Hydro-Quad and Ultra-Micron systems.”
At that point, he moved to Provo, Utah, to become sales manager for a man opening up a Water Resources distributorship there. In four months, he said, they’d knocked a Florida dealership out of first place in sales. Two years later, Sherman decided to set out on his own and open a distributorship in Cheyenne.
“Within a few months, we were No. 1 again,” he said. “My brother, Todd, who was going to college at the time, spent summers working with us.”
In 1987, though, the oil industry slump had Cheyenne’s economy in the doldrums and Sherman felt a need to be near family. So, when his brother—who lived in Omaha—told him all the things happening there, he decided to move his headquarters to be more central to his own operations. Todd joined the business and is service manager. His father, a retired postal worker, is now warehouse manager.
At the same time, he began to downsize by selling off franchises to employees in Utah, Montana, Colorado and South Dakota. There were no takers in Wyoming, so Todd still regularly drives the 400-plus miles to Cheyenne to service customers there: “I figure since we sold them the equipment, we promised to service it.”
The slowdown has meant more time for other things.
“We scaled down just for the fact it became a lot to handle,” Sherman said. “It also gave an opportunity for people in those offices to take over for themselves. And it was important for me to be able to spend more quality time with my family. It’s a lot more enjoyable. And we have so much more we can offer now, from customers coming in for a ‘Husker bottle to buying a household treatment system.”
Riding the wind
How has he found success wherever he’s gone?
“It’s really been a whirlwind tour,” Sherman said. “I guess it was more a case of people thought that it couldn’t be done. ‘Why the heck did you go to Cheyenne,’ they asked. But I always thought it wasn’t where you were but the people you had with you. It was a lot of fun in the process. I just always really saw a need and that the water treatment business was going to be growing for a long time. And, with water quality only projected to get worse, that’s pretty much held true.”
Sherman stresses that the biggest challenge to a dealership today isn’t competition from the big box stores. For him, it’s hiring and maintaining professional people—because of growth of the dealership and a booming economy in the last several years.
“Yeah, I see a lot of mass merchandisers coming in—and, if you can’t beat them, join them. I want to be in on it. We can offer different price points, too. The challenge we face for our business really is finding good help. Our unemployment is very low here and it’s hard to find quality people.”
Thus, training is very important.
Sherman holds every certification available from the Water Quality Association—Certified Water Specialist-Level 6, Certified Installer and Certified Water Specialist. His brother Todd holds a CWS-III and CI designation. And four others on staff hold additional designations.
A 20-year WQA member, Sherman says that relationship has proved nothing but fruitful in terms of support he’s received. He even owes a contractual agreement to service General Electric water treatment equipment to the WQA, since he was contacted because he was a member.
“It’s just an added asset for our company and brings a lot of credibility to the industry,” he said.
As for the future, Sherman said three of his four boys work at the dealership now. And his eldest daughter, Tricia, a college student, started out making appointment calls when she was 12 years old.
“I was a little leery because of her voice but others said she was very professional,” he said.
The only drawback is she abandoned the ‘Huskers this year to go to Arizona State University and the home of the Sun Devils, where she’s studying broadcast journalism.
President and owner: Rory Sherman, CWS-VI, CI, CSR
Service manager: Todd Sherman, CWS-III
Founded: 1979 in Cheyenne, Wyo.; corporate offices moved to Omaha in 1987
Sales: About $1 million a year
Products: Softeners, ROs, UV and filtration systems, and POU coolers from Pure Health Solutions, Everpure, CUNO, Water Resources International, etc.; gourmet coffee delivery and “Game Day” sports bottles.Football fetishes
Rory Sherman’s latest brainchild is a miniature “5-gallon” jug that, with help from a couple who run a plastic bottle company in California, he customizes for college athletic teams—complete with logos and color-coordinated caps.
Sherman calls it a “Game Day” water bottle. It actually only holds 2.3 liters. A friend at the University of Nebraska in nearby Lincoln helped him get a license to use the college’s logo. And, with the Cornhuskers always a favorite for a national football championship, they’re a hot commodity.
He notes they’re also perfect for promoting proper hydration because 2.3 liters is 80 ounces, roughly the amount of water recommended that people drink daily for good health. A county health official recently bought a number of them for just that purpose.
“We basically wholesale them, selling them to supermarkets, drugstores and convenience stores,” Sherman said. “It’s nice because we have an exclusive market on it.”
Working through Collegiate Licensing Corp., which handles contracts to use logos for a number of universities, he’s expanded the program to include Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State and Missouri. And he just signed agreements for Michigan, Texas, Utah, Florida and Florida State—Nebraska’s likely nemesis for the national championship on Jan. 1, 2001, according to preseason polls.
“We actually just came out with insulated bags to carry the bottles to the game and keep them cold all day,” Sherman said. “We’re also working with cap people to come up with new colors such as garnet and gold for Florida and burnt orange for Texas. They’re not your usual colors, but they have to be just right.”
The bottles are such a huge success for United Distributors that he’s looking at the NFL next.