By Gail Krueger
David Tonroe hit the junior pro-golf tour at the age of 10. By the time he was 23, he’d played professional golf in Japan, Australia and Europe. He was accustomed to playing several rounds of golf a day.
Now, at 28, he’s put up his clubs. Instead of golfing—he got six rounds in all of last year—he runs Environmental Plumbing Services Inc. in Savannah, Ga., a successful water treatment business with gross sales of $1.5 million last year.
On the green
As far as Tonroe’s concerned, he’s hit a hole-in-one.
“People are concerned about water quality. They don’t know what’s in their water and, in some cases, they don’t even know where their water comes from,” said Tonroe, president of Environmental Plumbing.
Originally from England, Tonroe came to the United States to attend Fresno State University in California. Officially, he studied business, but he took most of his exams on the golf course. He made a name for himself on several major Asian tours, although he didn’t make it onto the coveted Professional Golfers Association tour.
In 1995, Tonroe became tired of living out of a suitcase as a professional golfer and wasn’t making the kind of money he had hoped. So when his father, John Tonroe, called with the offer of a business deal, David Tonroe jumped at the opportunity. He only had one question: “Where’s Georgia?”
A business born
Five years ago, John Tonroe, bought Environmental Plumbing from the company’s previous owners. The business had been incorporated in 1990. The elder Tonroe retired at a young 52-years-of-age from being the chief financial officer of Hong Kong Telecom. At the time, he bought a home at The Landings, a private, upscale community outside of Savannah.
David Tonroe describes his father as a workaholic. Retirement wasn’t enough.
When John Tonroe first turned on the tap at his Landings home, he was repulsed by the smell of the water, David said. Water at The Landings is supplied by a private utility company operating off a small community well.
The bad smell sent John Tonroe in search of a solution to his water problem. This restlessness sent him in search of a second career. What he found was Environmental Plumbing.
“It was a real Mom and Pop operation when we bought it,” David Tonroe said.
There were no computers. Payroll was done by hand. The customer database was a bundle of slips of papers.
All in the family
What was exciting to both Tonroes was that the operation was part of a young industry with lots of room for growth. And the business has come a long way. Now, its computerized customer list numbers 7,000. It has 14 full-time employees and 12 contract sales and service employees. It’s even got its own website: http://www.goodcleanwater.com
And it’s still a family affair. David Tonroe handles administration and sales. His brother-in-law Rich Wohler is the general manager and handles service. Father John is a behind-the-scenes partner.
“You can trust family,” David Tonroe said.
Making water fit to drink
Savannah sits on Georgia’s coast, surrounded by the sea and several rivers. With the downtown organized on a grid of historic squares and antebellum homes, it’s America’s first planned city. These quaint squares with their famous Spanish-moss-draped live oaks were laid out in the 1730s and include quite a bit of history (see www.savannahnow.com/cityguide/visiting/squares.html). Among the homes you’ll find along the brick walkways is that of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. The city charms million of visitors a year and it charmed David Tonroe.
“It has the feeling of a small town community,” he said.
While the city fathers planned out where homes and churches should go, what they didn’t plan for was a future water supply for a rapidly growing community.
Twenty-two coastal Georgia counties—including Savannah’s home county of Chatham— are operating under a state-imposed interim groundwater strategy that includes caps for some on withdrawals from the Floridan Aquifer, which stretches from Charleston, S.C., to Mobile, Ala., and south to Key West, Fla.
The water-intensive paper industry, a giant in Georgia’s economy, had for years drawn freely from the aquifer. That heavy use caused salt water to intrude at the edges of the aquifer north and south of Savannah. Now, the area is awash with residential development, putting more of a strain on groundwater resources. Until the problem is studied, a cap has been imposed.
Draft plans from each of the counties were due to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for review by the end of August. Six counties—including Chatham—have complied. Most others were well under way and expected to barely miss the deadline.
Counties that don’t have a groundwater use plan approved by EPD by the end of the year face an automatic refusal on any request for additional water from the aquifer. A final groundwater plan designed to keep the Floridan Aquifer from salting up is due in 2005.
No arsenic impact
Savannah isn’t impacted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) proposal to reduce the limit for arsenic allowed in drinking water to a tenth of the current standard. The agency proposed reducing the arsenic allowed in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb in an effort to reduce cancer risks for some 22 million Americans.
Savannah’s water system already meets state standards that are higher than current federal standards. For example, EPD only allows 25 ppb of arsenic in drinking water and Savannah’s supply—drawn from 42 deep-drilled wells—tests at 2 ppb. Treated river water from the city’s Industrial and Domestic Supply Plant in Port Wentworth tests at about the same rate.
The city is the biggest municipal water supplier in Tonroe’s coverage area, supplying more than 70,000 customers. Its water consistently exceeds USEPA drinking water standards. But the pipes that bring the water to homes are up to 70 years old. No matter how good the water is in the aquifer, many things can happen to it in the pipeline before it gets to the tap.
“Any water supply can benefit with treatment at the point of use,” Tonroe said.
And Tonroe’s customers are far-flung—from Brunswick, Ga., in the south to Charleston in the north and Valdosta, Ga., in the west. Not all of them have good water. Many are plagued by sulfur, iron and high bacteria counts.
The state is in the third year of a drought and levels in some wells are dropping, making individual drinking water sources even more questionable in some areas.
Some of Environmental Plumbing’s more rural customers have been drinking bad smelling water for years.
“They didn’t realize there was anything they could do about it,” Tonroe said.
He sells a variety of water treatment systems—from chlorination systems for private wells to a few water softeners. But the product he markets most intensively is United Standard’s Ultra-Micron Filtration System. The four-step system consists of a water refiner, softener, clarifier and quartz filter. He sells it as a package with United Standard’s under-the-sink reverse osmosis (RO) system, with total costs—including shipping, taxes and installation—at a little over $4,500.
“A lot of our sales are simply education. Once people realize they can do something about their water, it sells itself,” Tonroe said.
Most of his customers are young families with children. They’re concerned about health issues. About 85 percent of them are on some sort of municipal water system, Tonroe said.
And it’s not always health issues that bring the customers to Tonroe. Savannah and the surrounding areas have particularly hard water, something many people do not like. And something that can make cleaning and laundry difficult.
One downtown customer bought Tonroe’s United Standard system simply to keep his newly installed black marble sink from showing water spots.
He estimates that it takes showing the product to 3.5 families to make one sale. It’s a ratio with which he’s very comfortable.
Tonroe says one of the biggest challenges he faces is Savannah’s low unemployment rate. Hovering at less than 4 percent, it makes finding and keeping good sales people difficult at times.
He said he also feels that future state and federal legislation may make direct marketing harder to do. Because some kinds of direct sales by less scrupulous businesses have at times been unethical, he says he expects legislation to limit those kinds of sales.
Tonroe is proud of his company’s good record and its membership in the Better Business Bureau and local chamber of commerce. But while most of his customers come looking for him, even his business sometimes suffers from what he calls the “used car syndrome.” That, he said, is when people simply don’t trust you because you’re bringing the product to them rather than them seeking you out.
To get beyond that, he has plans to eventually open a retail operation. He envisions storefront sales of bottled water and sales of bulk purified water to people who bring their own containers.
Tonroe figures, after a while of drinking clean, good tasting water, he’ll be able to interest water buyers in a treatment system of their own. He describes it as bottled water quality water in their own home at their fingertips.
Tonroe also envisions selling private-labeled bottled water from his own in-house RO plant. His first target market will be the University of Georgia at Athens, home of the Georgia Bulldogs. Tonroe dreams of thousands of football fans each holding a bottle of “`Dawg water.”
He plans to open an Athens office by spring 2001.
In the meantime, he enjoys spending time with his wife Samantha, 4-year-old son Blake and 8-week-old son Duncan. That, on occasion, includes a round of golf. Blake even has his own set of pint-sized clubs.
About the author
Gail Krueger is the environmental reporter for the Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga.
Environmental Plumbing Services Inc.
7901 Waters Ave.
Savannah, GA 31406
(912) 356-9001 (fax)
email: via website
Owner & President: David J. Tonroe
Employees: 14 full time plus 12 independent salespeople
Revenue: $1.5 million in gross sales in 1999; expected $1.7 million in 2000