By Ronald Y. Pérez, WC&P Senior Editor
What does installing an undersink reverse osmosis (RO) unit have to do with driving 180 miles per hour in seven seconds? Plenty, if you’re Tom Norwid.
Norwid is president of Norsoft Water Conditioning, of Cleveland, and he is also the owner/driver of a drag racing car. He enters it into 12 to 15 annual events on the National Hot Rod Association circuit, which is seasonal.
Most of the events he enters take place on the weekends so it doesn’t cut into his time spent at Norsoft. He travels up and down the East Coast and has gone as far west as Texas. He has a crew of six people and four of them work at his shop. “The car supports itself with winnings and the business itself,” he says. He has never crashed—a good thing, since a motor and transmission can run $30,000.
Born to tinker
“Mechanical things always fascinated me,” says Norwid, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from Cleveland State University. For many years, Norwid worked under his father, Henry, who began the business in 1954.
Norwid, 45, says, “We used to argue and fight and I would get fired. [But,] I always had something to fall back on… I’ve done the water treatment thing all my life.”
Tom adds that between 1974—when he began building professional streetcars and manufacturing chassis—to 1994, he was fired on a half dozen occasions.
“It never got to the point where my father and I never spoke,” he says. “It took several years for him to acknowledge that racing was going to be a part of my life, and that I was making money doing it.”
A Cleveland tradition
Tom’s father had a strong pedigree to back up his philosophy. He started servicing water treatment equipment in 1947. Seven years later, he bought out Langenau Manufacturing Co. that manufactured manual water softeners, and changed the name to Norsoft. It has occupied the same 1,600-square-foot office for the past 27 years. Norsoft also operates an 8,000-square-foot manufacturing facility just down the street where some RO units are assembled.
In 1987, Tom’s father had open-heart surgery and doctors prescribed plenty of relaxation. As a result, Tom took over material ordering for assembly, shipping and some sales duties. His father still handled the financial aspects of the business.
In 1994, Tom’s father died. Tom currently runs both operations from the same location, which means his workdays run from 9 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. He spends the majority of his time at Norsoft, however.
So, the natural question becomes—How has Norsoft done since Norwid took over the reins? It hasn’t suffered. Revenues have increased 60 percent since 1994. Last year, Norsoft saw an increase of 22 percent over 1999. This year, projections call for a 20 percent jump over 2000. Norsoft makes 60 to 70 service calls per week.
Norsoft consists of Norwid, general manager Ron Finley (who has worked with Norwid for 11 years and drives Norwid’s car in events when he can’t), and two service manufacturing technicians. Norwid lives by two mottos—”customer satisfaction” and “always be diversified.”
He says, “My dad started out in the service business, and he found out he could build a better product than people were selling. That’s what my dad started out with and that’s possibly what we’ll end up with, and that’s service.” That knowledge has paid off in a big way. Norsoft services 54 brands of water softeners, 11 counties and a 90-mile radius around the Cleveland area. In all, Norsoft serves 55,000 customers and around 5,000 customer accounts.
Norwid says 70 percent of Norsoft’s business comes from the residential side with the remainder from commercial/industrial jobs. He sees Norsoft becoming more competitive in the latter market. The business deals mostly with water softeners, filters, RO, some well work and pump replacement pressure tanks. Norwid is a certified plumber and welder as well as licensed for water treatment in Ohio.
Rating the city’s water
Fifty percent of the area’s water is maintained by the city. City officials “do a good job of water quality in Cleveland,” Norwid admits. He adds that the city has been ranked as having one of the top five to 10 water systems in the United States. Hardness usually runs between 7 and 12 grains. Plus, nearby Lake Erie supplies the area with a substantial amount of water.
Entering the outskirts of Cleveland, you run into more private water and thus more obstacles. To the east, mountains dominate the landscape. In the west, flat farmlands have many nitrates. If space is available, chlorination is Norwid’s first water treatment option for hydrogen sulfide, another common problem. Down south in the Medina County area carries a great deal of sodium. In addition, he runs into wide variances in well water.
As with every dealer, reliable equipment to treat such problems is extremely important. Norwid recalls a recent call from a customer who needed their first service done on their system. It had been installed in 1967.
Norwid’s father had a longstanding relationship with Fleck control valves since the 1950s. His son continues using the valves to this day. If requested, he’ll turn to Autotrol. He utilizes Clack Corp. for media and Matt-Son for his distributors.
This is also the Midwest, a working-class bastion of America, so even the slightest faux pas could cost him. “I don’t drive up in a 2000 Lincoln Town Car… or a Toyota—we use American,” he says. And when word-of-mouth drives 75 percent of sales, that’s important. Norsoft also does installations for local Home Depots and Lowe’s retailers.
The Internet has also become a viable source of revenue for Norwid. In its first week of operation nine months ago, the company’s website received 2,200 hits. It doesn’t hurt that he offers 15 percent off the regular price when customers order off the site.
Norwid says, “If I had to, I would give up the cars. My mother is getting older, and my responsibility is to my family. Besides, people are more health-conscious than ever and will always want good water. The water business is our bread and butter.”
President: Tom Norwid
Staff: 3 (one general manager and two service and manufacturing technicians)
Revenues: 22 percent increase in 2000 over previous year; projections for 2001 are for a 20 percent increase over last year
Quotable: “As far as expansion, the only thing I could do would be to get a building big enough that I could live in it, have my toys in it, run my businesses out of it and make my girlfriend happy. If that was possible, I would do it.”