By Ronald Y. Pérez, WC&P Senior Editor

To many in the water treatment industry, the name Driessen may not mean much. But if someone should mention Culligan, then the word association takes on a whole new meaning. In actuality, both names are forever entwined.

Meet Dan Driessen and Charles Driessen. Both are grandsons of Emmit J. Culligan, who founded the company in 1936 in Chicago. Dan is president and CEO of Driessen Water I Inc. and operates out of Northfield, Minn., and Charles is chairman and CFO and operates another facility with the same name in Waseca, Minn. Together, they oversee close to 20 Culligan dealerships in Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Texas.

Emmit Culligan passed away in 1970. Chuck and Dan have plenty of memories growing up and being connected to such a famous name. “I had half the kids in town calling me, ‘Hey, Culligan man.’ It made me very proud,” Chuck says.

Adds Dan, “I recall going to the factory in Chicago, conventions and countless dinners with my grandfather. My father (Gene, who is now 81) was a Culligan man before I was born. It has been part of my blood for a couple of generations. But (my father) didn’t push me at all to go into the business. Besides, I grew up in the 1960s and many of us were anti-business at that time.”

A family affair
When Dan, 52, entered the “family business,” his parents—Gene and Kate—owned three stores. In 1980, Dan became a manager at one of the stores and served in that capacity for six years. Chuck, 47, on the other hand, started with Culligan in 1991 when more help was needed to oversee the company’s expansion. Gene and Kate have nine children. Another son, Tom, was the first in that family to join Culligan in 1978. He’s credited with developing the company’s commercial/industrial (C/I) as well as its deionization sectors and runs a very successful Chicago dealership specializing in C/I applications. Incidentally, the three aforementioned Driessen brothers are the only children currently working with Culligan.

Looking at the Driessen-owned dealerships as a whole, the breakdown of business goes something like this: 46 percent is residential, 14 percent bottled water and 40 percent C/I. Dan claims that Culligan is on a “fast track” to become the No. 1 company for delivering bottled water. It’s currently fourth nationally, according to Dan. At least 70 percent of their customers are on municipal water supply while the remainder use private water sources.

In Minnesota, the two main water-related problems facing the Driessens are oxidized iron and iron in solution. Solutions for these obstacles include everything from multi-media filters, portable exchange filters, salt and chlorination systems to ozone and aeration. Still, softeners and reverse osmosis systems are the dominant water treatments. All residential-based equipment is manufactured by Culligan while the C/I equipment is provided almost exclusively by USFilter and Culligan since its acquisition of Culligan in 1998.

Look in the mirror
“Problem water is where we, as Culligan dealers, should be shining above everyone else. This is because of our expertise, longevity and breadth of product availability. We should be far ahead of the next vendor,” Dan says. He reasons that since Culligan has so many dealerships spread across the country, the company should be able to have a greater number of solutions that are effective. He mentions the high total dissolved solids count and sodium issues present in Texas as an example.

So how does Culligan rate when it comes to problem water? “There’s room for improvement at both the corporate level and dealer level, and I am pointing a couple of fingers at ourselves,” he says simply.

In all, the Driessen-owned Culligan dealerships employ over 200 people, with six of them dedicated to corporate operations. There are 45 salespeople and the remainder fall in the service and installation categories. Both Dan and Chuck say that one key ingredient to the mix is Mark Ekeren, vice president of residential marketing for their Culligan dealerships. An employee since 1982, Ekeren is responsible for all education, hiring/firing and training 36 residential water treatment salespeople as well as pricing residential treatment products. Sales in 2000 were 8 percent over 1999 figures while this year is projected to see an increase of around 5 percent over last year.

Winds of change
According to both Dan and Chuck, a lot has changed since their parents bought the first Culligan water store in Waseca, Minn., in 1961. Well into the ’70s, Culligan was seen as “one big family,” Dan says. In fact, Gene was instrumental in developing dealerships west of the Rockies, Chuck claims. He adds, “The dealers were the lifeblood of the Culligan organization.”

Things started to change in the mid-1980s. The last of the founding fathers left the company and thus began what Dan calls “the start of the non-family atmosphere at Culligan.” About the same time, Culligan was purchased by Beatrice. Afterwards, Culligan became just one of Beatrice’s stable of assets and gone were the days of familial operations.

Corporate profile
“Owners tend to look to short-term profits as opposed to long-term relationships while corporate people tend to turn over more than Culligan dealers,” Dan says. “Are there any family members still involved in Culligan? If you ask that question of any Culligan employee today, you might get 1 or 2 percent who will know the answer. Twenty years ago, everybody knew the answer.”

Such is the price of growth for a successful U.S. business. Consolidation works both ways, too. For instance, Driessen-owned Culligan dealerships recently opened four offices and acquired four smaller competitors around the country.

Chuck says, “They (businesses) all came to us. Others have also come to us; we have declined them. Many of the original dealers are nearing retirement age.” As a result, more businesses have been sold in the last two years than any other time in the last 20 years, he adds. It remains to be seen how this growth of the super dealer and decline of the mom-and-pops will affect the industry.

The Driessen brothers understand Culligan is a healthy company that’s in transition. But not all of the issues that will determine the company’s fate are internal.

“One major issue is the water utilities getting into selling water softeners and that’s a very scary thought,” Dan says. “The industry is talking more and more about this and more major merchandisers (big box retailers such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and Sears) are getting into the industry. It’s bad because these retailers do not take care of the individual’s water needs.”

Regardless, he sees their operations continuing to prosper. He adds positively, “The Culligan system is grappling with growth and (the dealers) and corporate office are not in unison. There are some very big issues facing us. But when the rubber meets the road, we will continue to grow.”

Driessen Water I Inc.
dba Culligan Water Conditioning
1690 S Hwy 3
P.O. Box 350
Northfield, MN 55057
(507) 663-8925
(507) 645-6624 (fax)

1104 South State
Waseca, MN 56093
(507) 835-1234
(507) 835-1241 (fax)

CEO and president: Dan Driessen
CFO and chairman: Chuck Driessen

Founded: E.J. Culligan founded the company in 1936; current Driessen-owned dealers were founded in 1961 by Gene and Kate Driessen in 1961, with opening of Waseca, Minn., location

Staff: Over 200

Sales: Revenues in 2000 up 8 percent over 1999; projecting 5 percent growth in 2001

Quotable: “There’s room in the business for family; the oldest of the next generation are in their 20s. If they want to, we’ve got room for them. None of them work for us as of now. But with 35 grandchildren, it’s a safe bet that at least one of them will one day.” —Dan Driessen


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