Bigger is not always better. Just ask Dennis Dorn, owner and president of Dorn Water Conditioning Service Inc. The company is located in a small town that boasts a population of 3,802, North Wales, PA, about 35 miles north of Philadelphia.
In eight years of running his own business, his staff numbers exactly three. So, is this cause for concern? Not at all, Dorn insists. He points to the fact that most of the water treatment businesses in North Wales are two or three-man shops. This, Dorn explains, “tends to keep prices down.” That’s not to say franchise dealers don’t exist in Dorn’s market. They do.
What the small staff does mean, however, is Dorn works—on average—about 60 hours per week. And, with around 1,200 customer accounts, Dorn and his crew are maxed out with work orders and service calls. As such, he’s content with the current situation: “I am not sure how much I am going to grow. I don’t know if I want to. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.” Dorn points to the difficulty of finding qualified personnel (an admitted problem up until this year), working too many hours, and the cost of employees in a business heavy in service.
“There are other businesses that are sales-heavy and don’t put a lot of effort into building a strong service company,” he says.
As is the case with many water treatment dealers across the United States who can survive with small staffs, Dorn is a third-generation water treatment businessman. “My family has been in the water system market since my grandfather started a well drilling business back in 1944 (in Montgomery County, Pa.),” he says. “My dad continued in well drilling—as did I—and we expanded more into pump sales, installations and service over the years, and then added water treatment in the early 1980s.”
Dorn, 45, joined the water treatment industry when his father retired. Soon thereafter, the son sold the well drilling business and concentrated solely on water treatment. Today, Dorn Water Conditioning relies on residential customers for 75 percent of its business while commercial/industrial—some manufacturing and a few restaurants—accounts for the remainder. In addition, the business gives customers the option of point-of-use (POU) water cooler rentals.
Though Dorn admits softening is the fastest growing segment of his business, other water treatment technologies offered include acid neutralizer systems, chemical feed pump systems, carbon filtration, reverse osmosis (RO), ultraviolet (UV), iron removal filtration, and sedimentation removal filtration. His primary manufacturing contacts are Water-Right (sanitizer systems, softeners, control valves and ROs), WaterCare, Res-Kem and Mid-America. The last one has had the longest working relationship with Dorn—since the early 1980s.
What the drought has brought
Water quality in this area has been affected by an unlikely source—the weather. The Keystone State has been hit with emergency drought conditions for much of the past four years. The result, Dorn says, is the largest change in water quality he has ever seen. “We have had water systems installed within the last year and the water quality has changed so drastically that, in a few cases, systems were becoming undersized for the changes,” he says. “The weather has had a huge change on groundwater quality.”
With a 45-mile service radius, Dorn claims customers in three counties, and each area’s water is distinct. In Montgomery County (where North Wales is located), hard water is the dominating obstacle with low pH and low iron. The county to the west contains iron and corrosive water, and the eastern county has a mixture of the other two counties’ problems. Solutions often mean recommending softening and ROs, as well as UV if the problem stems from bacterial issues. Half of the business’ customers are on private water wells, he says.
If Dorn ever runs into a troubling water problem and needs some advice, he knows who to call—the Water Quality Association (WQA). “The WQA does a good job of keeping on top of regulatory issues as they come up,” he says. “It’s also great contacting them, Joe Harrison in particular, for advice when I have a problem water situation.” A WQA member since 1995 (he was also a member during the well-drilling years), Dorn admits he’s “not as plugged into the WQA as I would like.”
The name sells itself
Even with a fast-growing market, Dorn still limits his advertising to a yellow pages listing and word-of-mouth. Being a three-man operation, relationships with customers are the backbone of the business’s success, and no one knows this better than Dorn. “Customers are much smarter than they were 10 to 15 years ago. The Northeast has been growing rapidly. There’s still a lot of room for growth in the water treatment industry in our area,” he says. “Having grown up in a family business, I tend to think that people want to deal with someone who is local. And most of our clientele tells us that. Communication with the customer is the biggest thing.”
He adds, “People’s views have been changing on water treatment from being a luxury item to more of a necessity such as a stove, oven, etc.”
Still, you don’t stay in business for almost 60 years without changing and adapting to market evolution. That’s why Dorn is always looking for commerce opportunities in every possible avenue. Along with the advent of a website (see ‘What you need’), he partners with high-purity companies—North Wales is a haven for several pharmaceutical companies—that come to him for work-related recommendations. He’s also developing a working relationship with a local home remodelers’ group and wants to get into more wholesale distribution, which he currently does for Water-Right. Meanwhile, he claims membership in the Pennsylvania Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association.
“Being a Christian, I attribute my success to Jesus Christ because, ultimately, I am not that smart,” he laughs. Nonetheless, he is smart enough to know that growth in staff doesn’t necessarily mean a larger bottom line.