By Robert W. ‘Bob’ Boerner, CWS-V
Helping start a quality water empire
The roots of the Culligan dealership system can be traced back to the collaboration of two men with great ideas. My grandfather, Wilbur L.Walton, was in the coal business in Chicago, Illinois when he met and befriended Emmett Culligan, who was beginning to experiment with producing soft water in portable exchange (PE) tanks. During the summers of 1936 and ‘37, Culligan was in the streets of Northbrook drying the zeolite media he used in the process. He was excited at the potential for the substance and his exchange tank idea. though he confessed to Walton that he wasn’t sure how to effectively distribute and promote the concept. Walton suggested development of a franchise system and offered to open the first dealership in nearby Wheaton to test the theory. W. L. Walton & Company opened in 1938 and the idea of PE tanks as the no-fuss, no-muss way to get this new miracle soft water was widely promoted in the west Chicago suburb. The new product definitely struck a chord with consumers. For two dollars a month (and free installation) the service was affordable and attractive—the homeowner didn’t have to do anything, except, of course, enjoy the many benefits of soft water.
Expansion in the southwest
Not long after the first dealership opened, World War II put growth plans on ice; after the war, conditions were ripe for a nationwide boom. Walton was offered rights to help develop the Texas soft water market. He decided to do this by purchasing a fledging existing company in San Antonio in 1947 (Texas Soft Water Service) but he needed a manager to get the business off the ground. My (future) father, Gilbert ‘Gib’ Boerner, was working for Walton in Wheaton after returning from the war (and dating his daughter Janet as well). Walton proposed that he go to Texas and start the business. After a year or two, perhaps he could return to the Chicago area and marry his daughter.
Once he arrived in San Antonio, Gib realized it wasn’t just a temporary assignment (if he had anything to say about it). He loved the pace and beauty of the town, the Spanish missions, and especially, the friendly people he found there. The weather was warm and the water was plenty hard to boot. Gib and Janet married in their hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin and made their permanent home in San Antonio in 1948. He eventually purchased the San Antonio and Midland, Texas dealerships from Walton in 1959. (W. L. Walton passed away in 1961.)
Gib made his life as the Culligan Man and brought a smile to just about everyone he encountered from mayors, senators and judges to janitors, yard and garbage men. He knew all the restaurateurs in town and was likely the best C&I salesman in the business. When he died in February 2002, after 55 years with the company, his funeral was attended by a multitude of admirers. A fleet of San Antonio Culligan trucks led his funeral procession through the city, quite a sight to behold and a heartfelt tribute to his legacy.
Learning the ropes
Gib was an incredible teacher and a mentor to me and countless others in the industry. I can’t say enough how great an inspiration he was and I would definitely credit him with planting the seed of serving people through water treatment as a fulfilling and satisfying life.
I became involved in the business during my Antioch College days on a work-study program to earn money for a field trip to the Colorado plateau. The three-month adventure included a week at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, visits to coal burning power plants and ranger stations, lots of hiking, botany and geology lessons. I worked in the San Antonio Culligan office, in the Service Department with installations, service, salt and tank deliveries and whatever else needed to be done. It was pretty interesting work but I did not envision it as my lifelong career at this point.
Concurrent with my studies, Gib had purchased a small dealership in Kerrville, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, considered by many to be the most beautiful parts of the state and a prime retirement destination. I got a call that the chance to get some real world experience was awaiting me. I decided that this was a good opportunity and I would give the business my all for a couple of years. As it turned out, I managed the Kerrville dealership from 1977 until 1989, indeed trading the classroom for the real world. With Gib’s encouragement and a great crew of workers, Culligan Kerrville matured into a sizable business. We developed a strong base of operations to serve a larger part of the central Texas area and the skills involved in running and building the company have been as good an education as just about any college classroom.
Working in a smaller dealership required wearing many hats. I began the day managing and routing service calls, taking sales calls, selling or renting systems and helped with the installation the next day. Sometimes a followup service call would find me wearing that hat at the same location. It was pretty satisfying to have that close relationship with the business and with the customer. It is hard to replicate the experience in larger dealerships, though staying in touch with the customer does remain an important goal.
I am continuing my education, within the framework of running Culligan Southwest. I am amazed at how many areas of endeavor and experience a job like this truly encompasses. There is always something new to master, or at least try to learn to passable proficiency. I find it very challenging and interesting, giving me a real sense of satisfaction. When you effectively solve water problems for people, they are truly grateful; you feel as if you really have helped them out. Our family’s role in providing an entity in which others can find meaningful work, mature and grow in their responsibilities is also important and rewarding.
Family + team = success
Our family-owned business is now in its third generation. Our kids are relatively young and will not (or cannot, for that matter) be forced into the business. Only time will tell if we will move on into a fourth generation. Though our spouses and kids are not directly employed in the Culligan business, it should be noted that their support of our demanding and time-consuming endeavor is recognized and much appreciated.
Kristi Stanford, my sister and business partner and I are the only family members actively involved at this point. She started in the Sales Department of the Austin Culligan dealership in 1983 (then owned by Jim Sherrow). Kristi has worked in the family business for 22 years now, beginning in the San Antonio office in 1984. She specializes in procurement of appropriate insurance coverages, oversees our benefits and HR programs and is also our Social Director, as a member (since 1989) of the downtown San Antonio Rotary Club, the largest in the world. Kristi currently serves as Publications Chair for Texas Water Quality Association (TWQA) and was a past Board Member and Treasurer as well.
We now have just over 100 employees and approximately 70 vehicles spread among our four stores. We serve south central Texas from our San Antonio, Kerrville and New Braunfels-Seguin offices and the west Texas Permian Basin from Midland-Odessa. The name of the management company for our four dealerships (Culligan Southwest, Inc.) came from this geographical range.
We find that the best managers are those who have worked their way up through the ranks and experienced all aspects of the business firsthand. General Managers of our current team include Oscar Ledezma (Kerrville), Kurt Denson (New Braunfels-Seguin) and Tony Blakley (Midland-Odessa). Past key contributors include my father (Gib), Don Denson, Chuck Dillon and Herman Blakley; each one helped to build the strong foundation for our continuing success.
Bill London, a key member of our team, has brought his considerable skills and dedication to the job since starting work here in 1977. He became the General Manager of Kerrville in 1989 when I was called to work at our headquarters and he became the General Manager of San Antonio in 1997. Today, we work hand-in-hand to guide and direct the dealerships, though London’s primary responsibility is the San Antonio office.
Past challenges lead to future prospects
All of our markets have hard water ranging from about 14 to 30 grains or more; much of the area also has mineral, bacterial, odor and taste problems. The west Texas market is unique in that total dissolved solids (TDS) can range as high as 2,500 ppm and is often accompanied by high fluorides and a terrible salty taste. In the 1960s, we helped test and pioneer home and business reverse osmosis (RO) technology in the west Texas office. Changes in the municipal water source and water pH completely wiped out the first generation cellulose acetate membranes of the time, costing buckets of money and almost driving us out of business. New membranes, different pre-filtration techniques and perseverance eventually brought us back in the black.
More recent challenges (not unique to our industry) include rising fuel costs; congested highways in the big cities that adversely impact our effectiveness as a service and sales business and the spiraling costs of health and other insurances. We work our way through these as best as we can, often aided by communication with fellow dealers.
I believe that water shortages will become more pronounced in the future. Water will become an increasingly precious resource, requiring further technical advances to more effectively use and store it. One storage technique, already in use in this part of Texas, involves using aquifers themselves as storage for partially pretreated water, effectively banking the water for future use. Another technology gaining popularity is rainwater catchment, which is really an old technique being revisited as water supplies dwindle. Much of this captured rainwater is for non-potable uses, but an increasing number of consumers are asking for technology to assure that the water is safe to drink as well. Another water availability issue that will likely soon impact our industry will be the need to utilize and treat the marginal water supplies that are not used today because of their brackishness, including seawater, but also the many aquifers whose quality is substandard without treatment.
As for the evolution of our water treatment industry, I see a push toward greater efficiencies in existing technologies first, with continued research into new ones as time goes on. The smaller manufacturing companies have an important role to play in advancing newer technologies and in keeping the Big Boys on their toes. And our dealer segment, the local water conditioning companies, will remain important as we know local water conditions, have bases embedded in the communities we serve and can best respond to consumers’ needs for onsite expertise and professionalism in a field that truly requires it.
Water softener sales and rentals are our bread and butter, but we do move a fair number of RO units, iron filters and chemical feeders. Hard water and iron help to make this a great market and we continue to aggressively address those problems. Much of Texas is undergoing a construction boom with positive effects for us. We have been building up our infrastructure for years, preparing for this growth opportunity and are now well poised to capitalize on it. Consumer awareness of water quality issues, shortages and challenges to its purity keep us at the forefront of one of the most important resources we have. Our five-year plan is to continue to execute our mission of serving the customer well and to be an affordable solution to their water quality needs. This will require continued investments in our infrastructure and the possibility of a new office or two. We feel our future and that of the whole water quality improvement industry is virtually unlimited.
The role of associations
Much hard work was done 20, 30 and 40 years ago to establish a solid foundation for the industry. Since we are in a public health related field, governmental oversight and regulations continue to be issues that require effective association representation and responses. This makes it especially important to maintain active memberships in state and national Water Quality Associations. When the inevitable issues arise, our association memberships become our best offense or defense, as the case may be.
TWQA has always had an active membership, thanks to many involved members, plus longterm leadership, such as Jo Grace’s family and many others. I became actively involved with TWQA in 1989. In my role as Chair of Education and Training, I came to realize that our image as an industry and an association was largely built on one-on-one relationships with regulators and legislators and that a proactive approach to these relationships produced the best results. Once we developed the personal relationships, our credibility with legislators and other leaders, who ultimately controlled these entities, was enhanced.
Previous experience with onsite softener bans in Texas and New Mexico led me to become involved with the WQA Onsite Issues Task Force. The group is meeting with the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) to continue investigations into the true nature of the relationship between softeners and contemporary onsite systems, some of which have evolved to be quite complex and sensitive to upsets. If our investigations find softener related issues, we intend to work on how to best reconcile these in problematic situations. We feel that efficient DIR softeners, enhanced consumer education and good system maintenance (of both the onsite and water treatment system) will likely hold the key to our future peaceful coexistence.
I feel fortunate to be able to serve and contribute to TWQA and WQA. The great people we employ in our Culligan Southwest organization, taking care of the day-to-day business issues, deserve the credit for giving me the freedom to help do my part for our industry as a whole. Without them, I simply would not be able to spend the necessary time on these important issues, so I would like to heartily thank them for that hard work and for thus helping support our Water Quality Industry’s continued and steady advancement.
About the author
Robert W. ‘Bob’ Boerner, CWS-V, a Culligan dealer in San Antonio, Texas, serves on WQA’s Board of Directors, currently serves on the Legislative Committee and is Texas WQA’s Legislative Chair. In addition to the WC&P Award of Appreciation , he has received numerous awards from the WQAs and Culligan International. He can be reached at Culligan Water Conditioning of San Antonio, 1034 Austin Street, San Antonio, Texas 78208; telephone (210) 226-5344.