By Denise Roberts

Alaska Pure Water Products
301 East International Airport Rd.
Anchorage, Alaska 99518
Phone: (907) 563-3770
Fax: (907) 563-5502
Website: www.alaskapurewater.com
Email: steve@alaskapurewater.com
Employees: 10
Trucks: nine

Contrary to popular belief, the water in Alaska is neither pure nor pristine. Surface water is subject to Giardia and wellwater often times has has levels of iron and manganese. Influenced by glacial runoff, water sources often have very high turbidity levels – so much so that the water looks like weak chocolate milk. Such problems present specific challenges for the water treatment professionals at Alaska Pure Water Products.

Humble beginnings
The business started in 1985 as a retail water store offering customers the self-service option of filling their own containers with either purified or distilled water. The company grew and the product line was expanded to include bottled water and residential/commercial water treatment. Additionally, the firm became active in small community and municipal water system equipment sales and service but the expansion trend didn’t last. The business returned to retail activities, selling water over-the-counter along with residential filtration products and reverse osmosis (RO) systems.

Steven Sommerfeld purchased the company in 1993, primarily to find a more appreciative field of endeavor. After 12 years of selling earth moving industrial equipment, he felt people didn’t like bulldozer and backhoe providers. “Water treatment equipment seemed different; you are everyone’s friend, developers and greenies alike,” Sommerfeld said.

The company was exclusively a retail water store and bottled water delivery business. To get into the full market sector, Sommerfeld bought an additional business focused on wholesale water treatment products, including commercial and industrial water purification.

Sommerfeld knew things were on the right track when the company went from leasing a 4,000 square foot facility to purchasing its own 8,500 square foot building. The number of staff increased from three to 10 full-time employees. Four employees are among Alaska’s six certified water specialists (including Sommerfeld, who holds CWS-V and Certified Installer credentials). “They’re dedicated, almost like a family and they’re in this for the long term,” he said. The vehicle fleet grew to nine, including a 1951 Chevy deliver van used for special occasions and good weather bottled water setups. Then, in 2003, APWP joined the Kinetico dealership network for residential and commercial treatment systems.

Cover all of the bases
The company offers supplies, equipment and service to the entire state, although logistics present some interesting challenges. Its fleet traverses the region on a road system that is limited at best. Often, service technicians log many airline miles flying to the far corners of the state to meet customers’ needs. The company has built an outstanding reputation for standing behind its products while providing great customer service.

The longest road trip for an installation was 858-mile roundtrip to Eagle. The farthest and most remote destination to date was a fish hatchery in Little Port Walter. Travel involved a one-hour stint in a Boeing 737 to Sitka followed by a 35-minute, very bumpy Cessna 185 ride; equipment was barged in prior to the installers’ arrival.

“You better not forget a valve or that extra pipe elbow when going on these jobs,” cautioned Sommerfeld. “Thankfully, we’ve had many more successes than failures and learned from all of them.”

Chris Mitchell, CWS-1 at Little Point Water (below left) and installing a tank (below right)

Future prospects
No single product or service commands a majority of the business: all sectors are equally strong with promising growth potential. Many of Alaska’s rural communities and private facilities that cater to the tourist/hunting/fishing markets will need significant improvements to existing water systems. Over the next several years and into the foreseeable future, increasing surface water treatment regulations will create substantial growth in the treatment sector. Expansion into industrial process filtration, including the possibility of a packaged water product for export, is possible as well.

Sommerfeld believes membrane filtration will change the way things are currently being done and sooner than most anticipate. “Companies that continue to cling to the old methods and technologies will be left standing in the discharge stream. Innovative entities, if able to resist the temptation to cash out when Mr. Big comes calling, will be at the forefront of water technology advances.”

Industry consolidation does cause some concern. “It has been our experience that bigger conglomerates lead to poor customer service, less innovation and much more paperwork,” he notes. “An ongoing challenge is keeping growth manageable while maintaining a successful program. It may sound funny to some folks, but uncontrolled growth can be devastating to a small business.”

Sommerfeld knows he found the right industry and plans to be a part of it as long as possible. “I’ve worked at all aspects of this business, from cashier and delivery person to installer and service technician, even accountant when necessary. I still do those same things and I’ve gained a tremendous amount of satisfaction while helping people sort through their water quality issues,” he said, noting that the industry offers another important benefit. “This is a profitable venture that allows me to keep my wife happy. That should say it all.”

 

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