By Donald A. Mounce
Aqua Finance, Inc.
1 Corporate Drive, Suite 300
Wausau, WI 54401
E-mail: [email protected]
Number of employees: Aqua Finance serves all dealers from this one location with a staff of nearly 400 people.
Robert Chadwell and his wife Betty founded Aqua Finance, Inc. back in 1985 with nothing more than a handful of ‘in-house’ accounts. The former banker and water treatment dealer recognized the need for attractive financing options that could be used to help close water treatment sales.
“Eventually, other dealers started asking us to finance their paper as well,” notes Chadwell, who remains company President and CEO. “So we developed some plans that were unique to the water industry. From there it grew and the company was incorporated in 1988.
“At first, the company focused primarily on the subprime credit market. But with the exit of some prime credit lenders from the market during the late 90s, AFI moved into both prime and subprime credit, which allowed us to grow very rapidly.”
Aqua Finance provides consumer financing programs primarily to the water treatment industry. “We have both fixed term installment loans and revolving credit plans, and we offer dealers a variety of promotional programs including ‘same-as-cash’ and ‘no payment – no interest’ plans,” according to Chadwell.
“We offer commercial leasing plans through some strategic partnerships and we have an in-house consumer rental program. We also will do account servicing for companies who want to retain ownership of accounts without the hassles of billing/collecting, and we buy bulk portfolios from a variety of companies.”
“Our biggest strength is in our dealer service. We have live credit analysts that work with our dealer network to help them get approvals on as many deals as possible,” says Chadwell
“We have finance agreements with many of the major water treatment manufacturers. And we deal with a large number of independents, more than 1700 water dealers nationwide.”
Expansion and growth
“In 2004, we opened our ‘Dealer Financial Services’ division to also finance non-water products,” adds Chadwell. “This grew primarily out of the needs of some of our existing dealers who were diversifying into non-water products like HVAC and alternative energy, with thousands of additional customers served.
“We also handle all account servicing (credit processing and billing/collections) for Bay Finance Company, which serves a number of industries including vacuums, plastic surgery, pets, furniture and vacation clubs. And in 2006, we moved into Canada as AFI Canada, Inc. and we now offer financing in five provinces as well as all 50 US states.
“Aqua Finance has never forgotten our roots in the water industry and recently expanded that area to offer financing to renters as well as homeowners,” notes Chadwell. “This allows our dealers to sell to a broader customer base.
“We’ve also introduced credit teams that serve certain states. This means our dealers get to work with the same set of analysts all the time and really build relationships with them. We are also working on adding more functionality to our Web site including more access to dealer reporting and quicker completion of loan documents.”
Increasing bottom lines
“Aqua Finance builds lasting dealer partnerships that help increase each dealer’s bottom line. We accomplish this by providing exceptional personal service and flexible, customizable financing programs,” according to company Associate Vice President Andrea Swiney.
“We continue to be the ‘big time’ lender with the ‘small town’ touch. Our goal is to offer dealers a complete one-stop-shopping experience for all consumer financing needs.”
Swiney has been with Aqua Finance since December of 2004 as Business Development Manager, when she was recruited by Aqua Finance from six years as a branch manager for another finance company. “I met the Vice President of Account Servicing for Aqua at a continuing education class and they ended up hiring me away.
“I traveled non-stop for the first 18 months, meeting our dealers, attending trade shows/industry events and conducting training. Later I was promoted to Marketing Manager and earlier this year I was promoted to AVP of Sales and Marketing.”
“When I started at Aqua, I had no idea how big the water treatment industry was,” Swiney notes. “Money is money, so that’s pretty much the same in all industries. But it has been fascinating learning the water business, products, services and meeting all the great people in the industry.”
“Water treatment will continue to be our primary focus. With industry consolidation and a new focus on green products, we believe there will be more opportunity than ever to offer water dealers convenient financing plans for their customers,” says Swiney. “At the same time, we’ll look to broaden our product offerings and to serve other complimentary industries that fit with our service-oriented, specialized focus.
“One of the challenges when the economy was in full upswing is that it was fairly easy for smaller finance companies to get their foot in the door in this industry and seduce dealers with new offerings. However, as the economy has cooled, it has become clear that our 20-plus years of strength, stability and experience are a great asset to our dealers.”
“We’ve been through both good economic times and not-so-good times and we’re still here, stronger than ever, serving this industry,” adds Swiney. “We have prevailed because we understand the risk involved in financing and we price our products and services fairly and consistently to ensure we’ll be around another 20 years.
“The fallout of the subprime mortgage mess remains a big issue. Our dealers who relied on a lot of new home construction have to find new ways to get leads. Customers who were willing to put money into improving their homes may not be if they are having trouble affording them.”
“Higher fuel and food prices as well as falling home values means that consumers are being squeezed from all sides,” concludes Swiney. “This makes it harder for dealers to close sales than it has been in years past.
“But on our end, we see this as an opportunity, because our low monthly payment financing plans may be the key to help dealers close those sales now, since customers may be less likely to be able to pay cash. We believe that good financing programs will be even more important to our dealer network than ever before and our years of experience can be leveraged to help them through a tough time in the credit market.”