By Denise M. Roberts
Aqua Systems, a traditional dealership founded in 1959 by Lou Petty, is now a locally owned family partnership and network, with independent dealers across the United States. Although semi-retired, Petty still works the sales floor on Saturdays.
In 1982, Bret Petty became head of the company and made drastic changes to the business model. He removed the sales staff and incorporated their duties into customer service staff’s responsibilities. This novel approach produced a well-rounded team that could handle all aspects of the customer experience.
In another shift from traditional sales approaches, in-home demonstrations were turned into store presentations. Consumers were given every possible detail and option but never pressured to buy. Providing a no-pressure sales environment created an atmosphere in which customer preference became more important than the specific product or service being offered.
In addition, products were re-engineered and made more cost effective, lowering prices for company and consumers alike. This also reduced customer reliance on financing to achieve their goal of affordable quality water in their homes.
Dealer to President
Aqua Express owner Don Line had been involved in the water treatment industry for 18 years when he adopted Petty’s new business model as a prototype in the early 90s. His traditional dealership was actually a customer of Aqua Systems.
Line’s experience with Petty’s streamlined sales model helped him realize that introducing it to a broader group of dealerships would be a very successful venture for the company. He made his pitch to National Sales Manager Pat Miller and soon Aqua Systems dealers were readily embracing the new concepts in selling water treatment products and services.
Line and his dealership were acquired by the larger company in 1996. Today, he serves as President of Aqua Systems.
Equipment and supplies
Aqua Systems builds its own equipment and supplies many dealers. “The residential division (water treatment and bottled water), has been built over the years by making it very easy to do business with us,” said Line. “Our Commercial/Industrial division was grown by spending time understanding what engineers, contractors and end users really need – then providing it for them.
“We go out of our way to remove the traditional friction that comes with having a commissioned salesperson pressuring a customer to buy. We also have many Dealer/Partners that have successfully adopted this approach. We have grown so dramatically because of the attractiveness of our sales model, both to the customer and to the dealers. We have changed from the old commissioned sales model to a new, customer-friendly model that gives customers choices and makes the lifestyle of the dealer a lot more comfortable (better hours, easier HR management, improved customer satisfaction).
“The bottom line is that we provide our Dealer/Partners with all of the systems, marketing, products and business model concepts, as well as provide sales procedures, site location assistance, technical support, proprietary products, protected territories, website presence, image enhancement for their signage, vehicles and even apparel. All of this support comes without the attachments and fees commonly associated with a franchise or dealer agreement. So, the same approach to ‘delivering more for less’ comes through not only in our retail model, but carries over to our approach with our Dealer/Partners as well.
“Our staff of 120, including nine family members, serve Indiana at convenient retail superstores throughout the state, along with locations in Illinois and Ohio,” Line noted. “Although many of our Dealer/Partners are located east of the Mississippi, we have Dealer/Partners as far as Montana, Arizona, Texas and some other western states.
“Our water experts (11 are WQA-certified water specialists) can provide service on all makes and models of water softeners, water conditioners, RO systems, iron and sulfur filters, water coolers and water dispensers. We even have staff dedicated to drive-up salt sales at our stores.”
The challenge of big corporations expanding into the company’s markets hasn’t dimmed Line’s perspective or progress. “We’ve thrived in the midst of big box outlets and big corporations by offering world-class service at reasonable prices.” The company plans to expand its geographical footprint through stores and independent dealers. Its network currently includes over 300 dealers and seven company-owned stores.
Through its innovative approach to doing business, Aqua Systems has managed to stay above the current economic fray. Only a small percentage of the business (roughly one third) is directly impacted by the housing market downturn. By making their products more efficient and effective, cost per unit is reduced and customers can more readily afford them.
“We will continue to be a leader in finding new ways to easily help customers get what they need,” noted Line. “I think products will continue to improve and will also continue to go down in price – however, I think the opportunities for the dealer to help customers apply these products will always be there and probably will grow.”