By Denise M. Roberts
Melodie Bullock and Dean Hollobaugh
At the young age of 23, Bud Johnson returned home from service in the US Army and found a place in the water treatment industry. A family friend, Don Howard, asked if Johnson would be interested in driving a route truck for the local water treatment company in Napa, California. He spent the next 12 years employed by that company and after about 10 years, it was acquired by a competitor. Johnson stayed on for a couple of years as Operations Manager but soon decided the time was right for him to branch out on his own. “I remained in the water treatment industry because to me, it’s not a job, it’s a hobby that I fully enjoy,” said Johnson.
“I’m fascinated by water treatment systems and find water chemistry to be very interesting. When I first started out in this industry, I found myself working late into the evenings, tearing apart and rebuilding every valve control and reverse osmosis I could find. Through this, I realized I was mechanically inclined and had a natural knack for it. I obtained my contractor’s license and was confident I had gained more than enough knowledge on sales, service and the administrative side to start my own business. As a result, I’ve held many different positions in the water treatment industry, from entry level to executive and as such, I never have nor would I ask any of my staff to perform tasks that I can’t, haven’t or won’t. The most rewarding aspect of this business is knowing we not only provide excellent products, we also provide outstanding customer service and support as well as continuous, steady, full-time employment for my staff.”
Johnson is certified by the California Department of Public Health as both a Distribution Operator 2 and a Treatment Operator 2, which allows him to maintain public water systems (PWS). “I was invited by the California Contractors State License Board as a subject-matter expert to update the newly revised C-55 Water Conditioning Contractor’s Examination,” he notes.
Environmental Aqua and Cal Aqua, with a staff of eight and five service vehicles, serve both commercial and residential customers in northern California, with an emphasis in the Bay area working with municipal and well water, as well as PWS. “In 1993, I established The Soft Connection as a sole proprietor and shortly thereafter, I incorporated with the new business name of Environmental Aqua,” he says. Recently,Environmental Aqua, Inc. (EAI) established a new division, dba: Cal Aqua (CA). The main focus of CA is sales, design, service and installations while EAI maintains responsibility for managing the 16 existing PWS and obtaining additional PWS customers. The management team for the past several years consists of Johnson as President, Melodie Bullock, Operations Manager and Corporate Officer, and Dean Hollobaugh, Service Manager. An important part of the company’s continued success is offering not only quality products and service, but doing so with highly qualified and certified personnel. “We offer WQA training to all our staff,” says Johnson. “At this point in time, our Operations Manager has earned CWS-II certification and we have two additional staff that are already scheduled to test in order to obtain their certification.”
“We encounter a wide array of water quality issues from A (arsenic) to Z (zinc),” Johnson continues. “I found the best way to address all water quality issues is to utilize my 33 years of extensive experience, knowledge of equipment specifications and ability to design to meet the customer’s needs for specific requirements. For the municipal market, I believe the best way to resolve water quality issues, other than the basic or salt-free softening and carbon filtration, is to conduct an on-site water analysis along with review of the current, local Consumer Confidence Report. For private wells, a complete laboratory analysis allows us to design a water treatment system based upon a complete review of the constituents found in the water. We don’t have a single best seller, as we have found our niche market in custom designing systems. As an independent dealer, I have the ability to pull from multiple suppliers to design a package system from basic filtration to whole-house RO systems. This renders the old ‘one size fits all’ type of equipment useless. Providing custom water treatment systems allows us to deliver a higher level of service and achieve the high-quality water our satisfied customers expect. The heart of our income is from providing that continuous, exceptional service. Our customers tell their friends, family and acquaintances about EAI/CA, which has allowed us to grow our business without a sales staff; our approach results in the best marketing we could have ever hoped for, word-of-mouth sales (approximately 90-percent worth). This isn’t to say that we don’t continuously look for quality sales reps. It’s just that we have not utilized any in over eight years.”
Johnson’s outlook is perennially optimistic but his path hasn’t been without serious pitfalls, both professionally and personally. “The worst challenge we’ve faced was two-fold,” he says. “The economic downturn ran parallel with my personal battle against stage-4 oral cancer. We weathered the storm with a positive outlook and a decision to not participate in doom-and-gloom outcomes as well as beat the terminal diagnosis I received. While I was on leave, the staff relied upon our years of building a solid core, full-service company to continue business as usual without any layoffs. In fact, we hired staff during this period. As with any business, there’s always peaks and valleys. We viewed this as a deeper valley than normal and overcame both the economy and diagnosis.” Overcoming this double-whammy inspires the entire company to concentrate on what is happening now but keeping an eye on the future. “Currently, we’re establishing a new program that will offer various products to small dealers, like a one-stop shop, providing dealers the ability to contact us to obtain design advice,” Johnson noted. “Our five-year plan is to hire two additional service technicians, another office staff member and someday, we hope to employ sales representatives who will roll up their sleeves and work hard to be successful.”
Johnson believes future potential for the industry will be defined by consumer education, regulation, legislation and climate issues, including water scarcity and drought. “I see consumers becoming more aware of water contaminants, and we need to be on the front line to provide the education they need to be smart water consumers. In California, water scarcity and increasing salt bans are of great concern, requiring that we maintain our vigilance in fighting attempts to place bans/barriers by those without knowledge of this industry and the benefits we provide. In addition, as new contaminants are identified and limits set, our industry always finds appropriate methods and techniques to address drinking water quality, as we’ve seen with current water softening bans. With emerging contaminants, government regulations will have to change. Many dealers may view this as an obstacle; however, we must continue to view this as an opportunity. When our hands are tied in one arena, the industry as a whole has shown it is able to overcome these issues by stepping up to the challenge and producing new equipment/products to address legislative concerns and comply with new restrictions. Technology continues to move forward and we’re always looking for new ways within the industry to address water quality concerns.”