Former RainSoft President Proud to Be a ‘Culligan Man’
Robert ‘Bob’ Ruhstorfer started in the water treatment industry as an installer’s helper and delivering salt in the family business in Marlette, MI. He steadily worked his way up through every type of job in the industry, eventually becoming President of RainSoft. Then he retired…briefly. Today he is proud to be called ‘Culligan Man.’
Ruhstorfer wears his Culligan shirts when traveling, which he does regularly from his home in Illinois to his dealerships in Texas. “I was standing in line at O’Hare and the TSA agent says ‘Hey Culligan Man, it’s your turn.’ Another time I was having breakfast in a Dallas hotel and someone came up and said ‘I just wanted to shake your hand so I can say I actually met a real Culligan Man. Two burly contractor guys were in the elevator when I walked in and one hollered out ‘Hey Culligan Man!’ I felt like a celebrity.”
Some might say this was destiny. His father, Robert Sr., got introduced to the water softening business in the 1960s while selling stainless steel milking equipment to farmers who complained to him about the spots caused by hard water. He had to figure out how get rid of them. He found the solution was a water softener, so he became the local Water King dealer. Their neighbor (literally) was Gordon Miller, the local Culligan Man. That was about the same time that a prestigious Los Angeles advertising agency created the now famous ‘Hey Culligan Man’ radio ads.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the challenges and opportunities in solving water problems. I feel this is a great industry, a fantastic industry to build a career around. I’ve only been a water guy—it’s all I know. My brother, Ken, is still in the industry too, running a continuation of the family business in Michigan. We talk all the time about the business and our challenges as dealers. I’m still trying to get him over to the Culligan side,” Ruhstorfer said.
“After initially retiring, I found an opportunity to get back in the industry through buying several Culligan franchises in Texas. Our company operates four locations in Texas. We service the residential, commercial and industrial markets, as well as operate three bottling plants for the HOD (home office delivery) business. Basically my challenge has been turning around two very large corporate-owned, under-performing businesses. They had been run by a centralized command-and-control business model, where decisions were made at the top. Local employees and managers wound up as people with very little say or sense of ownership in their performance. It is hard to change that culture to one where local people are making the decisions and are responsible for the performance of the branch. To try to change the culture of a business—especially a larger business—is a lot of work.
“When I first met with employees, there was a lot of apprehension as to who this new owner was. So when I came in, I told them I had good news and bad news for them. I said: ‘The good news is, I was raised in a brine tank. I know this business inside and out—it’s been my entire career. The bad news is, I’m a water guy and I’ve done every one of your jobs. I know what you’re supposed to do and what a good job looks like, so don’t BS me.’ From day one, I set the standard of what’s expected for performance. About half the total management staff are employees that were with the business when I bought it in July of 2012. And our employees carry a variety of certifications from WQA, TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and Culligan University. I am personally a WQA Master Water Specialist and have been a supporter of the program since its inception.”
Since then the company has more than doubled in size, Ruhstorfer said. “I would like to grow our business in all sectors and feel we can double the company again in the next five years. I take pride in building a quality organization that believes in providing world-class products and service to its customers, as well as providing my employees with ‘the opportunity to grow as far as their hearts and minds will carry them,’ as my mentor John Grayson used to say.”
Ruhstorfer works closely with his investment partner, Sam Zelnick of Sora Capital. “He’s a very active partner and we talk multiple times a week. He has a wealth of business experience and brings a lot to the table, especially his perspective at the strategic level. He participates in management calls. He’s a real asset.” The leadership team also includes General Managers Brent Chinn and Rick Keck, as well as Sales Managers Scott Murray and Mark Little, all of whom have been in the industry for decades themselves.
Ruhstorfer has long been an active leader in the industry. This year he was elected President of the Culligan Dealers Association of North America (CDANA). “I’ve jumped in with both feet. I’m a Culligan Man through and through now and I’m having a ball.” He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Water Quality Research Foundation and Culligan’s Dealer Advisory Council (DAC), a group of 17 dealers who meet four times a year with Culligan management to develop strategic recommendations for the Culligan brand. A long-time and very active member of WQA, Ruhstorfer served as President for 2002-2003. Many members still remember when he drove a Harley up on the stage to join Elvis (Peter Censky) and Liberace (a hired impersonator) during the Las Vegas, NV convention that year. In 2007, he was awarded WQA’s International Award of Merit and in 2009, its Lifetime Achievement Award for service to the industry. “This is my second career and I find it extremely rewarding. I found the Culligan corporation and dealers very welcoming and accepting of me as an ex-competitor. It feels very natural being here.
“This is a very exciting and dynamic business to be in because we affect people’s quality of life. I tell my people all the time there are a lot of things for consumers to spend their money on, like exercise equipment, fancy big-screen TVs, iPhones. But how many things can you spend money on that actually affect your everyday quality of life (bathing, laundry, drinking) plus the health benefits and the whole issue of ‘emerging contaminants,’ the increased awareness of what’s in our water today. People today are more health conscious and want to live healthier lifestyles. Drinking clean water becomes very basic to that. When I got into the business, if you asked the average person on the street, do you drink tap water? Nine out of 10 would say, ‘sure why wouldn’t I?’ Today if you ask the same question, nine out of 10 people would say ‘no, why would I?’”