The Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas is an ideal location for a thriving water treatment business. “We’re at the end of the line of the Rio Grande River; the municipal water is high in TDS and sediment relative to many areas of the United States. This is a very good market,” said Tyler Stenseng, General Manager and President of Culligan Water of the Rio Grande Valley. “Very few individuals in our market drink tap water because of the high TDS content and chloramines/chlorine.”
“Our primary water source is from surface-water reservoirs fed by the Rio Grande River. The water is relatively brackish, with high TDS and a natural metallic taste. That combined with chloramines and chlorine does not lend itself to tasting good out of the tap. Even carbon filters do not do enough to improve the taste. You really need to use an RO system, buy bottled water or buy from vending stations that use RO. Water softeners are very much needed in our market as well, as most municipalities have water hardness levels in excess of 15 gpg, which can be very disruptive to people’s homes or to local business operations.”
This family-owned Culligan business has prospered in the small town of San Benito, (population about 25,000) since the late 1960s. “That’s when Colonel B.E. Hanson, my father’s uncle, bought and consolidated the existing Cameron County Culligan franchises into one franchise at the San Benito location.” Stenseng’s father, Winslow (Win), acquired the company in 1975, when Hanson was ready to retire. It now serves four counties with a population of 1.3 million people.
“Win and his uncle worked out a deal for the Culligan dealership and early in 1975, Win and his new bride, Susan, drove 1,500 miles south from Minnesota to turn the page on their next chapter in business and in life. Back then, south Texas was like the Wild West. There wasn’t a lot going on. My dad didn’t mind—he’s a big outdoorsman, passionate about hunting and fishing, which he can do here year round. My mom had more of a challenge, missing family and being so far away from their Midwest roots.”
Young Tyler worked in the family business every summer through high school and college. “I did a wide variety of office work along with salt and bottled water delivery, plant labor and assisting with service and installation calls when needed,” he said. “Not long after graduating from St. Olaf College in 2003, I came home to work in the business and go back to school at a local University of Texas campus to get my MBA. During school, I mainly helped with the finance, accounting and human resources functions of the business.”
But the son wasn’t ready to jump into the water business full-time. “When I finished my master’s program, I felt the need to challenge myself and try working elsewhere, since basically the only work experience that I had was in the family Culligan business.” Through networking, he was able to get hired by a property casualty insurance brokerage in Des Moines, Iowa as a financial analyst working with clients of captive insurance companies. “It was a rewarding position. I developed many new skills and got to travel around the Caribbean and Canada. But after about three years in the position, I began to get that itch that my dad had so many years earlier: to be my own boss and go back into the Culligan business,” he said.
“When I came on board again, we had a very minimal web presence and a good amount of redundancies in our operation. I have been working with our team to refine our digital presence, eliminate redundancies and waste in our operations, and use technology to help us perform more efficiently and effectively. I’ve now been working here going on 10 years and these have been (by far) the best years of my life. It has been a blessing to work alongside my parents and to learn from my father. The business is co-owned by me and my father. My mother is involved in several finance functions of our business, while my wife, Krystal, helps us with our digital and print marketing.”
No doubt the water treatment business is deep in his blood. “It’s part of who I am now. During this time, I met my wife. We now have a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son that hopefully (someday) will want to be involved in the business. That’s a long way away but I hope to get them involved in little things—projects they can do when they get a bit older with office tasks—and see where their interest is.”
Over the years, this Culligan company has kept its familial character with employees who stay for decades. “We have four 30+ year employees, seven 25+ year employees, a couple of 20- to 25-year employees and about six 10+ year employees. We do have relatives: a brother and sister, even a husband and wife. My parents created that familial culture within our business, have offered competitive pay and benefits, and have always aimed to treat our employees with respect. I am trying my best now to retain our familial culture, while encouraging and challenging everyone to keep improving their performance and help the company grow,” Stenseng said. “It can be a challenge to treat your employees with compassion after they make big mistakes that cost the company money or open the company up to excess liability but we try to be as fair as possible when determining consequences.”
One pillar of that long-term employee retention is a commitment to training. “I’m a Class III Water Treatment Specialist in Texas and a WQA Master Water Specialist. I am a firm believer in continuing education and challenging oneself to attain the highest certifications possible within your field. All of our service and installation technicians have gone through our in-house training program and are licensed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as water treatment specialists of varying levels (I, II & III). We are proud to have, by far, the highest number of Texas-licensed water treatment specialists in the Rio Grande Valley and firmly believe in the value of licensing and education for all of our staff.
We also have sent many of our service and installation technicians to Culligan International equipment training schools in Illinois. We have one employee who is an IBWA-certified plant operator and is FSPCA-certified to operate our bottled water plant. We try to replicate situations in our shop when possible so we have hands-on training, working on equipment right here.