One day in July of this year, Bill Tanner found himself sitting in his business office staring at a stack of unpaid bills and a silent phone. This scene repeated itself for two straight weeks. After 15 years as a well driller, he had decided to strike out on his own and enter the world of water treatment.
If a “man is not an island,” as a great poet once said, then Tanner was about as close as you can come. In fact, he was to the point where throwing himself off the island was no longer an option.
Make or break
“I was scared to death. I had a family to support,” he said. “Within the first two weeks, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was headed for bankruptcy.” And then the phone started to ring.
Within a couple of weeks, he was singing a different tune: “Why didn’t I do this sooner? I wish now that I had started this business when I first came back to Idaho in 1991 when there were only four dealers (in Boise).” There are currently 15 dealers.
Where would he be now?
“I can’t even imagine,” he responds. “I think I would be a lot happier and a lot healthier. I wouldn’t have the back problems and I would have the rest of my hearing. The worst part of well drilling is that I liked it.”
Tanner, 40, actually began the business early last year, but decided only five months ago to make it a full-time venture. So, what served as his inspiration to give entrepreneurship a run for its money? Well, it was the money.
“I had taught water treatment to everybody I ever worked for,” he said. “So I bought into these other businesses, and finally I decided to look at these numbers and said, ‘Wake up!’” The final straw came when a former employer tried to buy Tanner’s business outright for almost nothing. He scoffed at the offer and went his separate way.
He made the right choice. As part-time owner of AAA Water Purification Systems in Boise, Tanner made about $40,000 in 1999. Revenues for this year are expected to be between $80,000 and $90,000. Tanner said he wouldn’t be surprised if AAA doubled that figure in 2001.
All in the family
Even more amazing, Tanner and his wife, Mary, are the company’s only two employees. When she’s not busy working full time at a printing company and raising the couple’s three children, Mary will lend a hand with the paperwork and dealing with suppliers. “She has been very supportive,” he said. “In the beginning, she had more confidence in me than I did.”
Tanner said he’ll have to hire more help soon. Perhaps then he can cut back on his 14-to-16 hour workdays. Besides, overseeing 200 accounts can become “overwhelming,” he said. Ninety percent of that number are residential customers.
This has not been Tanner’s first foray into the water field. He shared an irrigation well business with his father before the state placed a moratorium on such wells in 1986, which spelled doom for the Tanners. The younger Tanner is a fourth-generation well driller (Tanner’s father still drills wells) and has worked in Alaska and Washington before settling in Idaho. Through it all, he had one toe in water treatment at every employment stop.
Work of destiny
Divine direction or not, Tanner sees himself as “kind of a workaholic who earnestly enjoys” what he does for a living. He’ll be driving down a street and suddenly park the car when he sees iron stains on a house. Tanner has even offered to test the household water for free because “I’m curious about what’s all in their water.” When he hunts for elk, it’s not uncommon for Tanner to take a sample of some water from a backwoods creek and take it home to test.
Idaho presents its share of water problems and Tanner attributes much of that on past environmental indiscretions. “We’re paying today for the farming practices of the past as well as the well drilling practices,” he said. The state, he added, contains a very large area of hard water and iron, which usually requires a water softener. He also sees a growing arsenic and nitrate problem. Not all of it is manmade, either.
The state produces extremes like a 12,000 feet elevation to desert terrain. Natural geologic surfaces range from clay to sand to lava rock. Tanner said you could have two wells 100 yards apart and they would be nothing alike. Water temperature can fluctuate between 63°F to 180°F. Other problems to consider include sulfur, manganese and marsh (or methane) gas.
“Some areas here have some of the most horrendous fluoride problems you could ever imagine,” he said. “So bad that people in these areas have brown and mottled teeth because the fluoride is so heavy.”
Over the past 10 years, Tanner has seen a change in how people perceive their water supplies. Products have changed dramatically. And dealers that want to survive will have to keep abreast of ongoing changes and trends in the industry. Never before questioning the quality of water, the public is scrutinizing its most valuable resource more than ever. According to Tanner, one industry is cashing in on these concerns.
“There are people out here living on municipal water supplies who say they are afraid to drink their water,” he said, “which means the bottled water folks just have a ball. Me, I think bottled water is a travesty. You’re putting a fancy name on average water.”
Working as one
Education is the key. It’s also one of the biggest downfalls of our industry, he added. Seeing “a fast dollar,” many people in the bottled water and well driller industries don’t care much about the effect installed equipment may have on their customers in the long run.
As a member of the board of directors for the Idaho Ground Water Association, Tanner said all segments of the water industry should be working together toward a common goal of safe water for all. In fact, he’s the first and only member of the board who’s in water treatment. Aside from that, he has recently applied for membership in the Water Quality Association and holds a well supervisor’s license.
If nothing else, Tanner has learned to spread his name and expand his business beyond the Idaho area. He has water systems in Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Reverse osmosis systems are the most popular, he said.
Longevity seems to be Tanner’s only concern. He knows if his equipment doesn’t produce results, he’ll be drilling wells full time once again. “I run with 100 percent honesty,” he said. “I do not, under any circumstance, downgrade any other business or equipment. I don’t bad mouth or backstab anybody. I like to prove whatever I say.” Good work isn’t guesswork. Once a piece of equipment is installed, he vows to service it throughout its life.
The next five years will see the water treatment industry grow by leaps and bounds, Tanner said. He acknowledges that word-of-mouth will be the primary driver dictating whether his business survives. “The referral is a lot of my business,” he said. “I can’t afford to have any bad publicity.”
When asked what direction he would like to see his business take, Tanner said he told someone his plan before and was told it would never happen. The plan? To have several small businesses sprinkled across the southern part of the state. Then he rethinks what he just said, and added, “I just don’t know if I want the headaches.” Yes, but it sure beats a stack of bills.