By Denise M. Roberts
High Plains Water, Inc.
211 2nd St. NE
Valley City, ND 58072 Tel: (701) 845-1580
Website: www.highplainswater.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Employees: four full-time, one part-time, Vehicles: Three
High Plains Water, Inc. of Valley City, ND has had four owners over the past six decades. It was originally opened as Culligan franchise in 1946 by Bill Lorenz, followed by Monroe Perry in 1964 and, in 1980, by Donovan Kosse and his wife Linda. In 2003, Craig and Cristal Larsen were added as co-owners. The company, previously named Culligan of Valley City, became High Plains Water, Inc. The Larsens became sole owners in 2006, with Don Kosse remaining as a part-time employee.
Getting here from there
Larsen, who grew up on a farm, always wanted to do more with his life than work for someone else and collect a paycheck. He knew he wanted to own a business, but it wasn’t clear to him what type of business. Larsen served a four-year hitch in the Navy, followed by service in the Army National Guard and then the Air National Guard.
While pursuing a degree in law enforcement, he was reactivated for deployment to the Middle East as a result of the terrorist attack on 9/11. Cristal was also activated for six months. While mulling over their options about what to do after the deployment ended, a conversation between Cristal and her good friend (and Kosse’s daughter) Amber Havard changed Larsen’s career path to something he never envisioned. Havard said, “You should buy my parents’ business.” The conversation ended with little additional thought until Larson’s two-year activation ended.
While still deployed, the Larsens discussed investing their savings in rental property. That possibility changed when Cristal asked Craig if he would ever be interested in the Kosse’s business. The idea intrigued and appealed to him; months later, the Larsens revisited the idea with the Kosses.
In the fall of 2002, Larsen started working for Culligan Of Valley City on a part-time basis while awaiting deactivation from the military. As with many other newcomers to the water treatment industry, he began hauling salt and water while learning to service the equipment. Kosse was anxious to retire, but patient enough to allow Larsen to thoroughly learn about the business.
“What I most admire about Don and Linda during this time was they allowed me the opportunity to try new things and make mistakes,” Larsen said. “ I am very grateful to have had them teach me the ropes because many new business owners are not so lucky.”
Starting a new tradition
In 2008, the Larsens ventured out on their own. They dropped the Culligan franchise and became a Hellenbrand, Inc. distributor. “Letting a name like Culligan go, which was embedded in the business for 62 years, was one of the biggest decisions I’ve made,” Larsen said. “The hardest part in the whole transition was letting go of that name.
“I wanted to take a different path and the franchise model didn’t fit my needs or my customers’ needs. I chose Hellenbrand because we shared similar values: above all, take care of your customers, provide reliable equipment and back it with great service. On all three points, I can say Hellenbrand has exceeded my expectations and made this transition easier. What I strive for every day is for my customers to be able to say the same about me.”
“What keeps me going in water treatment is that I absolutely love it,” Larsen noted. “I love solving problems for people and giving them the best water possible. I love being a business owner, even when my route driver hits a washed-out road and almost totals my route truck (during a holiday week) after the city put a dike in front of my business to prevent flooding. It’s drama everyday, it’s living life and I absolutely love it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Covering all bases
arsen, a service technician, an office manager and a route driver cover 13 different salt and bottled water routes. Kosse is available as a part-time employee to help out whenever and wherever needed. Cristal Larsen, Clinical Manager for Hospice of the Red River Valley, is not involved in the day-to-day operations but does assist with strategic and operational planning.
They provide service to the southeastern part of North Dakota that is within a 75-mile radius of the company headquarters. Residential water softeners are the strongest sellers because of hardness starting from 15 grains per gallon. Well owners often record higher levels from 30-125 grains.
Drinking water systems, however, are High Plains Water’s fastest growing product line, quickly catching up to water softener sales. “The primary reason our drinking water sales have increased is because we have focused on system sales versus just selling water softeners. We have also encouraged our service technician, route driver and office manager to identify current customers who could benefit from a drinking water system. Our current customers are our greatest referral sources.”
“We also have a strong rental base, which is the bread and butter of our business and we average about a 50/50 split on sales versus rentals,” said Larsen. “I don’t push one over the other; I let my customers decide what works best for them.”
Destiny or coincidence?
Larsen believes everything happens for a reason and many things happen along life’s journey that seem insignificant at the time; it’s only later their significance is understood. “When I look at all the coincidences that occurred over the years, I think I was meant to be in this business,” he said. “My Navy boot camp instructor was my first clue; his name was Petty Officer Culligan. Then, when I got out of the Navy, I bought a new Schwinn ‘High Plains’ bicycle, which I didn’t recall until recently when I decided to fix it up.”
Longevity as the business owner isn’t in question for Larsen but other coincidences make him wonder what legacy he will leave. “Monroe Perry had two daughters as did Don and Linda Kosse. My wife and I now have two daughters. If any of this means anything, I’m betting my girls won’t be taking over the family business,” Larsen chuckles.
Taking on the future
In the meantime, Larsen is training and encouraging his employees to be able to accomplish day-to-day activities with limited supervision to allow him to focus on the strategic areas of managing and growing the business.
“When I look to the future, I think about how limited a resource water will become and how I can mold my business to accommodate water shortages,” he said. “I’m very interested in green technologies such as Hellenbrand’s brine recovery in residential water softeners.
“I am also interested in greywater recycling. I think in the near future we are going to see this incorporated into new houses. Saltless water softening sounds like a great concept and I look forward to the day someone comes out with one that performs like a traditional salt-based water softener.”
With so many possible new technologies to investigate, Larsen doesn’t have time to worry about whether or not his daughters take over the business some day. Instead, he is focused on providing great products and services, maintaining a reputable business and maybe paying more attention to life’s subtle clues along the way.