Volume 44 Number 6
Making Water Crystal Clear in Waterford: Lakeland Soft Water Conditioning of Waterford, Mich.
Like so many others growing up in the outskirts of Detroit in the 1970s, Wallace E. Fruit Sr. was comfortable working for an automotive company. The job at the Pontiac plant paid well and it was steady work during lean economic times. To supplement his income, after clocking out at 3 p.m., he’d deliver salt bags for a business owner to customers for a quarter apiece.
“I would make an extra $20 a day, which I guess was good back then,” he says.
Through his delivery duties, he struck up a relationship with the boss’ daughter, whom he later married. He continues, “I came out of the tobacco hills of Kentucky, and we didn’t have too much. I just wanted my wife and children to have all the things that I didn’t have.”
By any other name
In 1979, Fruit bought a water treatment dealership that was founded 50 years ago. In all, he has worked with water conditioning for 40 years. Before Lakeland, he worked for Superior and Water King dealerships. For awhile, he ran Oakland Water Conditioning, named after the Michigan county where he still lives.
So, when Fruit says he’d like to franchise, he’s taken seriously. In 1985, he opened a satellite location in Oxford. Seven years later, a store in White Lake was launched and, last year, a Rochester Hills store opened its doors and is technically a franchise, he says. While Waterford -- the main location and headquarters -- sits right in the middle of Oakland County, Fruit’s plan was to place a location at each of the county’s geographical corners.
Lakeland even has its own brand label. Fruit, 60, wanted to guard against a company coming into his territory and stripping him of the name. In fact, he’s currently working with another company to have labels with the “Lakeland” name on 20-ounce water bottles sold in local grocery stores. Eight to 10 grocers that already have Lakeland water softeners have agreed to display the bottles.
Water for fast food
He says he encounters three different types of water -- municipal (mainly metropolitan Detroit), community wells and private wells. His customers fall primarily in the latter two categories. It takes municipal water customers about five to 10 years before they decide a water conditioner is necessary, Fruit says. He adds that arsenic is present in some water and the municipal water runs between seven and 10 grains hardness, which many people find acceptable. Iron and chlorine are other common customer complaints.
By the truckloads
“We tell potential customers that we cannot remove everything harmful in their water with one piece of equipment,” he says. “If you’re dealing with lime, calcium, magnesium, things like that, we do fairly well with an ion exchange system. If you’re getting into PCBs, DBPs and gases, then we may go to an exchange/carbon tank.” He tests the water first, and recommends ion exchange tanks for hardness, and carbon or RO units for PCBs, Arsenic III or V, and nitrates.
Originally from Hopkinsville, Ky., Fruit has three children who work with him -- Wallace Jr. is in the sales department at the Waterford store; Robert works there as well in service and installation, and Krissy runs the operation at White Lake.
A Michigan Water Quality Association member, Fruit takes pride in second or third-generation customers: “It gives you a sense of pride that I’ve accomplished something over the years. I helped people as well as making a living.”
In the neighborhood
He’s benefited from that. In 2001, Lakeland saw a jump in revenue of $200,000 (or about 6 percent) from the previous year. Fruit predicts that this year will see a 10 percent increase over last year’s total.
“I’ve seen about 10 to 15 mom and pop stores pushed out by Walgreen’s, Home Depot, etc.,” he says. “It used to scare me when I thought of city water taking over. But I’ve seen the cost being too great for the cities. Plus, water conditioning will be here for a long time.
“Man contaminates water every day. People are needlessly worrying about running out of fresh water. I don’t see it. We can take the dirtiest water and turn it into the greatest water there is. If astronauts can recycle water in outer space for months at a time, we should be able to do the same. The technologies may change but I think we’ll be here for many, many years to come.”
Lakeland Soft Water Conditioning
President/Owner: Wallace E. Fruit Sr.
Staff: 20 employees in four stores
Sales: 6% rise from 2001 to 2000; expects 10% jump in 2002
Quote: “It makes you feel like you really accomplished something in life. The only thing that really scares me is if the government will let the businesses continue to run because the big stores are trying to push the little guys out.”
-- Wallace Fruit, Sr.