Volume 44 Number 9
Where Hard Water Equals a Jolly Good Ol' Time: Harvey Softeners Ltd., of Surrey, United Kingdom
Some photographs that illustrate this article are visible in the print or .pdf file version of the article only. For the link to the .pdf file, go to the end of the page. The .pdf here is corrected from the print version of the article in which two photo captions were erroneously interposed.
Life is funny. Behind every successful business venture is an anecdote worth cherishing like a family heirloom.
When Harvey Bowden and his wife were first married, she spent her first month's salary as a buyer for a refrigeration company on something she couldn't live without -- a water softener. After moving to Surrey from southern England, she missed the taste of soft water. Since Harvey was a self-employed plumber, she knew he could easily install it. His reaction?
The Bowden household water softener was made by Permutit. At the time, the company was seeking to hire installers for its softeners. (Back then, Permutit would sell the softener to the customer and then recommend a professional, often a plumber, to install the unit.) Bowden says, “Because they knew I had one, they started to ask me to install them.”
Going all the way
In 1978, Bowden ran into a snag with his bread-and-butter product. Permutit softeners were too tall to fit under the household sink. He brainstormed for a solution to his problem. Flummoxed, he turned to an associate.
Introduction to WQA
As he walked the floor, Bowden ran into Bill Clack, of Clack Co. The latter took one look at Bowden’s twin-cylinder softener design and asked incredulously, “Why do you want to re-invent the wheel?” Clack added that Kinetico Inc. had already made an undersink softener. The following year, Bowden approached Kinetico and asked, “Could you modify your design?” Talks progressed from there and Bowden subsequently designed a smaller version of the company’s water softener -- while incorporating its valve -- which was launched in England on Sept. 1, 1981. It was called the Mini-Kinetic.
And so began a very fruitful relationship between Bowden and Kinetico. By 1983, the new softener had overtaken Permutit’s model. Two years later, Permutit was out of business. In 1987, Bowden says, “I made so much money, I semi-retired and raised my three sons.” He concedes that a large softener rental base afforded such a luxury. As he temporarily departed the industry, Harvey Softeners sold off a lot of products -- including some commercial/industrial accounts -- and retained only Kinetico products. As a result, the business changed its name to Kinetico Ltd.
Working behind the scenes
Then, in May 2001, Bowden did something that would ultimately change the course of his business -- one way or the other. He broke away from Kinetico and became an independent dealer. Last year, he expanded his current office as a means to make way for a new production facility. Room was needed as Bowden’s new TwinTec softener induced the rental of the building next door. He went public with it on May 11, 2001.
“After the block salt softener and no longer able to improve on the valve design, we went back to a clean sheet of paper, and completely re-designed a water softener from the ground up,” he explains.
On his own
Things are looking up, however. According to Bowden, 80 percent of his lost business has been recouped. His prediction for this year is to return to 2001 figures, when he enjoyed a 20 percent increase of revenues from the prior year.
Land of softeners
He continues, “In England, there’s just one pipe and a little hardness. There’s no iron, sulfur, rotten egg smell, nothing.” What he means by “one pipe” is that England has no small community water suppliers per se, and only about seven water utilities exist and all are connected to the same pipeline. About two percent of English residents are dependent on well water. Most of the country’s hard water is located in the southeast while other regions such as Scotland and Wales have softer water. Furthermore, Bowden estimates, 98 percent of Surrey’s 380,000 households don’t have a softener.
Logistics and leaflets have been keys to Bowden’s sustainability. First, Surrey is located just 30 miles southwest of London. He says, “I can reach over 30 million people within two hours from my car.” And that equals a third of the English market. Second, Bowden says he owes a great deal to the idea of leaflets, or flyers, especially as he was getting started in the business.
‘Tale of two terrors’
He still uses leaflets as his mainstay avenue of promotion. In a brief moment of levity, he says, “I owe my life to scale and scum.”
Harvey Softeners Ltd.
Owner: Harvey Bowden
Founded: Jan. 1, 1978
Staff: 68 (including 20 in production and administration, 10 in main office, 15 in sales office, and 5 to 6 on the road)
Sales: 20 percent increase in 2001 over 2000; 2002 prediction -- return to 2001 figures
Quotable: “The HPC conference (in Geneva) put British Water, Aqua Europa and WQA in front of the regulators and said, ‘Look, guys, we are not a bunch of cowboys. We are a mainstream business. The World Health Organization has taken note of what the conference concluded. We are here to stay.’ We can make the industry in England and Europe as good as you've got it in America.”
-- Harvey Bowden
Click here to view additional information: dealer.pdf