Volume 45 Number 4
In the Know with Innowave’s Christensen
Jenny Christensen brings a wealth of marketing experience to distillation—more than 20 years’ worth.
The marketing director for inno-wave corp., a division of the Mutual of Omaha, in Nebraska, started out with Campbell Soup’s frozen foods division and went on to work for several meat companies before joining her current employer in 1996. The skills and experience she gained apply well to water treatment products, she said.
“No. 1, marketing is marketing,” Christensen said. “In addition, working in the meat industry, which I used to call ‘E. coli Central,’ we came up against a lot of the same microbial problems. The training I had there and how to market around those issues was very applicable. Salmonella, E. coli—all those things in meat can be in water, too.”
It’s not Mutual of Omaha’s only foray into water. The insurance company, as benefactor to the wildlife TV program Wild Kingdom, has always supported environmental causes and also sponsors USA Swimming for the Olympics. Christensen points out: “Mutual’s in water in a big way… There’s a huge link between drinking water and health and, being a leading health insurance provider, it made a lot of sense to keep people healthy rather than try and fix people once they’re sick.”
Why distillation? Well, she says, it’s recognized as one of the purest forms of water treatment technology. Still, the company ran into problems early on with its dealer base because the essence of sales is to be able to offer something new from time to time. So, in 1998, innowave began incorporating other technologies into its systems, which are presented largely in a water cooler format.
Today, it offers coolers with distillation, ultraviolet light, micron filtration, carbon filtration, sediment filtration and/or ion exchange. In addition to providing dealers more variety in customer offerings, this presents a “multi-barrier” approach to water treatment promoted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “We know not one single technology can address all water concerns, so what we do is—for every product—look at multi-stage treatment.”
innowave does not market to residential customers, but has gained a number of them through its reputation as a chief provider of drinking water solutions for office and commercial operations. It’s introduced at least one new product a year—the most recent being the innowave 270H, a window-AC-sized unit with distillation, GAC filtration and UV disinfection. The smallest unit is the innowave LF, which is a countertop UV/filtration system.
The company is a big proponent of product certifications and works closely with NSF International and the Water Quality Association regarding standards related to its technology (particularly distillation) and consumer marketing. For instance, Christensen sits on three WQA committees and a co-worker chairs the Distillation Task Force.
Before getting to the interview itself, here are a few details on 'company name':
Management: Thomas Weekly, President/CEO; Robert Haney, Vice President of Operations; Connie Scarpello, Vice President of Administration; Neal Evelyn, Senior Vice President of Sales; Jenny Christensen, National Marketing Director
Staff: 30, with an independent dealer network of over 100 in 37 states and Canada
Operation: Manufactures and markets POU water cooler systems for office and commercial settings that incorporate distillation, filtration, ultraviolet light and ion exchange. Boasts more than 50,000 business clients, some with multiple locations.
And now, here's the interview:
WC&P: How long have you been in the business and how did you get started, i.e., the water treatment industry?
Christensen: I've been in the water treatment industry for about five and a half years, all of it with innowave. Prior to that, I was, oh, probably about 16 or 17 years working in the food industry, which in a lot of ways is very closely related to the water industry.
WC&P: What did you do in the food industry?
Christensen: I worked for Campbell's Soup, started my marketing career there and worked in their frozen foods division. I've also worked for several meat-based companies and…
WC&P: Such as Hormel?
Christensen: I worked for a deli meat company in Philadelphia called Sandy Max Foods and a ground beef company called Signature Foods here in Omaha that was acquired by ConAgra Foods.
WC&P: What were the similarities between the industries that you ran across?
Christensen: Well, one of the things that I found, No. 1, is marketing is marketing. And I work in a marketing capacity. So, I found that the grassroots training that I got from, you know, a good, classical marketing company like Campbell's Soup really applied well to the industry. And I think that's enabled me to bring a lot of new marketing perspectives to water treatment and innowave kind of packaged them in a unique kind of way. I think we have a more consumer packaged goods approach to marketing than any other company. In addition, working in the meat industry, which I used to call "E. coli Central," we came up against a lot of the same microbial problems. So, the training that I had in the meat industry and how to market around those was very applicable. Salmonella, E. coli—all those things that are in meat are in water too.
WC&P: Tell us a little bit about innowave and what's new there, if you could.
Christensen: Well, innowave started in 1996. We're a fully owned subsidiary of Mutual of Omaha.
WC&P: Say "Hi," to Jim for us… [Jim Fowler, co-host with Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom wildlife TV show which premiered in 1963 and ran into the '70s: see www.wildkingdom.com]
Christensen: Oh, we will. We see Jim all the time. We're bringing Peter Gross from Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom to the show in a couple of weeks.
WC&P: Jim, you may not know, was a graduate of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where I was a reporter for about four years.
Christensen: Oh, no kidding. That's too funny. I've worked with Jim quite a bit. He's a great guy.
WC&P: Now, getting back to the interview…
Christensen: We started out in this business to focus solely on drinking water. And, when Mutual went to get into a new line of business, one of the things they found as the researched many types of businesses is there's a huge link between drinking water and health. And, being a leading health insurance provider, it made a lot of sense to keep people healthy rather than try and fix people once they're sick.
WC&P: True. Still, people wouldn't normally associate a health insurance company with actually selling a product like this.
Christensen: But in a lot of ways it does make a lot of sense. Mutual has a long history of commitment to the environment. Mutual's Wild Kingdom and a lot of the other public relations and marketing things that they do now. They've also got another big link with water because they sponsor USA Swimming for the Olympics.
WC&P: I didn't know that.
Christensen: Yeah, Mutual's in water in a big way.
Christensen: But we started primarily with one product, which was our innowave 240. And, what we saw in the industry was a real good opportunity for a product that really did something serious to water. We did a ton of research. We came across some technology that was distillation based. Then, we combined a term for what we call our IDF process, which combines ionization, distillation and filtration. And (we) really started as a distillation-based drinking water company, because we just found that all of our research showed distilled water was the safest water that people could drink.
WC&P: That's a recognized claim often made out there.
Christensen: It sure is.
WC&P: It's always been one of those things where the cost was a difficult thing to bring down for household use, though, too.
Christensen: And I think we've done a very good job of making distillation competitive and bringing it in the forefront at least in the commercial segment of the drinking water category.
WC&P: What are some of the new things and how has that product line developed?
Christensen: We set out to be just a distillation-based business and all of us at innowave were pretty new to water at the time. We learned pretty quickly, after about the first year and a half to two years, that dealers wanted a full product line. That was probably the hardest decision that we had to make—will we do something other than distillation. And ultimately, we made that decision, but we decided we would always represent tested and certified products, that we would always going after NSF and WQA Gold Seal marks and that we would always have the best products in every category in which we chose to compete.
WC&P: How do you see yourselves positioned, since your product actually is in a cooler format, correct?
Christensen: Yes, it is.
WC&P: So, when you look at your position in the marketplace, who do you compete against?
Christensen: We compete. There are a lot of people in the cooler business. For instance, you look at Oasis and PHSI. I would say (those) are probably the ones that offer products that are most comparable to ours.
WC&P: Is there anything new on the horizon for you?
Christensen: There's always something new on the horizon. We've averaged at least one new product introduction every year.
WC&P: What were the most recent ones?
Christensen: The most recent one was the innowave 270H.
WC&P: How did this differ from the original?
Christensen: The 270H is about the size of a window air conditioner and it can go into a back room or a utility room, a consumer's basement—so, it can be used for home as well as commercial application. And it's got a demand pump in it, so it can pump distilled water to four or five locations in a home or business. In addition to distillation, it's also got ultraviolet light. It kills absolutely everything that might be in the water.
WC&P: It's pulling all the different technologies together then kind of like PHSI, which we've done an interview with as well although some time ago.
Christensen: Pretty much everything that we do integrates what we call hybrid technologies, meaning more than one technology. We know that not one single technology can address all water concerns, so what we do is—for every product—we look at multistage treatment. For instance, the 270H is a combination of distillation, post-carbon filtration as well as ultraviolet light.
WC&P: Is there something coming out this year?
Christensen: That's under wraps, but stop by and see us at the trade show and we'll give you a peek.
WC&P: Bear in mind, this is coming out in April—after the WQA convention—so…
Christensen: I'd be shot if I told you today.
WC&P: OK, tell me a little bit about the growth that you've seen, how many people does innowave employ, etc.
Christensen: We've got about 30 people here corporately, but that's just the tip of the iceberg since we have probably the biggest dealer network in the commercial point-of-use business. It's a national network. And all of our dealers have many innowave people out on the street selling our product, so there might be 30 in corporate—but there's literally hundreds selling innowave products nationwide.
WC&P: When you say the biggest dealer network, how would you quantify that in comparison with Rainsoft, Ecowater, Kinetico and Culligan, which have very large sales networks.
Christensen: They have a different target than we do. We really target commercial or business' drinking water business. We don't do softening. We just focus solely on drinking water and being an alternative to a traditional bottled water cooler in a business, be it an office or manufacturing environment.
WC&P: How is the network set up differently?
Christensen: One of the things we do is we have a lot of people that want to become innowave dealers. But not everybody that wants to become an innowave dealer becomes one because we have criteria that we set for high standards of commitment to service, professionalism and someone we feel is going to represent the heritage of our parent company in an appropriate manner.
WC&P: What about in terms of growth? How has innowave done in the past?
Christensen: We've had double-digit growth, i.e., greater than 10 percent, every year. And, of course, in the early years, it was just gangbusters.
WC&P: What was the highest percentage in any particular year?
Christensen: I can't recall off the top of my head.
WC&P: In the 30s or 40s, I imagine?
WC&P: Is there a dollar figure that Mutual of Omaha puts on this particular segment of its business?
Christensen: It does not because we are closely and privately held. However, I can tell you that there are over 50,000 businesses in the United States that have our product and many of them have multiple locations.
WC&P: But it's not sold residentially.
Christensen: No, we have a few dealers that might do a couple of units here or there or someone who's come across an innowave unit in their workplace and wants one for their home. But we really haven't marketed to that segment at all.
WC&P: It would be just word of mouth business?
WC&P: OK. Tell us an interesting anecdote or story about your experience in water treatment.
Christensen: In this business, there's so many of them. It's hard to pick one. Probably one of the most memorable I had was, early on, we had our products tested by Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona for the USEPA Microbiological Purifier Standard. And I was still relatively new to the business, maybe three or four months, and we flew down to Tucson to meet with Dr. Gerba and he actually showed us where he was doing the testing on the product. He takes us through all these cavernous halls and doors that have skulls and crossbones and biohazard signs on them. Finally, we get into this room where they're testing our products and, unlike a lot of testing of these products with surrogates, these people use live viruses. So, the funniest thing was us all standing in this room, which is somewhat small, and we're all trying very hard not to touch anything. We're thinking, "Geez, we can't come in contact with any surfaces in here." And Dr. Gerba takes us through there and, as we're walking out the door, he says, "Hey, you guys wanna go for some pizza!" It was like, OK… so, we went to his favorite pizza place afterwards, but eating something was probably the last thing on our minds after being in the same room with E. coli and Salmonella and Cryptosporidium and Giardia and all those fun things.
WC&P: You probably, I would assume, got an earful of Chuck's bug jokes…
Christensen: Toilet humor, as we call it.
WC&P: That would be the safest thing to say, wouldn't it?
Christensen: Yes, we've learned a lot from Dr. Gerba.
WC&P: What's a major challenge that you or your company faced and how did you overcome it?
Christensen: I probably talked about that a little bit earlier. That was making the decision to not make distillation our only product line, you know, to expand into other technologies, using filtration, ultraviolet light and other types of multi-staged processes. That was really tough for us. We really thought, and we still believe, that distillation is the best way to treat water—but the market demands variety.
WC&P: The dealers basically wanted more things to offer.
Christensen: Yes, the lifeblood of marketing is new products in any industry. I learned in consumer packaged goods. And you have to keep new products coming and continue to improve the products that you have in order to be successful.
WC&P: When was the first non-distillation-only unit out? You started in 1996. When was the first distillation-plus system released?
Christensen: I believe it was 1998.
WC&P: At the same time, as I recall in the certification and standards development of this technology, there's been a lot of work within the NSF distillation standard—which used to be the purifier standard—to look at instrumentation and monitoring and ways of alerting consumers whether there was any possible carryover of contaminants to the potable water reservoirs…
Christensen: And we've done tons with that. First of all, Tyler Adam, who is one of our engineers here at innowave, he actually sits on the WQA Distillation Committee now and has been heading up the rewriting of NSF Standard 62. We learned very quickly that we had to implement what we call "safeguarding" into our equipment to assure the consumer always gets good quality water. And, if for any reason, the system isn't performing the way it should, it won't dispense. For instance, our distillers have a built-in TDS monitor, which are set at a very, very, very low TDS acceptance level. If for any reason the TDS exceeds that level, the system won't dispense water and won't make anymore water until the problem's been corrected.
WC&P: Which could be anywhere from basic maintenance to replacing a particular part…
Christensen: Yes, it could be replacing a softener. But, anytime the water doesn't meet our standards, we don't want people drinking it.
WC&P: From your perspective, where do you see the industry going?
Christensen: Right now, I'm seeing as the economy starts to struggle a little bit, it's become very competitive. Product mixes. I think everybody that's in the industry is seeing it's getting competitive. There's a lot of pressure from end-consumers toward value, price and products. However, I think that what's going on in the world today will bring us full circle to higher quality products. Hopefully, distillation products will be right on top of the list. I think certification, which is now voluntary, I hope to see someday soon that it becomes mandatory and that, thus, everybody's working on a level playing field.
WC&P: In terms of products?
Christensen: Yes, I think that's certainly the most important thing. We're never going to gain the trust of the consumer if everyone in our industry isn't coming from the same place with a common voice and a common message.
WC&P: You kind of play a role partially in that in that you serve on committees in the WQA, yes?
Christensen: We have a newly formed task force called the Consumer Data Task Force, which will be hopefully bringing a lot of great new things to our members. We're looking at, for the first time, bringing some primary data that will be useful to our members to the forefront so that we can all become better at what we do in terms of marketing and product development.
WC&P: Define "primary data."
Christensen: Primary data is actually going to the end-consumers and asking the questions that we want to know the answers to. There are a lot of companies out there like Frost & Sullivan that do studies on water. But they don't ask the questions in the same way that perhaps the point-of-use industry would ask them.
WC&P: They tend to do "big" water surveys?
Christensen: They tend to look at big water. And we will really look at what are the right ways to communicate with our customers, who are our customers, how do we segment them, who are the best prospects for us—and how do we craft the right marketing message for them without sending them into a fetal position. You know, that's one of the things we laugh about every time we get together. You start talking about water and, anytime you mention contaminants, people just kind of curl up and roll over and shut down on you. We want to be sure that we know how to communicate them in a way that educates them and doesn't necessarily scare them.
WC&P: What's the status on that anyway?
Christensen: We have a committee meeting coming up at WQA and we're working diligently among the committee to get the final proposals crafted and hopefully start on the project itself sometime later this year.
WC&P: Our last questions is what's the one hot-button issue facing water treatment dealers or the industry that will have the most impact in the next few years. That ties a little into a previous question, but leaves a little room for new ideas.
Christensen: Well, we've got the economy driving the category right now. Unfortunately, right now, we're facing the threat of war. That bad word called bioterrorism I think will come to the forefront and create opportunities for better products that address microbial and chemical contaminants. I think it will create some opportunities for our industry for the military, for small systems and for those consumers that just want that extra shot of protection just before they consume the water.
WC&P: As we found out earlier this week with the Dateline NBC program, that can also run us into some problems.
Christensen: I happened to see that and I was disappointed because I know a lot of people in this industry and unfortunately they didn't represent I think a fair viewpoint about how most people in this industry really operate.
WC&P: Yes, I think the people that were highlighted, other than the Culligan dealer…
Christensen: He did a great job.
WC&P: Right, he presented it exactly how it should be done and told the woman she didn't need anything.
Christensen: But I think what needs to happen to prevent those types of things is consumers need to be more educated. And, as consumers become more educated by us and not selectively by the media—because the media only takes what makes the story, we as an industry need to have our own education process in place to be sure people really know what the real issues are and what these systems can and can't do so they can make informed choices.
WC&P: I found the broadcast kind of interesting for a couple reasons. Comparing it with a similar incident that occurred about three or five years ago with a manufacturer out of Phoenix and a dealer in Idaho that was selling their products, this report was actually much more balanced and at least followed up with the water companies and made an attempt to give them a fair hearing. Only that way did you find out that Kinetico had actually cut off this particular salesman that was in the program earlier because of the sales technics employed and consumer complaints it had received. So, in a sense, it illustrates the onus is on the manufacturers to police the people that are selling their products.
Christensen: And that's critical. We have product training programs. We have full day orientations. At our dealerships, we have a program that we call PEP, which is purity insures profits that's a product-based training program that we put every sales rep through. They have to test out of it and then they get a little graduation certificate. We make sure that our people on the street representing our products are educated themselves, because if they're not educated, then how can the consumer be educated.
WC&P: Right. Now, do you have a closing statement you'd like to make?
Christensen: I can say that I'm very excited to be in this industry today. As I've gotten more involved—I'm actually on three WQA committees right now, the Public Relations Committee, Membership Recruitment Committee as well as the Consumer Data Task Force—and I think that we all have to stay involved. I get frustrated sometimes when people might complain about something but they don't get involved in implementing change. I would encourage our people in our industry to work together on the education process and just to always do what's right. If we always do the right thing, I think we'll be successful.