Volume 43 Number 2
Nomads of the Water World: The Thrill of it All from the First State -- Hibbs & Sons Water Treatment of Bridgeville, Del.
Hibbs & Sons Water Treatment
6623 Seashore Highway
Bridgeville, DE 19933
tel/fax: (302) 337-9228
Owner/CEO: Bruce Hibbs
Revenues: Projected 2001 -- 75-80 percent over 2000
Quotable: "You have Company A saying one thing and Company B saying something else. It gets to the point where a customer says, 'Who do I believe?' I go out there and say, 'Look, I don't fly any flag. I fly my own flag on my knowledge of how to treat water."
-- Bruce Hibbs
The days of being a salesman -- "by accident" -- of water equipment for a Wisconsin company seems like light years ago for Bruce Hibbs. It was actually 1988. He was made vice president of sales within a short time and moving 100 units a month was the norm. Four years later, he decided to buy the company outright. With locations in Wisconsin, Dallas and Oklahoma, he sold it off to an associate when the challenge waned.
It seemed meeting number goals was never enough. Sapped at being his own boss for so long, he decided to work at Wisconsin-based Aquafinance, a lending house that specialized in helping the water industry with financing. Eventually, he found himself heading up Aquafinance's operation in Puerto Rico. Things were looking up -- so well, in fact, that he decided to have a home built back in Wausau, Wisc.
What was I thinkin'
Once in the Sunshine State, he landed a job with the third-largest Culligan owner in the country at the time. Within three months of his arrival, Hibbs started working his magic. Within three months, revenues jumped from $60,000 to $140,000 a month. Business differences ensued and Hibbs left. He then worked for Kinetico for 10 months, and got fed up. After some consulting work, his contact at Aquafinance wanted Hibbs to straighten out the organizational dysfunction at his Texas operation. He promised Hibbs it would take only a few months.
After situating things in Texas, Hibbs moved back to Delaware, where his parents grew up. Accustomed to approaching the water industry from all sorts of angles, he wanted to do something fresh and new. In September 2000, he settled on a plan: "I just did it different. Instead of being full retail -- because I had done that for years -- I decided on more of a wholesale standpoint. Basically, what I wanted to do was open an Internet site with free water testing." Hibbs' idea was to have people send him water samples and he would return a recommendation based on his findings.
Alas, the site never materialized, and Hibbs moved on Plan B. He would collect samples, and then either direct each person to someone in their local area or custom build a system to meet their specifications. To make it worth their while, he offered systems at 50 percent of what other big-name manufacturers would charge. He claims the average markup on any given unit in the industry is 4.3 times the cost.
New kid on the block
"In the water business, you can be as little or as big as you want. Bigger is not always better," he says.
So where does Hibbs get his equipment? He uses an outfit based in Ontario, Calif., for his reverse osmosis (RO) systems, a company in Iowa for chlorination needs and Bill Kavey Water in Palmetto, Fla., for nearly everything else. Delaware is known for its high acid and nitrate levels. In fact, Hibbs says Sussex County has the most concentration of nitrate in the country.
Hibbs says his business' motto is, "We don't sell soap, we sell water purification." Describing the local water as "almost soft," he uses everything from chlorination to softening resin in treating the problems. With a majority of the water at pH 5.5 or below, he resorts often to an acid neutralizer or RO.
Rentals, often the stabilizing force behind a water treatment business, are relegated to RO units at the company. Hibbs says rentals account for only 3 percent of the business. He says it should be closer to 35 percent, but he has been offering the units interest free for the first year so the Hibbs name can gain greater public exposure.
Many factors contribute to the state' problems, and Hibbs can rattle them off one by one. Along with nitrate and acidic iron, there's also the matter of bacterialized iron, which calls for a chlorination process. A lesser-known fact is the entire state averages 50-to-707 pounds of chicken manure per acre. "With the water levels about eight feet away from the surface, people are scared. They would rather have some type of treatment than none at all," he says. Throw in a great deal of sandy soil and low acidic water, and "reports have hundreds of thousands of fish start dying," he says.
Water in different states can pose different problems, but so can the business environments of each state. Hibbs has found this out during his travels. In Wisconsin and Florida, it was a dog-eat-dog situation.
Going home again
Some may think that smooth entry into the water treatment business was all but handed to Hibbs from his father. That was not the case. After serving in the military for eight years -- including a tour of duty in Vietnam -- the younger Hibbs went to work for an oil company in Pennsylvania. A rift transpired and Hibbs went back to college and earned a marketing degree. Slowly, he worked his way up to where he is today.
Dreams come true
Visions of teen stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera dance in Hibbs' head. More likely than not, if Day Dream's career takes off, Hibbs will spend less time at the office and more time traveling with his daughters. Otherwise, he will likely expand the water business. Plans are already set to open an office in Bradenton, Fla., where he is also having a home built.
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