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April 2002: Volume 44, Number 4

Carrying on the Blake Name: AquaAir Technologies of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Changes with the Times
by Ronald Y. PĂ©rez, WC&P Managing Editor

With a background in accounting and finance, Marilyn Blake never thought she would have to learn so much about the water treatment industry. Sure, her husband was in the business for 30 years but her interest in that line of work would often be relegated to dinner table conversation. Then one day, several years ago, the whole picture changed for AquaAir Technologies, of Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Marilyn’s husband, Serrhel, became ill in 1994, thus leaving Marilyn -- who was prospering in her own career as owner of a manufacturing business of creams and lotions -- to pick up the pieces of a business that, by her own account, wasn’t “busting at the seams with customers.” Five children and mounting medical bills made the situation even more taxing for Marilyn, 57. She made her mind up that there was only one thing to do.

“I thought to myself, ‘OK, you got this business and you got to keep going or you don’t eat,’” she says.

Nest egg
The Blakes had purchased a business -- that was near defunct due to debt -- while he worked for a water treatment company in Nashville, about 20 miles from Murfreesboro. At the time, the sideline business was building reverse osmosis (RO) systems for dialysis clinics. It was intended to be a nest egg and investment of sorts once the couple decided to retire. When Serrhel and his partners had a disagreement about what direction the business should take, he parted with the water treatment side of the business and Blake Water Treatment Technologies Inc. officially was born in 1992. The name change to AquaAir Technologies last October, says Marilyn, reflects “a more marketable name and an expansion of services from water/air and heating/cooling.”

Marilyn admits, “I knew nothing about water treatment at that point in 1992. So I’ve been on a fast learning curve ever since.” Marilyn agreed to run the office operations side of things while Serrhel concentrated on the technical side. Little did anyone know that Serrhel would become ill two years later, which incapacitated him and forced Marilyn to run the business by herself since 1994. “With five children about to go to college, I had no other choice,” she says.

“In the beginning, I was very enthusiastic and then this (the illness) happened. As I became more involved, I found that the company he worked for didn’t train him enough and had not kept him updated very well. And I recognized that even if he were the world’s best salesman, the technology know-how wasn’t there.

Since I had more time (due to a lack of customers), I knew I could read more about water treatment as well as asking him some questions. It was basic OJT (on-the-job training) and book learning.

Different road
Without Serrhel to lend a hand, Marilyn was forced to drastically cut back the business’ ties with the residential water treatment market in 1996. She found herself working 80-hour weeks and decided to concentrate more on commercial/industrial applications. She now works 40 hours a week but still does RO and water softener installations for friends as well as servicing pre-1996 residential customers. AquaAir installs water softeners and ROs in boilers and different types of industrial plants such as food processing, pharmaceutical, dairy, beverage and car parts suppliers. Twenty-five percent of AquaAir’s customers are on private water.

Alamo provides most of the company’s equipment and Osmonics will occasionally handle custom-design work. EcoWater and Enting are used when residential equipment is necessary.

As owner and president, Marilyn has adjusted well to market trends. She has big plans for the future and is hoping to carve a niche in the local market. “The economy in this field is still good. We just have to change our marketing strategy,” she says. “Over the last two years, I was not able to be out in the field as much, but that will change here in the next six months.”

Emphasis on hiring
She began the transition awhile back by hiring the right kind of people for the particular business. “Instead of hiring people with one or two years of chemistry in college, we want professional chemical engineers. We also hired a consulting firm to help us find the best employees for our company,” she says. Other additions planned include hiring more service technicians, more emphasis on “service only,” and some residential/HVAC work in the future.

There are currently five people on staff including Marilyn -- two chemical engineers, one part-time secretary and one service technician. Sales in 2002 are expected to reach $500,000 and steadily increase from there, she says.

Tracking the water
Some of the difficulty with the area’s water has to do with the terrain around middle Tennessee. Around the Highland Rim -- distinguished by a group of foothills -- the presence of clay is everywhere. In turn, Marilyn explains, there’s not a built-in filtration system. This causes toxicity, which means more filtering. Even the hard water isn’t consistent from one place to another; it changes with the seasons. Other concerns are sulfur and iron. Marilyn will use a water softener and a carbon filter for alkalinity and turbidity.

Marilyn estimates she has about 15-to-20 competitors in her market. Both RainSoft and EcoWater have commercial accounts. She says all of them plan to benefit from higher sewer costs to local customers. Because of state and federal regulations, her customers are paying about 30 percent more for their water. “Plants that once used bag filters are now having to go with RO or other types of filters,” she says. Marilyn has also seen an uptick in water conservation projects at various plants in the past few years.

As a result of the tragedy of Sept. 11, Marilyn has seen the negative and positive effects of such an event. “Since 9/11, plants are closing and that has meant more professionals in the job pool. This makes it easier for us to hire good employees. On the other hand, we have lost a lot of customers.”

She adds, “We’re banking on people coming back to regional companies rather than the national ones. With 9/11 and the economy, people are looking for a reduction in the full-service contract.” For someone with little experience in the industry, Marilyn Blake seems to be making all the right moves and staying one step ahead of the game.

AquaAir Technologies
5650 Johnson Road
Murfreesboro, TN 37127
(615) 867-8670
(615) 893-1162 (fax)

Owner/president: Marilyn Blake

Founded: 1992

Staff: 5

Sales: expected sales for 2002 -- $500,000 with steady increases afterwards

Quote: “When I first started the business, price was my first consideration. I always wanted to be the least expensive. I found out that doesn’t work well. Now, I don’t mind going to a customer and telling them that it will cost them $20,000 to do this right. I’ve learned that’s what the customer really wants to know. My salespeople get tired of hearing my motto, which is, ‘Establish the value and the cost is no object.’”

-- Marilyn Blake