Diane and Curtis Abendroth in Pasadena
to watch the Badgers win the Rose Bowl.
Life is Good When You've Got a Good Name
By Carlos David Mogollón
WC&P Executive Editor
In December 1963, Curt Abendroth-at age 25-got a job offer he "couldn't refuse."
That's because it came from his father, Renville "Pat" Abendroth, who started Abendroth Water Conditioning 10 years earlier in Fort Atkinson, Wis.halfway between Madison and Milwaukee in Jefferson County.
"My father got wind of it and said: 'Instead of taking a big fat increase in pay, why not take a cut and come back home?'" Abendroth said. "At that point, I'd been out in the industry and had retail and manufacturing experience. I'd been where the grass is greener, but it can be a bit tougher to chew. So, in January of 1964-I always remember because that's the year I got married-I came home." His wife, Diane, was the daughter of his secretary in Chicago. They got married the following June.
When Curt took over the business almost four years later, it wasn't because his dad was retiring. Rather, it was because they'd built a car wash and the elder Abendroth had gravitated toward that end of the business.
"It was supposed to be self service and didn't require any attention, but we found that was not the case and so he went to that and I took over the water area," Abendroth said.
Evolution of softening
"He had farm work ethics," Curt said. "There's 24 hours in a day and you worked through most of them if necessary. If a customer had a problem at midnight, you went out and helped them at midnight, not in a couple days."
When his father first started selling water conditioners in 1950, he was only doing it part time. His full-time job was as a sales representative for the Johnston Company in Milwaukee, selling cookies and candy.
"A lot of the people he talked to said, 'Hey, if you rented, we'd be interested but we can't afford to buy this.' At the time, you see, Culligan was doing all rentals with exchange tanks. He didn't want to be in the exchange tank business because he felt it was just too labor intensive."
About then was when Lindsay, predecessor to EcoWater, came out with an automatic rental that regenerated onsite, i.e., it was a manual unit that you put the salt in on the premise to regenerate, set the timer and let it go. After that, the fully automatic units came out with brine tanks for easier regeneration.
"From that point on, it was strictly the evolution of softeners-automatic with time clock and then demand automaticwhich was the term used in the industry because all the other good terms had been used up. Next, you had your twin alternating units," said Curt.
Independent and proud of it
"A truck was more reliable about when it was going to get there, and far more cost effective. It took three semis to carry one railcar load, for example, but the cost to unload it was a lot lower because it took a half hour for a semi and 8-to-10 for a railcar."
The business started out as a Lindsay franchise, became an authorized dealeran independent using a specific productand then a fully independent dealer.
"As time wore on, we learned there's a lot more in the marketplace than just what a particular brand name may offer," Curt said. "Being an independent dealer, you've got the opportunity to shop the market for better value, better quality products, newer ideas and better engineering. This isn't just to help yourself. You're in the rental business. You want something that'll last a long time, operate effectively and be relatively trouble free. That makes for happy customers you sell to as well. And that makes business profitable."
For 38 years, Abendroth's
sold Lindsay/EcoWater products. Twenty-seven years ago, it began selling
another line from Hellenbrand. Today, it buys parts from EcoWater, but
sells primarily Hellenbrand and Clack products: "They're both close
to us and family businesses that have given us excellent service."
These include Clack's reverse osmosis units, Ametek filters
and softeners with Fleck valves and a "brine-fill-
"We're residential, commercial and industrial," Curt said. "We have six trucks on the road for service, installation and salt delivery, not to mention bottled water and coolers. We stay within about 15 miles from our office. We're not interested in going all the way across the country or state for that matterjust within the boundaries of the county. We deliver salt to several thousand homes."
Trucks all have radios, allowing instant communication when a customer needs help. The motto is same-day service.
Advertising is primarily via personal reference: "The only advertising we do is on our trucks, yellow pages, a little radio and newspaper. Our main thing is satisfied customers and word of mouth. It's called using the user. They advertise for us."
When a customer comes in, Abendroth gives them 5-to-10 names of neighbors the dealership services and let's them sell the product for it: "We're dealing with fourth generation customers and if it's good enough for Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, then it's good enough for them and the kids. It's a combination that's hard to beat."
That's helped the Abendroth's survive the competition, of which there's been plenty in nearly 50 years. There are five Culligan dealerships and six independent dealerships in the area. But Curt calls it friendly competition that's kept everyone on their toes and working together amicably.
Where growth is expected in the next few years is in commercial/industrial jobs, which is being spearheaded by his son-in-law and vice president, Vince Kent: "It'll probably be the biggest year we've had and again, it's all by reputation. We've got a rash of quotes out and it looks like we're going to be favored on most of them," he says.
Jobs in this category the dealership has done include brewpubs, food processing, mobile home parks and an operation that breeds frogs50,000-60,000for high school biology labs to teach anatomy.
If he has any issues, he says they're moreso related to what he calls "razor blade" business practices, an analogy on selling razors to keep customers buying blades. Bigger initial profit comes from selling the blades as opposed to the razor. But if inline filters, for instance, are being sold to an assembler who sells them to a distributor then to him, his profit margin has been cut each time someone touches it. On the other hand, the manufacturer may sell the same inline filter directly to a mass retailer with a bulk discount, making his prices less competitive.
"Service is still an aspect of it, but there's a fine line on how much you can charge before you drive the customer away," Curt said. "But I'll be damned if I let the Big Boxes have that."
He also is concerned that more dealers aren't participating in the Water Quality Association. A former Wisconsin WQA president and WQA Board member, he and his wife haven't missed a convention in years. Abendroth is still active in the Retail Dealer Section and Ethics Committee.
"In fact, I was part of the board chapter that voted on the merger to form WQA and on the board of directors under Roy Russell II when he was president of its predecessor, the WCAI, and when his son Roy Russell III was WQA president. I think that's a distinction not too many people have today."
His wife, Diane, has been
integral to the business for 26 years. Daughter, Linda (Vince's wife),
joined a year ago.
"In fact, one of our
employees had the audacity to retire last year after being with us for
19 years," he said. "The youngest gal in the office has been
with us for over two years and replaced one that was here 19. We include
them all as part of the family. They're wonderful people."