Coming Full Circle with the Big Three:
EcoWater Systems of Venice, Fla.
By Steven Delgado
WC&P Senior Editor

Blowing a knee during a family holiday football game was one of the best career moves Ken Gibson ever made. The painful injury effectively dissolved a sales job offer from an unforgiving appliance superstore and opened a door of opportunity with a patient EcoWater dealership willing to wait for Gibson. So, in 1990, the dealership trained him on the fine art of the home soft water demonstration.

Gibson now owns EcoWater Systems of Venice, a southwestern Florida dealership along the Gulf of Mexico side of the state south of Tampa, that has sold just over a million dollars in equipment since its 1998 opening. EcoWater knew it had a good recruit in 1990, but it wouldn't be until 1998 that Gibson would earn his dealership.

That's because Gibson was trained by EcoWater, recruited away by Culligan, recruited from Culligan by Kinetico, and was re-recruited back to EcoWater to start this dealership in Venice. Got all that? No? That's good, because Gibson's career schematic with these "Big Three" water system companies isn't only an engaging trek but also a lesson in hard work and perseverance.

Insurance academy alum
In 1990, Gibson had just finished curriculum at an insurance academy to be an agent-but really wasn't feeling the commitment he thought he would need to become a successful agent. So he interviewed for two jobs: a sales position at a local appliance superstore and a position at an EcoWater dealership. When the appliance center that offered him a job found out that he couldn't walk because of his holiday injury, its enthusiasm waned.

Not so at EcoWater. Gibson wound up with the secondary job offer at EcoWater in Venice-not the same dealership he owns now but a previous dealer for the region. "I learned the home demonstration-the problems/benefits/solutions-type demo, where you teach people about water, how they can have better water and how it can pay for itself," Gibson said. "I had instant success; I went from $300 a week to all of a sudden making seven, eight sometimes nine hundred dollars a week. That was a lot of money for me at the time."

He worked for that dealership for a little over a year when its manager had a falling out with the owner. Gibson left the company with the manager to open a new dealership. "Unfortunately, it didn't last because he didn't have enough capital and I don't think he was real prepared at the time," he said. "I went with him based on emotion."

Gibson was the sales manager for that business and since his numbers were still pretty strong, he was never in doubt of his ability to sell. Neither was Culligan, which recruited him in 1993.

'Hey, Culligan man!'
At Culligan, Gibson was offered his own store in Port Charlotte, Fla., still in the southwest but a few more miles down the popular Tamiami Trail, the U.S. 41 highway that runs from Tampa all the way to Miami through the Everglades.

The Culligan dealership was, however, a satellite office that did no installations or out-of-office service. It was a storefront with one assistant and one telemarketer. Gibson was given all of Charlotte County as his territory, and he made the best of it. "They weren't having a lot of success through telemarketing or advertising in that market," he said. Eventually, the numbers turned around. "We took that store, which was averaging $11,000 or $12,000 a month at the time, and we consistently did $50,000 a month. We went from $120,000 a year to about $600,000 a year at that location."

Gibson worked at that dealership for almost four years. He was working directly for Bruce King, the general manager of a regional Culligan business with headquarters in Venice. King was then let go from the dealership and eventually became the area Kinetico dealer. When King left, Gibson elected to stay with Culligan. But he knew he had been successful with King before and left open the possibility he might have an opportunity to work with him again someday.

Opening another door
Gibson stayed with Culligan for another year and a half with much success at the Port Charlotte satellite office. Then King called him with an offer to be general manager of King's Kinetico dealership in Sarasota County, just north of Point Charlotte. That was in 1996.

"At that point we were a small company, doing about $300,000 a year in business," Gibson said. "I went there and I loved the product. I loved the company. I had good success in recruiting people and building that company up.

"The first year we went from $200,000 or $300,000 to about $700,000. Also that year, we came in second place for Kinetico's biggest increase at a dealership in the nation. The following year we went from $700,000 to $1.5 million. That year we received the Voyager Award from Kinetico for the biggest increase in business for the nation."

Gibson was the general manager in Sarasota County but was also selling, earning an award for being one of the top 10 salespeople. It was then that King and Gibson became partners to own a dealership in Lakeland, Fla., further north and a little inland on the peninsula. Gibson was now realizing his dream: to work his way from sales to having his own store.

Joining the EcoWater Squad
The two ran the Lakeland dealership for about a year when EcoWater approached Gibson and said it was looking for better representation of its products in the Venice area. This was a tough decision, because he and King had now been successful in both Sarasota and Lakeland.

But Gibson took the chance and in September 1998 opened the doors to his own EcoWater dealership, a stand alone building that can be seen from U.S. 41. The road it's on leads to a popular area neighborhood, which results in walk-in and repeat business.

"We've had a quick startup and have been able to develop a huge customer base relatively quickly because of marketing, advertising and location," Gibson said. "We're in an 'aware' market here... people know they have bad water. So the location we picked is in a high traffic area, combined with a well water population. Plus we get a lot of walk-in customers, which is a little unusual for this business. Most of the time, location doesn't matter, but with this dealership we've achieved a lot of business from the location."

An aggressive advertising campaign is another of the dealership's strong points. EcoWater of Venice has taken full-page insert ads in the Sarasota Herald Tribune's TV guide since the water business opened, and is conducting a television campaign on "Sarasota News Now," a local cable version of CNN. The commercials offer water tests in a public-awareness format.

Besides print and television, EcoWater Venice does direct mailings as well as markets new homes and construction. "We're aggressive in obtaining customers," he says. "It's been helpful for this company to get some name recognition in this market."

And a crowded market it is.

The Big Three and more
"This is a competitive market, I can tell you that much," Gibson says. "We have Culligan, RainSoft, Kinetico; we have Water Dynamics, Ionics and probably about 20 Fleck and Autotrol dealers or people who are representing Fleck and Autotrol.

"In the Yellow Pages of Sarasota County alone, you'll find close to 30-to-40 water company listings. The population for this and Port Charlotte counties is somewhere around 350,000 people. You have a lot of companies working the market, but not with the same success... many have come and gone. They either weren't prepared or didn't have enough financial backing to make something fly. But the Culligans, RainSofts and the Kineticos, those guys have been around for awhile and everyone seems to be working the market well," Gibson said.

Gibson's territory, just south of Sarasota, is what could be called "a growth area." The weekly new homeowners list obtained by the dealership usually has at least 150 new names on it per week, translating to about 600-to-800 people a month in the area either getting new mortgages or building new houses.

Seven employees work in the dealership: one office manager, two service people, a route driver and two sales people. It also uses one part time telemarketer. Gibson reiterates his owner/operator position: "I do books, payroll, advertising and marketing. And I go out and sell.

"I try to run 10 leads a week myself. If I have to put on my service shirt and do an install, I'll do that. I'll do whatever it takes in order to be successful. I don't mind getti

ng my fingernails dirty. Knowing every aspect of the job helps you be the best dealer that you can be."

Gibson attributes his dealership's success to consistency in the marketplace with a little personal resilience. "Every day, you talk to 10-to-30 people. During this day, you have things that make you smile and you have things that make you frown. The biggest thing is to balance it all out." Gibson's final advice to dealers? "Try to keep the thought that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You're trying to be successful and build a future for yourself. And the water industry is a great industry to help people, be successful and set yourself up for a good financial future."

EcoWater Systems of Venice
22 S. Venice Blvd. • Venice, FL 34293
(941) 493-2224
(941) 492-3500 (fax)

Owners: Ken Gibson
Founded: September 1998
Advertising budget: $70,000 (1999)
Annual gross revenue:
$700,000 (1999)
Equipment: Authorized EcoWater dealer
Quotables: “Every step you take you learn something. If I was approached about my own dealership in 1996, before I worked for King (at Kinetico), I probably wouldn't have been prepared. I learned a lot from him, and we learned together azs friends and partners.”