Industry Icon takes on roles as a conduit between tech & education, water quality & groundwater
Always drawn to water, Richard Mest, now president of Master Water Conditioning Corp. and the Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF), wanted to be an oceanographer when he was a kid.
“I guess it was the old Jacques Cousteau,” Mest said of what inspired that initial dream, “and seeing what he did and seeing how the ocean and the waters and everything within it are so vital to who we all are. I always loved science. I always loved physics, chemistry, all of that stuff, and also always loved communications. I just thought there must be a way to do all that because when you look at [Cousteau], I mean what a communicator of ideas he was. So that was sort of what got my interest. I was a Jacques Cousteau person.”
Mest said his socio-economic background at the time was not able to provide the opportunity to become an oceanographer, so he continued on to get a degree in communications from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1978. He joked that peers often thought he was a science major because of how seamlessly he seemed to blend the two passions. Mest’s ability to serve as a conduit between the right and left brain — such as science and communication, technology and education, and later even groundwater and water quality — has been a vital skill throughout his professional career, bridging connections.
“But communications, if you can communicate and learn how to network with people and dig for the truth — it really matters,” Mest said of the value of communications and his choice to pursue an education in it.
A 44-Year Water Journey
Mest’s father-in-law, Maurice E. Kurtz, started Master Water Conditioning Corp. in 1967 (acquired by A.O. Smith in 2021). When Mest was completing his degree, his father-in-law asked him to help out at the family business and his involvement continued to increase over time from there.
“My father-in-law, who started Master Water Conditioning, asked me to work some odd jobs for him, and when I got involved with it, I realized that maybe this could be an opportunity for me, maybe not to be an oceanographer, but to really engage in science and water and maybe make a positive change,” Mest said. “So that’s sort of how I got into it.”
Coming into a small family business can have its challenges, Mest said, so before he joined the company full-time, Mest and his father-in-law worked through a plan together, which led Mest to eventually become president and one of the owners of the company.
In the early days, however, he started out working odd jobs at Master Water Conditioning and increased his presence through time. One of the things that he did back in the beginning was a lot of media loading, as back then when he was an athlete he could lift incredible amounts of weight, Mest said. So he really started “just doing backbreaking work.”
He also started out with Master Water Conditioning with building equipment to really learn through experience. From production, he then got involved with the facility and eventually expanded into sales. When he got into sales he “realized that there was a lack of education at the dealer level,” he said, regarding transparency from manufacturers, so increasing education and communication became an important drive for him. From sales, he went from vice president and then president of Master Water Conditioning.
Combining his hard work ethic and knack for problem solving has always been a hallmark of his professional values. So much so, in fact, that one notable instance still stands out in Mest’s mind years later.
“I’ll never forget one of the managers in production said ‘Richard, you work too fast. You have to slow down. You’re going to make us look bad, and they’ll expect us to do more,’” Mest said.
He also recalled a similar instance occurred one summer when he was not working for his father-in-law but instead at a foundry, where he faced antagonism due simply to his hard work ethic.
Work Ethic & Mentorship
That hard work ethic, which Mest still carries with him today, started young. Growing up, he recalled instances when the family’s electricity or water was turned off. His father had five jobs, so Mest and his older brother would help work in the evenings by cleaning and dusting offices. Mest was 5 at the time, while his older brother was 7. He remembered running a floor buffing machine at 10-years-old, while his first social security was taken out when he was 11, he said.
“I grew up on the other side of the tracks, and people believed in me through my life and I’ve never forgotten that,” Mest said. “That’s why I’m so dedicated to making a difference, because people saw something in me, and I’m only here because of that. So I’m going to work as hard as I can to give back.”
Many of those challenges that Mest overcame in his youth went on to impact his professional journey in more ways beyond instilling a strong work ethic. Because of that background, Mest knows that often incredible people can be “cloaked by circumstances out of their control,” he said, which leads him to seek those people out. Both receiving mentorship and being a mentor in turn have been important pillars throughout his career.
In terms of mentorship received, Mest said that he has had customers and mentors that have taught him that showing up on time and doing things that others think are impossible really matters but also that there is always a balance — especially when raising a family. Another notable mentor was his father-in-law, who believed in fairness, integrity and building relationships that are life-lasting in business. Finally, everyone involved in one of Mest’s earliest involvements with industry volunteering on the NSF 44 task force, including Doc Nolan, Mike Gottlieb, Nancy Culotta, Tom Bruursema, Dr. Albert Pruess, Joe Cotruvo, Keith Brown and others, taught him that “there is a way to collaborate and be fair for everyone and check your head at the door.” That initial experience and the mentorship it offered ultimately helped lead Mest into more active engagement with industry volunteering and trade associations, as well.
Mest, who is an active member and volunteer with the Water Quality Association (WQA), Water Systems Council and National Groundwater Association (NGWA), said he drifted into his engagement with associations and then it just kept growing. From his work at Master Water Conditioning with his groundwater distributors, he saw a need for end-use water quality specialists and groundwater experts to collaborate together, which led him to the Water Systems Council and NGWA, as well.
“I got involved with technical committees, and when I was on technical committees, I realized that there was a disconnect in communication to the education piece, so I volunteered to join the education committee to be that conduit between tech and education. And my passion really was education and still is,” Mest said.
A few of Mest’s many esteemed honors and accomplishments through his industry engagement include that he has served as both the president of the WQA and the Water Systems Council; served on the WQA board of directors and governors; received numerous WQA awards (WQA Key Award, WQA Award of Merit, WQA Lifetime Member, EWQA Hall of Fame); is currently serving as the president of the Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF) and on the board of directors for the Water Systems Council; and much more.
When asked about his greatest professional accomplishments, Mest humbly brushed aside the question and said simply that he set out to make a difference and hoped he accomplished that. Some of his peers, however, who stood beside him during years of innovation and change, offered a lengthy list of accomplishments to share on his behalf.
Samuel Karge, president, North America Water Treatment for A.O. Smith, first met Mest in the early 2000s when Mest visited his office to see a new product developed at Autotrol.
“I remember him walking into our office and his 9-mile-wide smile was the first thing I noticed,” Karge said. “As a manufacturer, most of the time when customers visit they bring a list of problems … Richard came in truly to share his expertise and help us create a great product at the time.”
Mest and Karge continued to work together over the years, currently as Master Water Conditioning was recently acquired by A.O. Smith, but also in various capacities through industry advocacy serving on the WQA board of governors and board of directors. Karge cited the three key areas they really connected on there (excluding great wine) as building a strategy that survived a number of years, developing a true government relations function at WQA and building out professional development opportunities.
“Over the years, I’ve seen him evolve as he has met additional people,” Karge said of how he has seen Mest grow professionally over the years. “Richard has a keen ability to maintain his high energy, focus and optimism, and then pair very well with others who have complementary skill sets to get things done.” One such person Karge pointed to here was WQA Executive Director Pauli Undesser.
Undesser first met Mest when she started at WQA 15 years ago. Then working under the WQA Gold Seal Product Certification Program, she worked with Mest on product certifications for Master Water Conditioning. Over the years, they have worked closely together as Undesser rose to the role of executive director and collaborated with Mest when he served as WQA president, as well as in his current role as WQRF president. She also recalled time spent together on Capitol Hill during Legislative Days and WQA’s DC Fly-In when she served as the WQA technical director, and sharing a passion there for Final Barrier messaging and education.
“Richard truly exemplifies generosity of time, energy and sharing for the benefit of all. Over the years, Richard’s capacity for generosity, time and energy has grown more and more limitless,” Undesser said. “Many great successes have come from Richard sharing his gifts with the industry at large, and yet, he will be the first to say that he received more than he gave.”
Mest has also been active in supporting groundwater and well water organizations, leading him to work closely with Margaret Martens, executive director for the Water Systems Council. Martens said she first met Mest in 2010 when she was first hired by the Water Systems Council. At the time, she worked closely with Mest coordinating an annual Children’s Water Festival. She remembers that he would do “whatever it takes” to make that festival successful, including mixing his own bubble solution for an educational activity with the kids.
Martens said that from the very beginning, Mest was not only someone that she enjoyed working with, but someone that she learned from. As she moved into the executive director leadership position at Water Systems Council, Mest was always encouraging her, she said. Notably, his ability to bridge connections has been an asset to the organization.
“He really is all about collaboration,” Martens said. “He sees how all the players can work together for the betterment of the water world. He’s been responsible for bringing these organizations together.”
Martens said that Mest was responsible for leading the charge on an MOU between the Water Systems Council and NGWA. He also introduced Martens and Undesser, Martens said, and encouraged collaboration across the water sector.
“The other thing that Richard is really wonderful with is federal advocacy. If you want somebody to go up on the Hill with you, it’s Richard Mest,” Martens said. “He’s really good at speaking with congressional members of Congress and helping them understand how the water well and water quality industries work — and their importance.”
Despite it all, just as Undesser predicted, Mest said he receives more than he gives.
“Selfishly, it’s made me who I am,” Mest said on the value of industry involvement to him. “I would never be where I’m at without that.”
To sum it all up, Mest’s top key values are simple and clear: “Be honest and be respectful. That’s it.”
“I’m so blessed. I’ve had an incredible career opportunity to expand my knowledge more than I could have ever comprehended and a lot of that has been by giving back. People say ‘how do you make the time to dedicate to organizations’ and stuff like that, but I feel bad because I get so much more out of it,” Mest said on what he enjoys about his work and industry engagement. “What I know, you just can’t buy. I know what I know because of others that respected me because I rolled up my sleeves and went shoulder-to-shoulder with them to get things done. And that’s what I encourage anyone in the industry is to understand how the return on your investment is you.”
It is difficult to say what the future holds, but he hopes that as a goal in five years he can “continue to be a positive influence for good and continue to help shift the paradigm to elevate the industry to be accepted as a true tool to bring safe water to anyone around the world,” he said. And then in terms of personally, we will see what the next few years bring, but it is likely Mest will continue volunteering and giving back as much as he can.