This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue as "Building Connections"
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When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Erik Bernal got a wakeup call. The storm and its effects brought the topic of water quality to the front of his mind. After seeing the damage and underwater infrastructure, he was skeptical when officials declared the water safe to drink.
“Obviously the whole city was underwater, pretty much,” Bernal said. “Everything that was under the water, from every fluid that could possibly come out of the vehicle, to bodies, animals, pharmaceuticals, sewage, you name it—you pump it all back to the Mississippi River, pump it right back to the water treatment facility and you’re ready to go. I was like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
A few months later, Bernal spoke to his brother, who was working in the water treatment industry in Oklahoma City. He explained the situation in New Orleans, and his brother suggested he come to Oklahoma City and check out the water treatment business he was working for.
Almost immediately, Bernal was hooked.
“I flew up there, saw a water test, and that was it,” he said. “I was like, ‘How do I get one? I don’t care where it goes. I don’t care how much it costs. How can I get it?’”
He started selling units door to door, and eventually signed a contract with what was then known as GE Water & Process Technologies to sell the product he still sells today. He opened his own business in San Antonio, Texas, in 2007, and in 2008 was approached by Pentair with an opportunity to work with David Weekley Homes, a custom home builder in San Antonio.
“They wanted to offer our products in their design center, so the consumer had the option to purchase the product at contract,” Bernal said. “We worked with David Weekley for about a full year or so, and from that point forward we just took off. Now we work with about 30 home builders between Austin, [Texas] and San Antonio.”
Elite Water Systems offers water treatment system installation and maintenance, as well as whole-house air purification systems. The company’s products are on display in each of its partner home builders’ design centers. Customers have the option of financing a system and purchasing it at contract, or they can purchase the systems from Elite Water directly after closing on the home.
“We know all the consumers. Every consumer is getting at least one product installed in their homes,” Bernal said. “There’s probably not a home that our builders construct that doesn’t have our products in it in some way, shape or form, whether they purchase at contract or whether they purchase aftermarket.”
Air quality is a concern all over the country, Bernal said, so he believes air purification systems are a necessity in every home. The water in south Texas often contains high levels of hardness, volatile organic compounds, high chlorine levels, and taste and odor concerns.
“Our cities do a great job of making sure our water fits EPA standards,” Bernal said. “From that point forward, it’s whether or not the consumer feels it fits their standards or if they understand how water quality can cost them a lot of money if it’s not ideal for their appliances or their skin.”
The staff of Elite Water Systems is nurtured both professionally and personally, taking part in life skills training, as well as broadening their on-the-job knowledge.
Elite Water Systems has 25 employees. Although Bernal said finding quality employees can be a challenge, the company does not have a high turnover rate. He prefers employees with limited experience who he can train to his standards.
“I look for people that have heart and desire,” Bernal said. “I can teach anything to anybody who has heart and desire. I don’t care how much education you have. I don’t care how much experience you have. If you’re willing, I can help you develop the skills.”
These skills go beyond the water treatment arena. Bernal often brings in consultants and life coaches to train his staff on everything from managing their finances to handling stress to dealing with management.
“If I can help them learn more about life and how to do things at home, then it makes work life a little easier,” Bernal said. “They’re more receptive at work. They’re sharper. They have more energy. They’re sleeping better.”
Offering generous benefits packages is another way in which Bernal is able to retain his employees. Elite Water Systems pays 100% of the medical insurance premiums for its staff and their families, and pays for two all-expenses-paid vacations for employees and their spouses each year.
“I invest in my people because they invest in us,” Bernal said. “It’s hard for them to go anywhere.”
When it comes to technical training, the company’s lead service technician regularly attends training held by the OEMs—a joint venture between GE and Pentair—as well as the Water Quality Assn. (WQA) and Texas Water Quality Assn. (TWQA), and passes those skills down to the rest of the team. OEM representatives regularly hold training sessions for the entire staff.
Bernal does not do any marketing. All of his business comes from referrals and through his partner home builders. He instead uses the money other dealers might spend on advertising to grow his business and his staff.
Bernal values his WQA and TWQA memberships for the credibility they provide, as well as the continuing education and camaraderie with other dealers in his area. Because of the niche nature of Elite Water Systems, working with competitors is not an issue and instead leads to mutual support among industry professionals. “You’ve got to be involved,” Bernal said. “You cannot build a business in the water treatment industry by yourself.”
The full-service dealership offers a variety of water softeners and filtration systems, as well as whole-house air filtration products.
As a dealership with close ties to the homebuilding industry, it would appear on the surface that the economy would have a greater impact on Elite Water Systems than many other water treatment businesses, but Bernal said that due to the company’s unique operation, that is not necessarily the case.
“We’re not one dimensional,” he said. “When builders have a lot of houses that they’re building, it’s great. When they don’t, we’re going to go get another builder. There’s a whole market out there of people who have existing water systems in their homes. We’re in every facet of the business, from old houses to new houses to houses that are being constructed.”
Bernal has seen a change in the industry on the consumer side, as people increasingly turn to the internet for solutions to their water treatment challenges. Consumers are more savvy these days and have a greater understanding of water treatment challenges. Because of this, Bernal said the consumer’s instinct is to try to solve their water treatment problems by doing internet searches for articles or videos that will help them find solutions on their own.
“Our job as experts is to take the information they have and align their education with the right thought process and enhance what they already know to help them formulate the right decision to get the right solution,” he said.
Elite Water Systems currently is in the process of expanding its operations to multiple cities across Texas, including some of the smaller cities between Austin and San Antonio. Bernal’s ultimate goal is to partner with 50 home builders by the end of 2020.
Bernal encourages other dealers, no matter their experience level, to stay on the cutting edge of technology and training for their staff. Resources from the WQA and other industry organizations are readily available and he believes in taking full advantage of every opportunity for professional growth.
“The road has been paved for us,” Bernal said. “We just have to take it.”