Bob Auchinachie takes an unorthodox approach to selling water treatment.
Plumbers know how to fix all types of equipment that need water to flush, flow, circulate, recirculate, pump, heat and cool. For the last few years, we've been championing the plumber who can also “fix” water.

What could be a more natural cross-selling opportunity? A plumber makes a service call to repair faulty equipment, and then asks what the customer is doing to repair, or in this case, treat their drinking water or whole-house water.

More and more Americans are concerned about the quality of their drinking water, and are, in fact, buying from a wide choice of treatment equipment.

“Water treatment is a natural for plumbers,” one of our featured contractors told us in 1996. “It's no different from selling a consumer a new water heater.”

Well, yes and no, says Bob Auchinachie, president, Auchinachie Plumbing, Heating, A/C and Water Treatment Systems, Binghamton, N.Y., but, more importantly for this story, also H2Ahh! Water Treatment Inc., a thriving separate part of a 100-year-old family plumbing business.

To answer your first question, Bob's last name is pronounced “Ah-HON-Ah-Hee.” As you might tell from the James Bond-style “jet pack” he's sporting on our cover (that's actually a softener and carbon combo-unit on his back with some faucet handles), Auchinachie takes a different approach to selling water treatment than most plumbers we've profiled before.

So different, in fact, that water treatment customers in two of its three locations might not have to worry about how to pronounce “Auchinachie” since they may only know the H2Ahh! side of the business.

I believe that water treatment has to be treated as a completely separate entity from your existing business,” Auchinachie sums up. “The same energy that you put into your original plumbing business needs to be put into the water treatment business for it to really take off.”

He's seen dozens of top-notch plumbing firms over the years attempt to get into the business. Most do not succeed, Auchinachie believes, because they see themselves as “plumbers” first and foremost and “water treaters” somewhere down the list. So they just “give it a shot,” figuring they can always fall back on their successful plumbing business.

Meanwhile, his approach is working. The company only began to craft its H2Ahh! identity at the tail end of last year. Yet, half of his company's total revenue will come from water treatment this year, up from a consistent 10 percent average over the past five years or so.

Breaking up is hard to do, but Auchinachie knows first-hand it needs to be done. As we'll see, he first got into water treatment in 1999 as an extension of his plumbing business, but learned that he had to treat water treatment differently as he grew beyond his home base where everyone not only knew the name, but could pronounce it, too.

To begin at the beginning, you'd have to go all the way back to 1906 when Auchinachie's great-grandfather, Alex, opened the business in Binghamton. Luckily, we only have to go back to 1984 when Bob joined the family business.

The company didn't look anything like its current self. Then and now, residential plumbing service was in the mix, but the company weighed more toward the hardscrabble commercial construction business at that point. Bidding and running commercial and industrial construction projects was Auchinachie's main focus. There he remained for the next eight years.

It wasn't until meeting Frank Blau at a PHCC national convention that Auchinachie started thinking differently about the business.

Auchinachie decided to become the best provider of plumbing service in Binghamton. He quickly changed his billing structure to flat rate and, very soon after, joined Contractors 2000 (now known as Nexstar).

Marketing the business seemed to be the way to achieve the fastest growth in the local market, not an easy task for a service area with just 200,000 people.

“Although our family name had been around for many years, I needed to make every homeowner aware that we were there for them whenever they had a plumbing problem,” he said.

He dreamt up a lot of his initial marketing/advertising ideas himself and also teamed up with a small, local advertising agency.

“Our ads were created to appeal to the consumer, answering their questions and trying to put them at ease, assuring them that they made the right decision by calling Auchinachie,” he explains.

Thanks to his marketing plan, Auchinachie Plumbing soon became a recognized name. One thing Auchinachie has always capitalized on is his difficult-to-spell last name. At games for the local minor league baseball team, for example, attendees are invited to try to pronounce the name. Soon, even kids used it in spelling bee competitions.

Pete McShane is one of the company's specially trained water techs.
From emphasizing plumbing services, the company then added residential heating and repair in 1994, followed by air-conditioning in 1996. While diversified, Auchinachie still wanted to branch out and grow the business further. In 1999, Auchinachie went looking for better water treatment equipment for its customers.

Meanwhile, if the business got involved in larger commercial applications, they'd always sub out the work. “We soon realized that we were giving away a great deal of business, and that was when we decided to research which brand of water treatment products were the best.”

“We'd always dabbled with installing softeners and filters for residential and light commercial customers,” Auchinachie says.

Upstate New York may be known for its clean lakes, but Auchinachie says few people actually drink from their home taps anymore. Plus, the water is some of the hardest in the country.

After doing research, and finally consorting with a fellow Nexstar member, Auchinachie chose Kinetico as its brand. From the start, the company hired a salesperson to sell the Kinetico systems rather than rely on its techs to do it. Techs, however, were still instrumental in marketing the products by making their customers aware of the new service. But customers needed more of a sales presentation than a busy tech, no matter how motivated, could ever give running between service calls. “Most residents know they need to treat their water, but many of those same people would still have a difficult time justifying the cost of such a 'luxury' product,” Auchinachie says.

The company got off to a great start in the water treatment business in Binghamton. So much so that Kinetico awarded Auchinachie with two much larger markets. In 2004, Auchinachie opened up in Syracuse, N.Y., with a population of around 400,000 and last November in Albany, N.Y., with a population of 800,000. Both of these outlets were opened only to sell water treatment.

When the company branched out from Binghamton, water treatment was still viewed as an extension of the company's product line. So when they made the initial move into Syracuse, it made sense to carry the Auchinachie name along.

“But what we ended up realizing was that although we had 100 percent name recognition in Binghamton and were associated with a quality product and a quality company, it meant very little in Syracuse,” Auchinachie adds.

With little or no name recognition in new, developing markets, the company had trouble generating enough leads to keep the sales staff busy. Even in Binghamton, the company was finding some new challenges. “HVAC equipment salesmen were selling water treatment and vice versa,” Auchinachie remembers, “and soon we all became unfocused.”

Around the time they were making the move into Albany last year, Auchinachie regrouped. With the help of a new advertising agency, the company developed a new, separate identity for the water treatment business, a fresh logo and created new ads for newspaper, radio and television. Most importantly, they came up with a new name for the water treatment business.

H2Ahh! was thought up as a way to convey that feeling you get from drinking a glass of cold, clear water or stepping out of a hot shower with softened water. They took the extra step of surveying homeowners to see what they thought of the new name. Most people commented that the name “grew on them,” the more they thought of or heard it.

On the sales side, Auchinachie created an in-house marketing department based in Binghamton, which is primarily used to make what Auchinachie calls “warm calls” to homeowners who respond to H2Ahh! ads.

The department sets up day or evening appointments from these leads for a revamped sales force. “Separate salespeople for each product line is critical,” says Auchinachie.

He's also put the water treatment salespeople through additional Kinetico training. That difference, Auchinachie says, has quickly produced “a salesperson with focus and the necessary background to represent us favorably in the customer's home.”

Auchinachie hired Bob Jenson as his new director of marketing and sales. Jenson's duties, among others, have been to recruit, train and motivate all salespeople and inside marketing staff.

Mike Franey is the company's first, full-time water specialist. He's certified for the work thanks to training by the Water Quality Association.
This past January, the transformation was completed. All the company's water treatment-related marketing products, literature, vehicle wraps, uniforms and office supplies were changed from Auchinachie to H2Ahh!

With a heavy schedule of home shows, boat shows, gun shows and garden shows, the company was able to acquire more than 1,500 leads in the month of March alone.

“That should carry us forward well into the mid-summer months,” Auchinachie says.

While water treatment may have its own look now, its revenue helps further diversify the company. Overall, Auchinachie employs 36 people, and operates five service trucks, two vehicles for commercial construction, two other trucks for HVAC installations and, finally, two trucks used for its water treatment installations.

“Interestingly, the water treatment industry compliments the rest of our business very well,” Auchinachie says, “When heating or cooling installs are a bit light, the water sales seems to be at their strongest.”

The Plumber's Advantage

Bob Auchinachie may know the value of running water treatment as a separate business, but he still believes service-minded plumbers have an advantage over the Culligan Men of the world.

“Many large brand-name dealers have lived on their laurels,” he says. “We're raising the bar, and they'll have to decide if they want to play with us or not.”

When Auchinachie added the Kinetico line in Binghamton and again in Syracuse and Albany, he'd typically find two or three major players. The major players all had a lot of name recognition, but something was always lacking.

“Many customers complain about the lack of quality customer service, which coincidentally is our strongest suit,” he adds. “I believe most water treatment dealers see service as a necessary evil, whereas we are primarily a service business.”

He also counts on his experience as a licensed master plumber. “I know how important it is to install water treatment equipment properly and according to code,” Auchinachie says. Many times, it adds labor and material to an installation.

“Most of the competition does not install per local, state or national plumbing codes, and they've gotten away with it for years,” he adds. “We use this to our benefit as a sales tool and a reassurance that our customers are dealing with a plumbing professional that has been in business for 100 years.”

Finally, Auchinachie also sees his inexperience in the water treatment business as a blessing. “Since we didn't start out with any history in this area, that forced us to do things better: better products, better training, better follow-through, and better communication throughout the sales and installation process.”