When Is Water Inelastic
GRAND RAPIDS — While most business leaders worry whether the nation is skirting or entering a recession, Jim Flier and his staff at Flier's Quality Water Systems (QWS) are coming off a record quarter.
And April looks like a record month.
In fact, this has gone on for much of the nine years QWS has existed. The firm has been growing 25 percent to 40 percent a year with no slowdown in view.
Flier's (pronounced "FLEE-ers") sells pure water — well, actually the systems which purify water — to a growing list of upper Midwest clients, headed by Pharmacia in Kalamazoo. But the client list is long and getting longer, because it also includes auto parts and furniture manufacturers and just about any enterprise with processes which require painting, cleansing or hydrating its product.
Flier, the eldest son of the company's late founder, Bern Flier, feels one of the keys to the firm's growth has been excellence in service.
"We have been successful in gaining a lot of new business simply by offering a service department that delivers what they promise," he said.
This means that when the red warning light illuminates on a de-ionization tank at Pharmacia, QWS is Johnny-on-the-spot to change out the tank during the window in which it still is producing pure water. The same applies at a food-processing operation or a bakery.
"Both our new sales and continuing sales are booming," Fliers said. "But if we do not keep the customers we already have happy, this is a fruitless cause. So we keep on stressing to our people how critical great service is after we make the initial sale as well as during it."
So what's making sales boom in the first place?
Stan Barnes, QWS sales strategist, says it is driven by the continuing surge in quality assurance throughout almost all manufacturing.
"As more and more companies go through ISO," he told the Business Journal, "water had to quit becoming a variable in manufacturing and drug and food production. And whether they experience a slowdown or not, they still need pure water."
Now the word "pure" ordinarily connotes an absolute: something either is pure or it isn't. But to QWS, "pure" is an umbrella term that covers whatever grade of purity the client needs. Soft water for a boiler, for instance, simply can be filtered tap water with calcium and other salts removed. Another client may need water that is filtered for particles.
At a place like Pharmacia, the purification system first routes water through a series of filters, then through reverse osmosis. This process passes 75 percent of the water through a membrane, the remaining 25 percent serving to carry off impurities that cannot pass the membrane.
Water that has been through osmosis may be clean enough for some purposes. But others require more stringent grades of purity, and that requires de-ionization, a process that takes the water through tanks that bear resins delivering ascending levels of quality depending upon their configuration.
As one might expect, the higher the quality of water, the more expensive it becomes. A reverse osmosis tank operates relatively inexpensively because it has an automatic back-flush feature that periodically cleans the membrane.
The tank resins, however, become permeated with impurities and must be returned to QWC's new 20,000-square-foot facility in the 7400 block of Clyde Park Avenue SW. There, the resins are treated, cleaned and made ready for re-use. "I explain it by saying it's kind of like recharging a battery," Barnes said.
Once cleaned, the resins are returned to tanks, which can be knee-high to shoulder-high depending upon system and volume needed. The tanks are then returned to their appropriate sites in the client firm's water purification system.
Other processes through which QWC puts water involve ultraviolet radiation, treatment with ozone, chemical injections and a large range of task-specific filters.
And Flier's focus, in that he doubles as service manager, is to keep the firm's 20-member staff and eight trucks constantly ahead of the water quality curve.
Flier became president in the wake of his father's death in October of 1999. He also is president of QWS's parent firm, Flier's Underground Sprinkling, which his father also founded. The sprinkling company is a 38-year success, recognized within the industry as one of the top 100 firms of its sort. But according to Barnes, it doesn't look like it will be too long before annual QWS sales outpace those of the older company.
That's how QWC's general manager, Jerry Dykstra, seems to see it, too.
"We've made a major investment in this business with our new facility, equipment and people because this industry is going to continue to grow well into this new century.
"And with our yearly growth the last nine years ranging from 25 percent to 40 percent, we're confident our game plan is on track. We are positioned correctly and moving full speed ahead."