The water world is buzzing about this Grand Slam acquisition. The predictions and analyses of what this means to the industry are popping off like corn kernels in a hot frying pan. I have my own unique perspective on this deal, and I am sure it will be different from what you read anywhere else. As time passes, you will find that my take is in fact the most accurate take. As these things go, you can visualize me as the guy who witnessed the Big Bang of Water. I was there when this water grabbing acquisition trend first began.
In 1983, I was introduced to water treatment in my job as technical coordinator of the dialysis unit at Saint Elizabeth Hospital, Youngstown Ohio, I was then recruited by Peck Water Systems to sell and service the bio/health/lab water markets in the N.E. Ohio – Western Penna area. From there I moved on to Kinetico, Arrowhead, USF, Culligan, Envirogen and then to my own company.
My earliest experience with these acquisitions came at a picnic table sitting next to Dick Heckman at his home. He was entertaining all the B.F. Goodrich/Arrowhead employees as his US Filter group had just acquired us. During the conversations he bragged about certain accounts now managed by USF. Of interest to me were Carnegie Mellon University, Presbyterian dialysis, US Steel on Neville Island, PPG research at Allison Park, and a few others. My interest was that these were accounts I sold and serviced while working at Peck Water Systems, which USF also purchased. Most peculiar were the identities of the the sales engineers now servicing those accounts because they were the very Millipore nincompoops that I took the accounts away from years before. Heckman had no clue of this history, and my new boss at USF, an ex Nalco guy, also had no clue.
Be clear; the net result of these types of mergers and acquisitions is that each successive new management is further removed from the customer. Indeed, if one reads the executive and investor public comments surrounding this deal, all of it talks about investment, stock value, and capturing the trends of global water needs. This, like most acquisitions, is not about better serving customers, but instead about how to financially benefit from global water problems.
My first water boss, the best I ever had, Bill Watson, taught me that the water business above all things is a service business. Customers do not care how big or successful their water vendor is; they only care that they can depend on them to overcome their water challenges. When I worked for Siemens Water, the utter mental masturbation of putting customers in the middle of internal company battles that included nonsense like, “which division should handle their account”, “which product solution best fits the our profit needs”, “how does this sale fit the companies sales goals”, and “who should be the lead salesman”, boggled my mind.
The truth about these type of mega-sized water acquisitions? They add layers of corporate policies and procedures that further distance the company from the customer. The outcome of Xylem acquiring Evoqua in my opinion, will be the creation of more opportunities for small, nimble water specialists who can focus on customers, and not be mired down in corporate bullshit.
During my career I developed binding friendships with my customers, many of them, even from the ’80s still intact today. Each one of them, first a new account because of me, because of my care and understanding of their needs. And this is not unique to me, as it is the case with every organic thinking, boots-on-the-ground sales engineer who ever won a customer’s trust. Over the years, as I changed employers, so too did my clients change vendors to follow me. I promise you, my story is well-echoed by other sales engineers/water doctors. Enter the MBA/investor/CEO/Marketing imbecile and the water industry loses more of what makes it noble.