By Donna Kreutz
Because David Swiderski spoke English, Spanish and Portuguese, he started in the water treatment industry as an international customer service representative. “I took every advantage to learn and read anything related to water.” Within six months, he was an international applications engineer. The year was 1993 and the owner of Osmonics, Dean Spatz, had recently acquired Autotrol. “If you weren’t an applications engineer, you could not go any higher in the company,” Swiderski recalled. “He was very careful who he picked. To become an applications engineer, I had to take a lot of courses and go through six levels of WQA certification.”
That led him to a pivotal experience in Brazil. “I was one of the first people on the ground in 1996 when 52 people died near the city of Recife,” known as the Brazilian Venice. “There was an outbreak of green algae—the same one that Lake Erie had last summer. When you chlorinate that water, it releases toxins that can kill dialysis patients. I firmly remembered the anguished faces and fear of those I saw at the clinics. Osmonics was heavily invested in the dialysis market, providing high-volume, sophisticated RO applications even before bottled water and other RO applications became popular.
”I could speak Portuguese, so I spent the next several years working on training, providing education on water treatment in Brazil and speaking at nephrology conferences for Baxter, Gambro, Fresenius and AAMI. One year I spoke at the annual hemodialysis conference and was fortunate enough to visit some of those same clinics where many people had died years earlier. The dialysis patients were relaxed, joking, watching TV and at that point I realized the impact both technology and water treatment can have on people’s lives. I was impacting lives.”
Building businesses throughout South America
That’s when, as they say in Brazil, “I was kissed by Lemanja,” a beautiful mythical water goddess. “That’s what they say to people who seem to both have a talent and drive for water treatment.” Swiderski lived for a decade in Mexico, traveling extensively not only throughout Brazil but also in Chile, Argentina, Columbia, Venezuela and Uruguay. “I traveled 50 to 80 percent of the time. The nice thing about Osmonics was that every year there were new technologies and new solutions. It was a very exciting company.” At that time, South American countries were not heavily involved in water treatment. “It was like going back in time 50 years. I spent lot of time teaching about the need, then teaching people to build softeners and carbon filters. I took them by the hand and trained them to set up businesses.”
Today Swiderski works for Aquor, a privately owned family business (headquartered in Mexico) with more than 100 offices and manufacturing plants and 1,500 employees. “Aquor is a group of companies, most of them being grown organically in Latin America. This is one of the largest water-related companies in the region. It has one of the best infrastructures in Mexico, across many different markets. We have a wide range of manufactured or assembled products in our portfolios. I have been with Aquor since August 2016, but have closely worked with the company since 1995. I worked with Aquor’s Grupo Novem to develop both a water treatment business and help them size, assemble and design water treatment systems. Before leaving Mexico after 10 years, I also briefly held a commercial market manager role with them in water treatment.”
Aquor joins water-tech cluster
Swiderski returned to his native Wisconsin, where he now works for Aquor in research and development in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He’s based at the Global Water Center within The Water Council, the hub of a rapidly growing water-tech cluster that houses water-centric research facilities for universities and existing water-related companies, as well as accelerator space for new, emerging water technology companies. The Aquor principals are five brothers with a long history and long-term vision. The family established this water business in 1954 and plans to continue developing and expanding over the next century. They started investing in the US in 2012. “Aquor has a very aggressive plan to acquire more business in the US, Canada and South America. After we digest that, in three to five years, we will move on to Europe.
“Rainwater capture is one of my passions. If you look at all sources of water, the purest source (if collected efficiently) is rainwater. It is the cheapest to treat and literally falls free out of the sky. So one of the things we’re doing here at the council is looking at distributed rainwater capture on a community level.” He’s seen this done very effectively in Brazil, the Caribbean and even a drought-plagued city in New Mexico that captures rain flow and directs it to an abandoned mine, which has become an artificial aquifer. “We strive to provide solutions to problems and challenges. The company culture tends to foster long-term employee retention and attract like-minded individuals who are interested in building something bigger than themselves. While financial strength is important, we are more focused on sustainable growth and development of ourselves, customers, suppliers and society overall. Aquor is very civic-minded, readily collaborating on educational projects, supporting community organizations and allocating donations to social institutions. We also foster a culture of environment stewardship.”
Talented employees with wide-ranging experience
“The company and key leadership went through a very difficult devaluation period back in 1994, when they immediately paid suppliers and focused on keeping all of their employees. The current uncertainty with the new US administration may affect some short-term goals and plans, but long term our vision and goals will only need to be adapted. We have talented and committed employees with both domain knowledge and wide-ranging experience. Prevailing is only a matter of time and dedication with a cultivated team.”
New technologies will continue to shape the future of the water treatment industry. “Softeners and carbon filters are at the end of their tech life cycle and are being replaced by new technology. Since Aquor plans on being in business and continuing to expand for decades to come, we will continue to develop more new products and technologies. Now we’re at the nanotechnology level.”
New industry challenges include shifting demographics, as the global population continues to age. “If you look at everything through the perspective of demographics, what’s occurring now has never been seen before in all of human history. Very soon we will have more people who are dependent than we have producers to accommodate. That impacts a large part of our economy. Also, as Baby Boomers retire, continue to age and take more medications, we must be able to address the increase of pharmaceuticals in the water supply.
Swiderski’s current responsibilities are threefold:
1. Seek out opportunities with companies that want to expand in Latin America or are interested in local manufacturers. “We have a large footprint of assembly plants and do a considerable amount of contracting.”
2. Develop a technology road map and build a patent portfolio, based on customers’ needs.
3. Pursue potential mergers and acquisitions (as he did with Pentair, where he worked for seven years after returning to the US).
Swiderski worked two jobs to put himself through college: one in international banking and the other in manufacturing. After graduating, he had the opportunity to work in Spain, which is where he learned Spanish and Portuguese. A single parent, Swiderski is pleased that his teen-aged sons had the experience of living in Mexico and spending summers with their grandparents in Wisconsin. Both sons are bilingual, exceptional students—though doing homework in English was a challenge at first. Living in Mexico and traveling throughout South America was “a wonderful experience. I do miss the people—and the food—but I do not miss all the traveling.”