By Donna Kreutz
Sharon Dann had to learn the water filtration business in a hurry; fortunately, she was a quick study. “I’ve always been very independent and determined. When I set my mind to something, I do it. It was not hard to learn and I caught on pretty quickly.” Before moving to Florida decades ago, Dann had worked with developmentally disabled adults in the Midwest. She admitted, “This isn’t what I would have chosen but I really do like the business now.”
Her life changed on November 3, 2010 with the sudden and unexpected passing of her husband, Stephen. At the time, he was the sole proprietor of Eagle Spring Filtration in Ormond Beach, FL. “I really didn’t know the business, other than we always had a filter and I thought they were great,” Dann said. Her husband had worked in the water filtration industry for many years, originally manufacturing filters and designing custom solutions for customers, as well as selling them.
“In 2004, we had three hurricanes come through that did extensive damage,” Sharon said. Ultimately, her husband decided to find someone else to make filters so he could concentrate on sales. By then, he had already developed, patented and manufactured what is known as the mission filter: a water purifier for third-world countries. She read an article about the need for clean water in rural areas of the Dominican Republic and gave it to Stephen. He connected with Sister Bernadette McKay (the source quoted in the article) and Dr. Pedro Bernal, Professor of chemistry at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, who was from the Dominican Republic.
Bernal has said, “The mission filter, when properly used, can turn highly contaminated water, not fit for human consumption, into water that presents little or no risk to the consumer and effect major changes in mortality rates from microbiologically contaminated drinking water.” The professor and several of his students went to the Dominican Republic to conduct a six-month study on the impact the filters had on infant mortality, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stephen Dann helped fund this research. “In an area where one in five children die due to waterborne disease, the mission filter has provided a 92-percent reduction in the infant mortality rate,” according to Sister Bernadette of the Medical Mission of the Diocese of Orlando, who is quoted on the Eagle Spring website. Today, the filter is widely used in third-world countries, as well in the United States.
Over the past five years, “I have grown to like the business and have met some wonderful people,” Dann said. “My son had worked for his father in sales and put together a book for me of all the products and spec sheets.” That was her foundation. “I didn’t have a working knowledge of our filters and I did not have a business background. With the help of my sons, I learned all about our filters, how they work, what they remove and what makes them unique.” Later she found a mentor through SCORE (an organization of retired business executives) that helped her immensely.
Cultivating customer relationships
Dann has grown the business primarily with a focus on retaining existing customers and attracting new ones through word of mouth. She’s the sole proprietor, a staff of one. Yet she serves customers in every state, including Hawaii. “Customer service situations are the best for me,” she said. “My main goal is to provide honest customer service as well as provide my customers with the filter system that best suits their needs and saves them money. I also include the necessary research to help my customers find parts for some of the older systems I no longer carry.
“The most rewarding part of the business is educating my customers about water filtration, helping them make the decision for the correct filter to meet their needs and developing strong relationships with them. I also like the fact that I alone can make the decisions regarding discounts and the amount to help those customers who are financially strapped. Helping customers have clean, safe water is more important to me than making a huge profit on my products.
“I keep a warranty database. We have a three-year, pro-rated warranty on most of our filters. Each month I send out maintenance notices to those whose filters may need replacing. I let them know what to look for to determine if it’s time to change their filter or if they can wait a little longer. You want to watch if the water pressure is low, if there’s a smell of chlorine or a metallic or chlorine taste to the water. I also tell them they can buy very inexpensive chlorine test strips and test their water. If the strip shows any chlorine at all, it is time to change. If the filter is working, there is no chlorine coming through the water.
“My filters were developed for customers with city-treated water. A lot of people are concerned about the amount of chlorine and ammonia used to treat that water; it’s their main concern. Others are the chlorine taste and smell, fluoride and sediment in the water. I occasionally have customers who have a physical reaction to the chlorine. For them, I explain about whole-house systems that are available.”
Dann likes the positive feedback she gets from her customers. “Some even call me just to talk, even through it’s not time to order a filter.” One woman sent an email: “Wow, thank you for your advice. I will wait to order another cartridge because our water tastes great. Thank you again for GREAT customer service.” Another wrote: “The system has been great. I would recommend it to anyone.” One of Dann’s customers goes hunting and fishing and stays at a remote cabin with no plumbing, so he uses the mission filter. “Others keep them on hand in case of hurricanes or other disasters that can knock out city or well-water sources.”
Learning to manage a business
Dann credits non-profit SCORE with helping her learn how to manage Eagle Spring Filtration. “I happened to be assigned to a gentleman who had been manager of a General Electric appliance center in Kentucky. We started very slowly. He’d give me three or four things to do. Then we’d meet again in a month. We did that for probably six months. After that I would just meet with him every couple of months and stay in touch by phone or email. He’s remained my mentor. He was such a tremendous help. And it was not just him. If there was something he didn’t know, he’d find someone at our SCORE office who did. The organization also offered free workshops. I attended all those pertinent to my business and I learned a lot.”
Early next year, this grandmother of seven plans to improve the Eagle Spring website and begin using social media. “I’m going to establish a Facebook page and start posting information about water about once a week. And I plan to contact those customers who have sent me such positive emails and ask them for quotes I can use as testimonials.”
Dann said, “The first few years I spent learning the business and overcoming many challenges. I feel I am now ready to become even more knowledgeable about the water filtration industry so as to better serve my current and future customers.”