By Donna Kreutz
Austin Veach started in the water business at age 13 and established his own company—Office H2O—just before graduating from college in Indiana. Six months later, Waterlogic named his firm Rookie of the Year as its fastest growing dealer in 2015.
“I initially became involved in the industry through my father’s startup back in 2005. I was riding along to ‘help’ with installations and filter changes. Needless to say I wasn’t much help, but that was how my love for this business all got started.” Veach’s father Rick and his partner Mike Nelson grew their start-up water conditioning company, Pure Water Technology, to 10 offices before selling it in 2011. Other than ride-alongs with his dad as a kid, Veach’s sole water industry experience was a summer internship. “Dad is partial owner of a finance company now and works with POU dealers like me to help them grow.”
“I have remained in this industry because of the impact that bottled water has on the environment,” said Veach. “Plastic water bottles are made from oil: 17 million barrels a year, actually. By going bottleless, we can reduce the amount of carbon emissions entering our atmosphere.
Bottleless coolers eliminate plastic bottles by using the latest water filtration and purification technologies to transform already available tap water. This multi-stage process removes particulates like dirt and rust, along with lead, chlorine and other harmful chemicals.” He said more than 70 percent of Office H2O customers have switched to this earth-friendly bottleless water solution. Cutting down on every customer’s plastic is one form of motivation. Getting to meet new people every day is another benefit,” he said. Quality is one of his key selling strategies. “Most individuals who make decisions regarding their vendors are looking for the cheapest option. After I explain that you get what you pay for and demonstrate the benefits, we offer a free trial to show the customer why they should upgrade.”
Does your water cooler do ice?
“In the water world, there’s an ice product, a water/ice combo unit that provides hot and cold water on one side and soft, chewable ice on the other. Not many sell it. There’s a lot of maintenance and upkeep to them. But if you have a good service team, you get double what water coolers are worth. We have discovered the demand for ice is there. As long as you provide great service along with the machine, customers are willing to pay more for a product they currently don’t have. Potential clients tell me ‘I’ve got water taken care of.’ Then I ask, ‘Does your water cooler do ice?’ It’s like an epiphany for them. Few people have seen it or marketed it really hard. When we started, we thought this would be 10 to 15 percent of our business. It’s actually between 30 and 35 percent. It’s been a blessing.”
Office H2O serves the Indianapolis market along with some customers in Ft. Wayne. “We predominately target the commercial market but there is some spillover into the residential market, which we gladly accept. Customer service is everything to Office H2O, as it takes months to earn a customer and days to lose one if service is lacking. Our customer service has led to a number of referrals that help along with the day-to-day grind of cold calling and meeting with potential customers,” he said.
Another effective sales strategy is offering a free one-week trial. “Basically I explain the benefits of our company versus the competition and offer a one-week free trial. Then employees get involved. If employees really like the water, the company will go for it.” He said nearly 90 percent are converted to customers. “We don’t pick up the units very often. Probably the most difficult sale is creating enough urgency so that someone who is not spending anything on water now will establish a budget and set aside money per month to rent a cooler.” These first-time customers make up about five percent of the business.
From college to start-up
“I’d been around the industry but never quite in it,” Veach said. “I graduated with a business and economics background but had little exposure to running my own business. My last name helped me land an opportunity with one of the largest manufacturers, and the rest is history.” He established the company in March of his senior year, graduated on May 23, 2015 and the next week was laying flooring and knocking out walls for his new office. Office H2O was up and running June 1 as a Waterlogic dealer. “They were the best option and willing give me a shot. They were the first to say, ‘Yes we’ll take you on.’ And I am forever grateful to them.”
Veach started with three employees, two of whom previously worked in the water industry. “Andy Barker is my lead service tech and a partial owner, while Kevin Billups is business development, making phone calls and setting appointments.” Lydia Thacker works remotely but still manages to have her hands in nearly every project. “Her title can’t be determined because she wears too many hats,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing and make the impact we’re making without them. These three got the business off the ground with me.” He’s since added four more employees to the team. “I try hard to do things with them outside of work to build the family bond that a small business should have.”
Training is very hands on. “We offer employee training in the form of ‘ride days’ to experience a ‘day in the life,’ along with an intensive sales training program that lasts about a week to educate the new hires and prepare them for the day-to-day obstacles. Following the training, I take two days a month to shadow all the account executives to ensure that they are efficient and effective in the field. We believe that independence is important but don’t want a bad habit to occur and cause the account executive to fall into a slump. We review sales strategies every quarter.”
Veach plans to keep the business in the family. “My younger brothers, Cameron and Hayden, both intern with us in the summer and plan to join the business after they graduate from Hanover College,” he said. “Our goal is to service the Midwest, be headquartered out of Indianapolis, work a four-hour radius, then open two more offices in markets we feel have the most potential.”
Veach has an aggressive growth plan, measured by the number of water coolers in service, which totaled 300 by the end of March. He expects that to increase to 775 by year’s end, reach 1,375 coolers by the end of 2017, then continue “all the way up to 3,000 coolers by the end of 2019,” he said. “From there, we will look to expand into neighboring markets, including a prospect list of the Cincinnati/Columbus region in Ohio and the Lexington/Louisville area in Kentucky.”