By Donna Kreutz
Fifteen years ago, times were tough for Rick DuBois. He was a single parent with a young son and no income. But he did have experience in the water industry. With a $5 loan and a bit of luck, he went into business for himself. Today, he owns two of the companies he once worked for and is on track for gross sales of $1 million in 2016.
“I started in the water business 25 years ago in Prince George, British Columbia. My girlfriend’s father owned Witheys Water Softening and Purification. I offered to deliver a water cooler to the casino where I worked and saw an opportunity. I said to him: ‘Hey, I could sell these things for you.’ Two weeks later, I was training with him to not only deliver water coolers but sell water treatment equipment as well. He said that’s where the career was, in water treatment. I never looked back. I excelled in acquiring knowledge and remember attending a training session put on by PETWA Water Treatment Solutions with Ken Johnston. He did an amazing job to motivate and teach me the science of selling water treatment equipment. I still buy from Ken to this day. Now he’s with Good Water Warehouse out of Calgary.
“After Witheys was bought out by Canadian Springs, the dynamic changed. Water coolers were their focus and water treatment was my interest. I asked Ken if there was anyone looking for a sales rep and he directed me to Sierra Water Treatment in Vernon, BC. I called up the owner and within two weeks I was living in the sunny Okanagan Valley. Why I have remained is quite the story,” Dubois said. A month after he started, he was laid off. “I was on unemployment benefits for two weeks and then I saw an ad for a service tech at a competitor. I worked for Absolutely Pure Water for six months. Then the owner came to me and said: ‘You are the best tech I’ve ever had, but unfortunately, I can’t afford to keep you because business is slow. However, I want you to stay and do 100-percent commission sales.’ Well I tried that and really didn’t sell anything,” he said.
Broke one day, in business the next
“There I was, a single dad with a seven-year-old son at home and a box of Kraft dinner in the cupboard. I was desperate. I went back to the owner of Sierra Water Treatment, who had recently closed the business, and asked him what he did with his customer base. ‘I have been doing this for others long enough. It’s time I did it for myself.’ He said he regretted having to let me go. He felt guilty. Then he handed me a box of customer files and said: ‘Go for it.’ He also gave me a list of people who needed service right away.”
Heady with the realization that he really was starting his own business, DuBois stopped at an office supply store to buy invoice forms. “There was a package on the shelf for $6.75. I reached in my pocket and literally had $3.50 to my name.” So he borrowed five bucks from a buddy. “I took the cash, bought the invoices and saw four customers. I made $300 and registered the Sierra Water Treatment name the next day. I got the old phone number back. That year, gross sales were $75,000. Over the years, we built up a customer service base of more than 2,500 clients and last year we did gross sales of just under $300,000, with only me on the tools and one office staffer. Being self-employed means doing it all. I have done everything in this industry: sales, office calling, paperwork, advertising, installations, service. You have to be an owner, employee, advertising rep, lawyer, accountant and at the same time a father, husband and family man.
“Most of all, I love solving water problems. We have it all in the Okaganan: high iron and hardness from deep wells, surface lake water that requires filtration and disinfection, hydrogen sulfide, tannins and organic removal. We have a huge customer base of reverse osmosis systems that requires annual maintenance, which is the mainstay of our business, along with new installations. My specialty is iron removal using chemical-free air injection. It’s the only way to go. Air injection works better and is more cost effective. Iron can wreak havoc in people’s lives and I like being the one to solve the problem.”
Opportunity knocks yet again
By 2015, DuBois thought his improbable success saga had peaked and he would have time to play more golf in the wonderland of Okanagan Valley, which has an equally improbable temperate clime about a five-hour drive north of Vancouver. With beautiful lakes, numerous golf courses, abundant fruit trees and award-winning wineries, this region is known as Canada’s Napa Valley. “It’s March and I’m in shorts and a T-shirt,” he said. “I saw myself in five years managing a customer base that can afford me to be around in the summer and snowbird in the winter.”
Then opportunity knocked again. “In January, I made a deal to take over the customer base of Absolutely Pure Water, the company that wanted me to do commission sales years before. The owner was retiring and wanted to make sure his 3,000 customers were looked after. I hired Marc Dube, who was managing the office and also doing tech work there and sold him a percentage of the whole company. We’re really a family-owned business. My son Travis is a service tech and Marc’s daughter, Janelle, works in the office.”
In February, the pair acquired the assets and 3,500 customer base of Watersoft BC. Bruce Konecsni, the owner, is “an amazing person with a wealth of knowledge in the industry,” DuBois said. “Until now, we had done mostly residential but with this acquisition we are doing a ton of commercial work. I have a lot to learn from him and he is eager to teach and be a part of the team. His goal is to help us succeed, while getting more time on the golf course. In 10 years, I hope to be fully retired but not too far away if needed for guidance or sales. I hope by then that my oldest son will be motivated to own the business and, who knows, my youngest son (who is turning 10) may just be ready to pick up a pipe wrench.
“The long and short of it is that in a span of 15 years, I went from a $5 loan to operating a business that is on par to do a million dollars in gross sales. I am a true definition of the entrepreneurial myth: a technician turned entrepreneur through necessity.”