Matt Zarra walked away from a lucrative, fast-track career in the pharmaceutical industry to stay in his hometown of Dunedin, Florida and learn the water treatment business from the ground up. He took over the family business a decade ago and has led it to double-digit growth every year since.
“I have been with Florida Water Treatment for 10 years and I have held every single position in our company. I’m a very detail-oriented person and for me to be comfortable leading other people, I have to understand what they go through every day and how to successfully perform their jobs. Before I officially took over as President of the company in 2006, I spent almost a year doing everything from delivering salt and working on a service truck to building equipment in the warehouse and installing it. Those were the most crucial and valuable lessons I could have learned in this industry because it gave me an overall understanding of all aspects of the water treatment industry.”
Florida Water Treatment was founded as a family business in 1951, then bought by his wife’s family in 1983. His father-in-law Herb Bloom retired after Zarra took charge and remains a co-owner. Bloom had wanted him to become involved in the family business for several years but Zarra wasn’t interested. “I was doing really well working for a pharmaceutical company. I was winning many sales awards and was consistently in the top two percent of the sales reps nationally. Then the company wanted to move me up—and that included a move to Connecticut. I’m a Florida boy. I was born and raised here. I love to fish, be outside, on the water. My wife and I had been married for about four years and her family was here too. It didn’t seem real appealing to head up there.”
That’s when Zarra decided to join the family business after all. He quickly developed his own recipe for success. “I firmly believe in taking care of customers, providing a good quality product at a more than fair price, training employees in all aspects of the business and paying them well. It’s a simple recipe: work hard; do what’s expected of you; do it right the first time. I also firmly believe that how you handle problems when they arise is what makes or breaks a company.”
Laser-focused on quality and service
“The biggest challenge we have faced at FWT is rapid growth in our marketplace. We have had double-digit growth year over year for the past decade. We’ve grown from seven to 17 employees. Just in the past two years, we have had to hire three additional service technicians, as well as an additional installation crew to keep up with demand. Currently we are installing from 150 to 175 systems a month, while running close to 700 service calls a month—and this is all done without a sales staff. We don’t make cold calls. We focus on review sites like Angie’s List. We have close to 800 reviews, which is seven times more than our closest competitor. From good reviews we pick up a lot of business. And we do a lot of Internet advertising.”
The company currently covers the entire Tampa Bay area, which spans seven counties (about a 100-mile radius). “We provide all aspects of water treatment, including sales and installation of new equipment, service on all makes and models of water treatment equipment and salt delivery. We build our own equipment to order. Our business is 70-percent residential and 30-percent commercial. We test each and every customer’s water and go out to assess every installation to make sure the equipment we build is the right fit for the home and will provide the water the customer is expecting, without any surprises for the customer. No matter how large we grow, we want to keep the family feel to Florida Water Treatment because that is what keeps our customers coming back and continuing to provide us with referrals.
“All our employees are continuously trained on all of our products. Everyone from our office staff to our salt driver is trained to make sure they can answer any and all questions as they arise. We work closely with the manufacturers and our distribution channels to stay up to date with new products, as well as existing products. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into training each and every employee to make sure that we cut out return calls and needless frustration for our customers. We don’t use subcontractors. Everyone is in-house, allowing us to have a tight grip on quality control and customer service. We live and die by our reputation and at the end of the day, that is all you really have.”
Hiring people eager to learn
“I demand the highest level of service from all of my employees and will tolerate nothing less—but I also share the wealth. We have not had an employee leave in nearly seven years. We take care of our employees. We pay 100 percent of their healthcare. We have profit sharing. We’re generous with pay. We do reviews twice a year and if they deserve a raise, we give it to them. We treat them like family. We are a family and everybody helps each other out.” They even had two dogs on staff: Bailey and Zane. “I learned a long time ago that it’s a lot more expensive to continue to hire new people with a revolving door than it is to pay your guys a little bit more to keep them. Most of our employees did not have experience in the industry. I like to hire people I can train—a fresh canvas. They don’t have bad habits and they’re like a sponge, ready to learn.”
Zarra himself soaked up plenty of knowledge quickly when he joined the family business. His father-in-law was a RainSoft dealer in Chicago before moving to Florida to escape the harsh winters. “He gave me the base of what I needed to know.” His own father was also a strong influence. “My father was a civil engineer by trade and had a large firm with 110 employees. I got a lot of my work ethic from my father as I grew up. He worked very hard and had a very successful business.”
Dunedin is 20 miles due west of Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s paradise to Zarra. He only left long enough to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in finance and marketing at Florida Atlantic University. He later earned an MBA and graduated with top honors from the University of Tampa, while working full-time in the pharmaceutical industry. “You can learn as much as you want through theory and books, and having an MBA is great, but you have to have the ability and the drive to do it in the field. I’m in the field every day. I do a lot of commercial service myself, as well as 50 percent of the sales. You have to be able to perform and work hard. We work very hard and we take pride in our work.
“We have plans to expand into the plumbing industry in the future, providing our customers with all aspects of service plumbing. A lot of our installers are already licensed plumbers in the state of Florida, so it should be an easy transition. We have over 100,000 customers and we’re giving away a lot plumbing business. I don’t like to give away business.
“We’re also planning to open two more locations, expanding into growth areas where there is a lot of new construction: one north and one south. They’re building a lot of high-end homes, with all that stone, granite, marble and tile. Our water, as hard as it is, just etches and destroys everything, including appliances and fixtures. Water softening has almost become a necessity. And every single system is built to order based on the needs of our customers. This gives us the capability to keep up with the latest technological advances in our industry and adapt them into our product offerings very quickly. I love the challenges we face every single day in this industry.”