Dealer of the Month: Rabb Water Systems

June 3, 2015
Indiana dealership gives back to employees & community

About the author: Amy McIntosh is former managing editor of WQP. For more information, email [email protected].

Jim and Martha Rabb founded Rabb Water Systems in 1951 in Plymouth, Ind. Ten years later, they relocated to Warsaw, Ind., and the dealership has been a fixture in north-central Indiana for nearly 45 years.

Rabb Water has since expanded to five other locations, with a service area covering 27 counties. The Rabb family sold the business to Don and George Clemens in 1988. George was the Rabb’s son-in-law, so the dealership remains family owned. 

Rusty Ritter, George’s son-in-law, is the dealership’s general manager. Ritter started working at Rabb Water part time as a teenager, loading salt and dabbling in sales. He eventually moved away, but returned in 2004 and took a management position. 

Covering Ground

Rabb Water offers Kinetico electric and non-electric water softeners and drinking water systems, as well as specialty systems such as whole-house, membrane, disinfection and chloramine reduction systems. The company also sells bottled water and has a growing commercial segment.

Ritter finds that the residential segment is the most profitable, so he focuses his marketing efforts in that direction. The commercial segment has been growing organically, mostly through word of mouth. 

Customers in Rabb Water’s service area experience their share of water problems. High hardness and iron levels are the most common issues, but pockets of the service area also experience high hydrogen sulfide levels, and many well owners have bacteria issues. The dealership also serves a large number of rural customers who have become more aware of pesticide contamination in recent years.

The large service area creates a diverse customer base, especially from an economic standpoint. During the recession of 2008, two counties within Rabb Water’s service area were some of the hardest hit in the nation.

“Since then, we’ve had to focus a little more on listening and understanding what the consumer wants, and dictating less,” Ritter said. “We now have to do more problem solving and give them options. It’s about meeting expectations, and then hopefully exceeding those, within their budgets, situations or applications.“

Enriched Employees

Rabb Water has approximately 50 employees, many of whom hold Water Quality Assn. (WQA) certifications. 

“We really believe in the WQA certifications as a way to separate ourselves from the competition, so we encourage certification levels within our employee group,” Ritter said. “We like to think that we are the water treatment professionals of our area.”

Ritter works to promote personal growth and build a culture of trust and respect among his employees. 

“One of my personal goals is to build an internal culture that spurs each employee to do [his or her] best every day. I want people who work for us to want to be here and have a concern for the strength of the business,” Ritter said. “I don’t want it to be viewed as a job; I want it to be viewed as a great place to work. If anybody’s coming to work every day miserable, then we’re not doing something right.”

The team maintains a positive attitude by focusing on encouragement rather than failures, and highlighting successes, not mistakes. According to Ritter, transparency about both the industry and the business, effective communication and a caring attitude are key to building trust with his staff. 

“It’s the people in your organization that dictate your success,” Ritter said. “Of course, profitability is part of the equation, but if you take care of your internal people, they will take care of your external people, and if your external people are taken care of, profitability will come.”

Reaching Consumers

The means by which Rabb Water takes care of its customers have shifted in the past several decades, due in part to the way consumerism has changed, according to Ritter.

“People are busier,” he said. “It’s harder for them to take time to sit down and talk about water quality, and [for us] to educate people on some of the challenges that they may face.”

While many dealers name the Internet as their biggest competitor, Ritter points to big-box stores as his biggest threat. In years past, a local dealership was the main outlet for purchasing water treatment equipment. Today, he sees customers choosing big-box stores due to convenience and low price points.

“The low-priced unit at the big-box store looks very appealing,” Ritter said. “However, those are the things that, in certain water quality situations, just don’t work. But we may never have a chance to explain [that], because [the big-box store offers] immediate gratification.” To cope with this, Rabb Water offers low-priced solutions to help its salespeople get their feet in the door to educate customers on water treatment equipment. 

Ritter employs several marketing techniques and modifies his efforts to keep up with evolving technology.  

“I like to say that 50% of my marketing works, I just don’t know which 50%,” he said. “With all of the media outlets, tracking and measuring that we do, the best I can figure is that it all plays a role and you can’t attribute any one thing as the be-all, end-all to your marketing.”

The strategy Ritter finds most effective is what he calls “social marketing.” Rabb Water is a member of a number of community chambers of commerce and is active in local service organizations in its service areas. 

“It may not be an immediate turnaround, but consumers notice that you care about their community,” Ritter said. “Our market area is largely rural, so these are small communities. It’s a difference-maker to consumers that someone cares about their community.” In addition to local organizations, Rabb Water donates a portion of its sales to Water for Good, an organization that provides sustainable water solutions in Africa.

Ritter sees more efficient technology in the future of the water industry, as well as changing regulations regarding sustainability, with an emphasis on reclamation. He encourages other dealers to keep up with these changes, as well as those happening among consumers.

“We’re all in the same boat in that if we’re not adapting to technology, to consumerism, to the changes of life, then we’re going to be left behind,” Ritter said. “If we’re not looking forward and adapting, we’re going to be left behind.”

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About the Author

Amy McIntosh

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