By Donna Kreutz
Jay Hellenbrand grew up in a family-owned water treatment business in Wisconsin founded by his parents. After graduating from high school, he knew he wanted to start his own company. “I really wanted to go for a master’s appliance license so I could go out on my own,” he said.
But those plans were delayed. Hellenbrand and his twin sister were the youngest of seven children and his parents encouraged them to go to college. “It turned out to be a great move,” he said. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1994 with a degree in marketing.
I knew I wanted to work in the water treatment industry or start my own water treatment company,” which he thought would be in the Midwest. “Then I got an offer to work in California at a wholesale water treatment company. I never thought I would end up in California but after a visit to Santa Barbara and checking out the job, I decided to accept it and move to Santa Barbara. Shortly after, I decided to start Advanced Water Solutions on the side. I worked full-time during the day at the wholesale company while working nights and weekends to get Advanced Water Solutions going. I absolutely love the water business and being in business for myself.
“I attribute my success to my Mom and Dad (Jim and Florence Hellenbrand) for teaching me how to work hard and never give up. Another motivating factor was how expensive it was to live in Santa Barbara. I figured the only way I could really get ahead and control my destiny was to start my own business. I was discouraged by my older brother, who thought California was not a great place to start or run a business. He even had my parents call to question me. I remember telling my Mom and Dad that if others could do it, I could too. I told them they had taught me well and I thought I could make it in California because it seemed that the old-fashioned Midwest service that I was used to was not the case in California. I told them: ‘You know I will give 150 percent because that is how you raised me.’ I guess things have worked out because we just passed our 21st year in business and are still going strong.”
Hellenbrand said his company serves both residential and commercial customers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, along with some areas of Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo counties. “We take the time to educate the customers. We are in a water-scarce state and we have water shortages in our area because of the severe drought we’ve experienced for the past several years. We are always addressing drought issues, even when we get lots of rain. Water is scarce. It is a big issue.
“We know this will always be a problem in our service area, so we strive to put in the best, most efficient systems that minimize water being wasted to treat our customers’ water conditions. We continue to test no-salt alternatives and try to be optimistic that something will be developed that actually works fairly well that doesn’t use salt or potassium to reduce or remove calcium and magnesium hardness minerals from the water.”
He said hard water, chlorine, and chloramines are the biggest problems they encounter with city water. “The average water hardness in our area is 18 to 25 grains per gallon. Some areas on municipal water have 45 to 55 grains per gallon. We not only sell and rent water softeners but also do whole-house filtration systems to reduce the chlorine and chloramines for most customers.
“On well water, we run into all kinds of problems, such as iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, high TDS, and brackish water. We typically custom-design a treatment system for these applications, which includes pH correction, oxidation, filtration, softening, whole-house RO, as well as bacteria and virus protection.
“Some of the biggest challenges we face are the cities that have banned salt-based softeners. That limits us on what we can offer these customers. We have not found a great alternative to salt-based softeners to remove hardness from the water. Reverse osmosis works the best but it is not that practical to put in a whole-house RO system to reduce the hardness because of the large cost—and the bigger problem is the amount of water wasted with these RO systems.
“I anticipate that more regulations on salt discharge and water efficiencies will be put in place on water treatment products. We have to continue to find new products that not only effectively work to treat customers’ water problems but reduce the amount of water it takes to operate these systems. We need to sell and rent systems that are a lot more efficient, looking at how much water and salt they use, for a much smaller footprint on the environment,” he said.
Hellenbrand is a Certified Water Specialist, Certified Installer and has specialty certifications in RO, deionization, filtration, and ultrafiltration. When he started Advanced Water Solutions in 1997, he tried hiring people from within the industry. “Early on, my thought process was that it would be easier to get people trained by another dealer. But it seems they come with bad habits, things that are difficult to change. So I found it was a lot easier to hire from scratch and train them completely on how we need to have things done.
“We prefer to train our employees and teach them our way about installing and servicing our products and how we want our customer's taken care of. We offer in-house, manufacturer, and WQA training, and some of our employees are WQA-certified. We really strive to make our customers completely satisfied. Our turnover is pretty low; my two top installation/service guys have been with me for 18 and 19 years. We are very proud of our employees and everyone works as a team to provide the best customer service. That’s something my Mom and Dad instilled in me. We must be doing something right because our customers continue to tell us and show us great Google and Yelp reviews.
“One of the rewarding things about owning my own business is that I get to create a future for not only myself but my employees. It is rewarding meeting new customers and seeing customers from 21 years ago who still appreciate our products and great service and continue to refer us to their friends, family, and neighbors. It is so rewarding to see customers and hear them say good things about our company and the employees.
His twin Jodi also followed family tradition and works in the water treatment industry. “She works for two of my brothers in Dad’s business.” Will there be a third-generation?
“I have two daughters, ages 16 and 13. The oldest helps a bit but is not showing too much interest. It would be cool if they did come around after college and after they are out in the real world for a while and then come back.
“In the last year, we expanded into the coffee business. We are now providing coffee, tea, and espresso along with coffee brewers and equipment to coffee shops, restaurants, and large businesses. We have been providing water treatment products to these customers for years, so it was a natural transition to provide the coffee and equipment as well. It is exciting to expand into this market. Over the next 10 years, we plan to continue growing both the water treatment and coffee business, while maintaining our great customer service along the way.”