President of Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc. since 1998, Robert J. “Bob” Wimmer likes to mix humor with astute observations from a 15-year career in the water and wastewater market and longer as a corporate turnaround specialist. He laughs easily, particularly when referring to comings and goings of conglomerates in recent years such as Siemens, GE, ITT, Tyco and RWE.
“Maybe I’ll buy them,” he jokes about RWE’s plans to divest itself of Thames Water, a former employer. “The interesting thing about the water business is it’s in play. People aren’t taking it for granted anymore. I’ve said I don’t want to consider myself a water guy. I’m sort of a business guy. And I just happen to be in the water business. But... you sort of get hooked into it. It’s a fun market to play in.”
Wimmer’s start in the industry was 1991 at Ashbrook Corp. in Houston as CEO, positioning it for a sale. Thames Water bought it and kept him on. He moved to Pittsburgh where he oversaw Ashbrook and F.B. Leopold and then all of Thames’ U.S. businesses. He then “drew the short straw,” as he put it, and was named to head up all of Thames product businesses worldwide. This required biweekly commutes to London, racking up hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles.
“British Airways really liked me,” Wimmer said. “It was marvelous experience, albeit I got burnt out from going back and forth and there were three years of my life I didn’t get to see my kids growing up. You never can get that back. But, I did learn a lot about the international market.”
Earlier, he tried to sell Thames’ aeration business to Aqua-Aerobic, a wastewater treatment specialist founded in 1969. Another company got the business, but a friendship with the principal owner led to Wimmer getting a call when he decided to retire. Wimmer took him up on the offer to lead the Rockford, IL, company. Business then was split roughly 50-50 between municipal and industrial, with a large chunk of the latter in mechanical aeration for pulp & paper customers.
It’s now more diversified with diffused aeration systems, direct-drive mixers, sequencing batch reactor systems, cloth and sand media filters, multiple-barrier membrane systems, and spray coolers. Wimmer reduces these to: a) biological treatment; b) filtration, and c) aftermarket sales and service. The business split is now 85-15, with a decline in industrial tracking misfortunes of the paper industry in the last decade. His goal is to restore more balance to that, targeting food & beverage manufacturers, for one.
“The problem you face in the water business industrially is wastewater, which is our primary source of revenue here, is often an afterthought,” Wimmer said. Without regulatory enforcement, most industries don’t focus on it unless public health is affected. That means a big part of the job is showing potential clients how treatment can save money on capital equipment costs or processes, whether due to fewer additives, water reuse, or other resource recovery. That educational process is where his company has excelled, he added.
In fact, it’s finishing a $4 million, 33,000-sq. ft. headquarters addition, including 12,000 sq. ft. in production and 21,000 sq. ft. in office area with an advanced conferencing classroom that, in April, will enable it to expand its popular monthly seminar series. They draw politicians, public health officials, environmentalists and engineers - as well as water professionals.
Past chairman of the Water & Wastewater Manufacturers Association, Wimmer sent a surrogate to its late-January annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale that was postponed last fall due to Hurricane Wilma. He sees the group playing a key role in promotion of water reuse, but says one of its most valuable roles is in raising consciousness about the value of water:
“Until people... really understand that and we really get into beneficial reuse or recycle - the industrial wastewater business will always go up and down. There are pockets of strength because of pollution, but the fact of the matter is, in general, there has to be a better awareness of the value of water. That sums it up.” IWW
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