How does one go about getting into the industrial water treatment trade — the not necessarily glamorous business of processing raw water and wastewater to meet tight quality specifications at companies of all sizes?
“It was a job,” shrugged Alan Bader.
One suspects that the plainspoken founder and president of Clearwater Industries is being overly humble. The Shelton firm just celebrated its 25th anniversary, growing steadily from Bader’s Trumbull home to its recently expanded 415 Bridgeport Ave. offices and warehouse, which now total about 9,000 square feet. Its high-profile customers include Sacred Heart and Harvard universities as well as 20 public school systems — including in Bridgeport, Darien and Greenwich — and a number of hospitals and office buildings.
“Boiler inspections, backflow device testing, flushing — they can be pretty dirty, ugly jobs,” Bader said. “But we have a dedicated crew who gets the job done, works well together — and the fact that we’re still here means we’re doing something right.”
Indeed, Bader said Clearwater’s revenue has been growing by about 10 percent over the past several years. “I used to dream about us being a million-dollar company,” he chuckled. “But we passed that a while ago.”
Bader personally has been in the trade for about 40 years, having worked at Gotham Chemical after realizing that his future would not involve staying at Bader’s TV. That business — a fixture on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield for over 50 years — was run by his father, Samuel.
“I thought I’d be the king of TV,” Bader said. “We got along as father and son, but when it came to being in business together — not so much.”
Having studied chemistry in school, Bader got a job selling “industrial cleaners, degreasers, that kind of stuff” for another firm. He initially got involved with water treatment “as a sideline,” he said, until Gotham Chemical in Norwalk hired him.
“I was beating down their door as their competitor,” he said, “so they decided it would be easier just to hire me.”
After about 10 years, however, Gotham ran into some legal troubles, Bader said, and he decided to go out on his own.
“I was terrified,” he said. “By that time I had a family but no money. I was very fortunate to be able to get my first loan from my brother-in-law to basically pay our bills while I built the business.”
Bringing some of his accounts along from Gotham — some of which Bader said remain with him to this day — allowed him to grow from storing empty chemical containers in a specially built space in his Trumbull home to the Bridgeport Avenue address.
“It was a little rough at first,” he said. “Even my sister was pretty apprehensive — she told her husband not to loan me the money for what they were then calling the ‘Cockamamie Chemical Company.’ And it took a while — but here we are.”
Family clearly continues to play a part at Clearwater. His wife, Pam, was originally in charge of the office while Bader went on sales and service calls, “I eventually had to fire her,” he laughed. “Dealing with the business all day and then still having to face it at home was too much.”
Bader’s son Seth works at Clearwater as manager of special projects and new construction. While the family patriarch said he’d like his daughter, Stephanie, to be a part of it as well, “she’s in Chicago and has made it clear that this isn’t for her.”
As with most industries, technology in the water treatment field has continued to evolve. The firm maintains ongoing training for its 14 employees — many of whom have been there for 10 years or more — and is constantly on the lookout for new developments in the products and kinds of services it provides. It continues to maintain a strong relationship with supplier Eastern Technologies, Bader said, emphasizing that Clearwater doesn’t manufacture the industrial cleaning products it utilizes.
“We’ve been fortunate in that we all work together and we all have our own skill sets,” he said. “Some of our guys didn’t even know they had certain skill sets until the need arose.”
Resolutely “old school” — he said he’s gotten used to how much business is done today by email rather than phone calls or in-person visits, but only grudgingly — Bader said he relies on the younger members of Clearwater’s team like Technical Director Stephen Ashbolt to stay abreast of many of the latest technological advances, personally preferring to focus on the big picture.
He’s also a collector of old metal sign advertisements and of classic cars; several vintage Corvettes and a Firebird make their home in one of Clearwater’s warehouse spaces, joined not long ago by a Porsche.
“I thought my wife would really like it,” he said of the latter. Rolling his eyes, he added, “It didn’t really work out that way.”
As for his future at Clearwater, Bader said he has no plans to move on from what, after all, began as just “a job.”
“I really love it,” he said.