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Pat Whalen, president and chief executive officer of LuminUltra Technologies Ltd., a Fredericton, N.B.-based provider of water testing kits, does business in 50 countries but hasn’t found much traction in Canada, where we take fresh, clean water for granted. (David Smith For The Globe and Mail)
Pat Whalen, president and chief executive officer of LuminUltra Technologies Ltd., a Fredericton, N.B.-based provider of water testing kits, does business in 50 countries but hasn’t found much traction in Canada, where we take fresh, clean water for granted. (David Smith For The Globe and Mail)

THE CHALLENGE

H2O testing firm wins everywhere but watery Canada Add to ...

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Having found success in some 50 countries worldwide, Pat Whalen would like to get some love here at home.

Mr. Whalen is president and chief executive officer of LuminUltra Technologies Ltd., a Fredericton, N.B.-based provider of microbiological testing kits, equipment and analytics software for utilities and industries that use water. LuminUltra’s clients range from water treatment plants to oil and gas producers.

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In the case of water treatment, Mr. Whalen says his company’s testing products are cheap insurance.

“It’s something that costs a few dollars per test to make sure that you don’t have a big problem somewhere within the hundreds or thousands of kilometres of pipe that sit underneath a city,” he explains, comparing it to a smoke alarm. “A smoke alarm doesn’t tell you how a fire started, it doesn’t tell you exactly where it is, but it alerts you to the fact that you have a fire.”

Launched in 2003, LuminUltra has about 1,500 clients in some 50 countries through its network of distributors, agents and sales partners. The company’s 2013 revenue was approximately $3.4-million, a 30-per-cent increase over the previous year. The company has 24 employees.

But LuminUltra has been an easier sell in the United States and elsewhere overseas than in Canada, where its customers number roughly 150.

A big obstacle to growing the business domestically is that unlike many other countries, Canada has vast water supplies, Mr. Whalen notes. “So there’s not a whole lot of interest in advanced technologies for treating water and reusing water and dealing with the challenges that come with that.”

Mr. Whalen would like to change that attitude. So far, though, LuminUltra has signed up only about 10 Canadian water utilities in the Greater Toronto Area and elsewhere from a pool that he puts at some 4,000. One bright spot is Alberta, where it serves more clients than in any other province. Energy companies use its products to monitor and prevent the corrosion of equipment such as pipelines and wellheads, Mr. Whalen says.

To succeed at home, LuminUltra must promote itself to thousands of potential customers across the country. But how? Social media hasn’t caught on in water and wastewater management and engineering, and print advertising is “essentially dead,” Mr. Whalen says.

“There’s really no good answer,” he laments.

The Challenge: How can LuminUltra raise its profile among potential Canadian customers?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Jake Chalmers, president of the branding firm Storydriven Inc., Vancouver

I find that the low-hanging fruit is business-to-business storytelling. I suspect LuminUltra has a clearly defined market. In that case, your customer acquisition costs can be quite low if you get your storytelling tactics correct.

In water treatment, the company has to turn on its head the notion that we have the world’s best water supply. Instead of thinking about it as an unlimited resource, think about being the caretakers of that resource, and tell a story about the role that industry plays in it, and how LuminUltra helps make that happen.

Rather than trying to create an overall story for the business, LuminUltra should focus on a targeted solution for each industry and create a small tactical storytelling kit and market directly to it.

If you tell the right story in social media, it catches on like wildfire. If you do the same thing in a B2B network, people tend to pass it along.

I’d avoid the typical checklist of, “Oh, we need a Facebook and a Twitter account and Google+, and try to push out content about how awesome we are on there.” I’d probably say, “Look, I’ve got 4,000 prospects. They’re not leads; they’re prospects. How do I tell a relevant tactical story to them, and what are the layers of those stories I need to tell?”

Lisa Shepherd, president of the marketing firm Mezzanine Group, Toronto

The most important thing for this CEO to think about is, is Canada actually a good market? I’d really want to make sure he’s done his due diligence to validate that the Canadian market is the best place for him to spend his revenue-generation dollars.

They need to get more specific about whom to raise awareness among. They can think about provinces and verticals or industries. They should prioritize. If the oil patch is an opportunity, then they say, “Okay, we want to sell to oil and gas, and obviously that’s going to be Alberta, and maybe we want to sell to municipal water utilities, and that’s vertical No. 2.”

If he’s serious about growing the business in Canada, he should concentrate on Ontario and Alberta first. Because it’s going to cost money to do this. It’s also about understanding who their buyer is and what that buying behaviour is. And so within a municipal water utility, they might be selling to the executive director or the plant operator.

Then it’s a question of how do they get their message and their information into the heads and hands of those people. They might do some PR around their success stories and pitch those stories to the oil-patch trade publications.

These guys probably have got a lot of amazing expertise, but they’ve got to package it up in the form of articles, white papers, maybe infographics, maybe a blog so they can get their information out into the market.

Ed Quilty, founder, president and CEO, Aquatic Informatics Inc., provider of water monitoring and analysis software, Vancouver

Looking back, how we were able to gain trust and confidence from the local market was through our network. I was very active in industry associations like the Canadian Water Resources Association and the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. Through them, we continue to this day to do joint marketing initiatives.

The second thing I think we’ve done a good job on is thought leadership. We do a lot of blogs, white papers and conference presentations. So it’s not in your face, pushing our product; it’s more talking about trends in the market and other technologies.

I hired a recently retired Water Survey of Canada scientist, and he had a lot of energy and wisdom, really had that 30,000-foot view of the market. He was a natural at blogs and white papers, and I think he really wanted to share his experience as a bit of a legacy. It’s unbelievable how much confidence we gained in the local market.

The third thing we’ve done to raise awareness is gaining awards. There’s the BC Technology Industry Association: We applied for their awards every year, and we’ve won a bunch. So that gets us on the local radar.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Do direct marketing

Tailor your story to a variety of industries and target each one.

Pursue thought leadership

Get your message out through blogs, white papers and conference presentations.

Prioritize industries and provinces

Given the expense of building the business in Canada, focus on Ontario and Alberta first.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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