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Niche franchising

Waterway lights a fire under firefighters



Most firefighters have second jobs, and they know their way around fire hoses. That makes them the perfect franchisees for the fire-hose testing company, Waterway.

Ed O'Kinsky, a firefighter with the Naval Air Engineering Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, was talking to Alasdair Ritchie in 2005 about his business, which tested fire hoses for fire departments.

Ritchie liked the idea and offered to take it to a partner.

They quickly realized Waterway would be a perfect franchise opportunity for a firefighter. Firefighters know the industry, know the importance of strong hoses and they know the standards. Plus, they usually have downtime. Volunteer firefighters can take care of the business between calls. O'Kinsky said many firefighters have second jobs, anyway.

Kay Marie Ainsley, a partner in MSA, a franchise consulting firm that helped make it a franchise, was impressed by the concept's simplicity. "It can be easily duplicated, it's easily taught to others and there are no other players in that field," she said.

Ritchie calls it a niche business, in that it's not immediately obvious to people. An entrepreneur who is the first to offer the service can make money.

Waterway Inc. was created in mid-2007. The company hired a franchise manager, John Green, former fire chief and instructor with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Ritchie became CEO, O'Kinsky became president. The first franchise opened last April.


Alasdair Ritchie

Alasdair Ritchie came up with the idea to franchise his friend's hose-testing service.

They have 10 franchisees, mostly on the East Coast. They get most of their business from smaller city departments that don't test hoses themselves.

O'Kinsky, 44, started as a volunteer firefighter in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, in 1981. He then went to the Department of Defense in 1989. "One of the first tasks that I was asked to perform was to be in charge of testing the fire hose," he said.

It's a time-consuming, sometimes hazardous task for firefighters, because the hoses are large and unwieldy, they can break loose and hit the tester, or burst and splash. O'Kinsky quickly grew tired of this burden, so he wondered, "There has to be someone out there who can do this for us."

His fire chief knew of no one, and said to O'Kinsky, "Why don't you try to find somebody for us."

He got the same reaction from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, Massachusetts. "Maybe you should start a hose-testing company, because there are none," they said.


Waterway Fire Hose Testing

Testing fire hoses isn't a job most firefighters enjoy at work. However, it's not a bad way to make a second income.

He had a pump built through trial and error by a manufacturer, and came up with a gas-powered version, which tests the strength of a hose by filling it with pressurized water. A defective hose will pop and go flat. There is also a visual inspection of the hose.

Franchisees are taught how to handle the equipment on the first day, and on subsequent days are taught the administrative side of the business. Franchisees are provided with software that allows them to handle most jobs, including payroll and billing.

One of the franchisees is Steve Schuman, 50, a volunteer firefighter in Wantagh, New York. He wanted his 22-year-old son Steve, also a career firefighter, to work in the business with him, then eventually assume control.

"So far, so good. I think we're growing at a good pace," Schuman said.

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