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In lead crises, a maker of water-filtration pitchers sees opportunity clearly

Drip by drip, disclosures about unsafe levels of lead in drinking water have been made in U.S. cities and towns, prompting alarm and outrage.

A ZeroWater demonstration shows its filter doing a better job of removing solubles from wine than a competing brand of filter, which left the wine pink.
A ZeroWater demonstration shows its filter doing a better job of removing solubles from wine than a competing brand of filter, which left the wine pink.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Drip by drip, disclosures about unsafe levels of lead in drinking water have been made in U.S. cities and towns, prompting alarm and outrage.

At one company in Bensalem, those findings have been met with a respectful sense of opportunity.

In every headline about lead contamination in Flint, Newark, Sebring, and the like, and every condemnation of its dangers by health officials and presidential candidates, Zero Technologies L.L.C. sees growth potential - and more distance from its own near-death experience.

The 10-year-old company produces flow-through pitchers whose patented five-stage ion-exchange filters will, it says, render a glass of water more than 99.6 percent free of total dissolved solids, including lead. ZeroWater, as the product's name suggests.

The lead claim is certified by NSF International, which develops public-health standards and testing programs.

An "I Donated for Flint" pin worn by Zero Technologies CEO Douglas Kellam during a recent interview refers to an ongoing campaign that has resulted in $200,000 in private and company-match donations to fund distribution of ZeroWater pitchers and replacement filters in Michigan. The 23-cup pitcher sells for $40; the two-pack of replacement filters, for $30, on

Kellam makes no apologies for an effort that, while aiding those in crisis, also helps ZeroWater boost brand awareness.

"If you do something good, hopefully it reflects good on you," he said.

Momentum at the privately owned company has been positive in recent years, Kellam said, with $30 million in annual revenue and 39 percent sales growth in 2015, up from 26 percent in 2014.

It wasn't that way when the start-up/turnaround expert left vacuum company Dyson to join Zero Technologies in June 2008: "We were pretty close to running out of money."

Zero Technologies' main product then was a filtration system for office and home water coolers sold at Home Depot, among other places. That national distribution presence alone required an army of salespeople, Kellam said.

With manufacturing and shipping done in-house, the company - founded by inventors Rajan Rajan and a son, Mathu, who are no longer involved with it - Zero Technologies had 180 local employees and insufficient sales to support such infrastructure.

Retail opportunities for its pitchers were few. Industry leader Brita, whose U.S. distribution rights are owned by Clorox Co., dominated shelf space and sales where ZeroWater wanted to compete: Target, Walmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond stores.

"It was kind of ugly," Kellam, 57, who commutes weekly from his home outside Chicago, said of his early days at Zero Technologies. "A lot of angry investors."

Understandably so. Seven months before he arrived, investors put up $25 million to help fund a national rollout of products. Of that, $14 million came from Montgomery County-based NutriSystem Inc.

The company "was going to go out of business if we didn't change it," said Kellam, who recalled similar circumstances at Dyson. "It's a category that has never had any serious performance improvements for decades. ZeroWater had a performance aspect that was demonstrable and valuable to the consumer."

So Kellam shifted focus from water coolers to pitchers, going head-to-head with Brita, which has about 60 percent of the market, according to a 2015 industry analysis by Freedonia Group Inc. Zero Technologies' share is about 10 percent, he said.

Freedonia estimates demand for flow-through water-treatment systems will grow 4.3 percent annually, to 4.8 million units and a value of $81 million in 2019, up from $51 million in 2004.

Needing to devote time to cleaning up its own balance sheet, Nutrisystem divested from Zero Technologies in 2009, Kellam said. To help support a launch of ZeroWater pitchers and two-packs of replacement filters that summer, he appealed for "a few million dollars" from a subgroup of the original investors, who continue to support the company, he said.

They include Thomas Mendell, a New York venture capitalist and former partner at Goldman Sachs, where he ran the investment arm, GS Capital. In the water-filtration market, he sees pipe fulls - literally - of opportunity on the lead front alone.

"We haven't touched the surface on that," Mendell said, maintaining that "80 percent of the housing stock have lead solder in their pipes. . . . That doesn't include the pipes coming in from the street."

Then there's chromium, he said. NSF has certified that ZeroWater's filters reduce its presence in water by up to 99.6 percent.

In overall sales, "we don't have any illusions about surpassing Brita. They're well ahead of us at this point," Mendell said. "But there is a niche for a quality we do fill."

It's a higher-end market. ZeroWater's filters are about 21/2 times more expensive than Brita's and don't last as long. Kellam said that's because they accomplish more.

Brita says total annual sales for its pitchers and filters is $228 million. Spokesman David Kargas declined to comment on ZeroWater, but said that "people are seeing the value of making water, in general, and filtered water, in particular, their drink of choice." Brita's focus, he said, is "showing people that filtered water is a better solution than bottled water - both for their pocketbook and the environment."

Competition from bottled water is of continuing concern.

After rebounding from negative publicity a few years ago, including some false claims about water sources and concerns over plastic containers' environmental impact, the bottled-water industry is on an upswing, in part due to price cuts of up to 50 percent, Kellam said.

Another source of worry: "In this category, there's a lot of attrition. The biggest reason is cost," Kellam said.

In large part, the technology drives the price, he said, noting that skimping on quality in a business promising quality could be self-destructive.

As for Zero Technologies itself, it's a mere splash of its former self. The Bensalem workforce is down to 13 people. Most operations have been outsourced. Manufacturing is done in Mexico, assembly and shipping in Texas. The company plans a move Friday from its well-worn headquarters just off Byberry Road to 3,000 square feet at the Neshaminy Interplex in Trevose.

After breaking even in 2014, it expects to be profitable in 2016, in part due to distribution gains and more products on store shelves. Kellam would not disclose profit margins, saying only that "filters are very profitable" and that he "doesn't see why we couldn't double the business again in the next four to five years."

The threat of new competitors doesn't bother him. There are at least two a year, and few get traction, he said. In his time, they have included 3M, Rubbermaid, Honeywell, and General Electric.

"Even with a superior-performance product like ours, it's still taken years to get where we've gotten," Kellam said. "That's a big barrier to entry."