Keeping the business “all in the family” has helped place Aquatech International Corporation in a unique position. “We’re the last privately held, medium-sized major company in the industrial water and wastewater treatment market,” says Devesh Sharma, executive vice president for the Canonsburg, Pa.-based company.
Aquatech was founded in 1981 by his father, Prem Sharma, who passed away in 1991. Today, Prem’s widow, Chandra Sharma, is the company’s chairperson. Prem’s son (and Devesh’s brother) Venkee Sharma is president and chief executive officer. Other Sharma family members are among the ranks of Aquatech’s executives.
But don’t let family ownership or company size give you the impression that this is a mom-and-pop shop in the water and wastewater treatment industry. Aquatech is highly sophisticated in terms of products, services and technology. In fact, it is a recognized industry leader with a global reach in terms of customers and locations. Its market position seems remarkable when compared to its super-sized conglomerate competition. Actually, Aquatech’s size has proved an advantage.
“Most of our competition is owned by a mega-company, but our unique profile has allowed us to remain more competitive,” says Devesh Sharma. “We can be more nimble and more attuned to delivering customized solutions. Larger companies are a little less prone to do things like that.”
In less than a quarter of a century – “We celebrate our 25th anniversary in 2006,” reports Sharma – Aquatech developed into a leader in supplying industrial water and wastewater treatment solutions by specializing in industrial purification technologies. Aquatech offers a broad scope of water treatment solutions in design and engineering, project management, manufacturing, turnkey installation and commissioning/field troubleshooting.
Aquatech’s biggest claim to fame, Sharma points out, is the range of technologies that it provides to clients. These include raw water treatment, ion exchange, membrane processes, wastewater recycle/reuse, zero liquid discharge, industrial concentration and desalination. “We can offer customers all of their needs within their plant through what we call our ‘integrated systems model,'” he explains.
When defining this model, Sharma indicates that, typically in the market, if a customer needs raw water treatment, they go to one provider. If they also need pure water treatment, they go to another. For something like waste evaporation, they go to yet another provider. “Aquatech provides all of that within a tightly knit group,” he reveals.
Water as Pure as Possible
Within its integrated system, Aquatech works in four major technological categories, offering a spectrum of applicable, specific technologies required by industrial end-users. One of the categories is raw water treatment. “Basically, that’s taking surface waters, like river water or lake water, and taking it to a potable, or drinking water, quality,” say Sharma.
The second technology, a step up in the spectrum, is ion exchange, which involves taking that potable water and turning it into a level of high purity water. “That can be done through ion exchange or through the third technology category, which is membranes,” says Sharma.
Higher levels of purity, he continues, are required in different industries. For example, the power and petrochemical industries that Aquatech services need absolutely pure water, with no minerals present. “The water is actually so pure that you can’t drink it,” comments Sharma. “Drinking water has minerals, and when you de-mineralize that water, and get it closer to actual pure H2O, it is corrosive in nature and actually draws minerals from your body.”
The fourth category involves thermal technologies, which are employed in wastewater evaporation or desalination. “We’re one of only a handful of companies in the world that can provide all of the known technologies for desalination,” says Sharma. That distinction resulted from the one major acquisition in the company’s relatively short history.
Roots in Western Pennsylvania
Only 24 years ago, in 1981, Prem Sharma founded Aquatech. Prem was a chemical engineer who worked in the water and treatment industry in India, Canada and the United States. “When he settled in Pittsburgh, he decided to go it alone and start a water treatment systems manufacturing company,” recalls his son.
Appropriate to its western Pennsylvania location, the company began as an industrial water treatment systems supplier for the steel industry. Throughout the 1980s, the company diversified. Today its serves domestic and international clients in the power generation, petrochemical, chemical, pulp & paper, microelectronics, semiconductor, automotive, pharmaceutical, fertilizer, and steel industries.
In the 1990s, the company began developing a global presence. During its history, Aquatech completed over 450 projects in over 50 countries across the world. Another significant development occurred in that decade. As Aquatech looked ahead into the new century, it determined that its future growth would be stimulated by involvement in two new and increasingly major areas: water reuse and desalination. That determination led to a major investment in new technology via acquisition. “That acquisition has made all of the difference for us in the past five years,” remarks Sharma.
That acquisition happened in the summer of 2000, when Aquatech bought Aqua-Chem Inc.’s Industrial Concentration and Desalination business units located in Milwaukee. The purchase strengthened Aquatech’s zero liquid discharge (ZLD) capabilities and allowed the company to stay on top of a major market trend: an increasing demand for ZLD systems in the United States, due to more plants being built in the west. “The rule in certain states is that when you build a new plant you must use all of the water that you take in and not discharge any of it into the environment,” explains Sharma. “That motivates plants to reuse the water as much as possible.”
When you can maximize your water reuse, he explains, you minimize the amount of waste you need to evaporate. Aquatech counts among its biggest successes in the past five years attaining the top position in the U.S. ZLD market. “It’s a niche market, and we’ve been successful because we’ve innovated. By bringing an exciting set of technologies to the table, we’ve made it more economical for clients to reuse the water,” says Sharma. Equipping itself with new technological capabilities is all part of the company’s philosophy of differentiation achieved through technology that adds value.
The Milwaukee-based Aqua-Chem business units represent Aquatech’s one major acquisition. Otherwise, Sharma indicates, company growth has been mainly organic. “When we coupled what the acquisition brought with what we already had in our core business, it fueled a lot of our recent growth,” says Sharma. “So I would still consider the growth to be organic.” Over the past 15 years, according to the company, Aquatech has grown at an average annual rate of more than 10 percent. “That’s in our engineered business systems,” Sharma clarifies. “In our service business, we’ve grown on average between 30 to 50 percent a year. We have a fast-growing service entity.”
Aquatech’s service business provides value to clients beyond system supply and installation. Its industrial service division offers help in areas of troubleshooting, scheduled maintenance, operation and maintenance, spare parts, leasing and plant upgrades.
Aquatech’s main manufacturing facility is located at its Canonsburg headquarters. It includes 75,000 square feet of production area for the fabrication and the assembly of the systems. “But we also have people spread out across the country and the world in sales and service, and we also have main locations in other countries,” says Sharma.
Aquatech has support offices in Canada, India, China and the Middle East. Further, its technology can be found in plants across the United States and the world. Aquatech has an installed customer in countries in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Sharma explains that Aquatech supplies to EPCs (engineer procurement construct) and engineering companies that build power plants and refineries. Aquatech equipment can be found in diverse locations such as chemical processing plants, steel mills, automobile manufacturing facilities, pharmaceutical plants, health and beauty aid manufacturing facilities, and food and beverage facilities.
“As we evolve we are becoming more of an EPC ourselves, on the water side,” says Sharma.
EPCs, he explains, involves the engineering, manufacture and supply of plants. “EPCs also manage the construction to create a full solution for the client,” he adds. “Traditionally, we have been an OEM and supplied equipment to customers who would do the rest. As we move into the future, we’ll be doing more ‘EPCing’ of projects ourselves.”
When delineating the “products” that Aquatech provides, it’s more appropriate to define its offerings as technologies (i.e., raw water treatment, ion exchange, membrane systems, wastewater recycling, and ZLD). However, the company portfolio also includes certain provisions that could be termed products in the more conventional sense. In addition to offering custom-engineered solutions, Aquatech offers pre-engineered “standard” water treatment products for smaller flows including WaterTrak, a collection of demineralization, reverse osmosis, and electrodeionization (EDI) systems that provides a cost-effective and fast solution for pure water treatment; Recomax, a standard, packaged system designed as a solution for wastewater recycle/reuse that handles a variety of difficult waters that cannot effectively or economically be treated any other way; and Crystal, a standard industrial crystallizer, designed to achieve ZLD performance that eliminates wastewater by evaporating liquid and producing a salt cake.
Carrying on the Tradition
With his international career trajectory, Prem Sharma could be described as a “citizen of the world.” Appropriately enough, the company he founded now provides universal application that transcends territorial boundaries. His family goes with the flow by carrying on the tradition with a forward-directed approach that has resulted in the kind of integration that can serve as a corporate model for any market.