In the midst of World War II, a handshake deal in Lancaster between Kurt Aronsohn, a hydraulic engineer who had fled Germany, and Charlie Beard, a local machine shop owner, marked the beginning of the “Lancaster Pump.”
Occupying a small storeroom at West Chestnut and North Water streets, Lancaster Pump & Manufacturing Co. became a leading designer and seller of pumps made by C-B Tool, located on Bean Hill Road, near Wabank Road.
“Charlie, if you make the pumps, I’ll sell them,” Aronsohn is remembered to have said when the informal deal was struck.
For the next 36 years, the two companies cooperated, with C-B Tool producing pumps, including the Lancaster Pump, for Lancaster Pump & Manufacturing.
The long-standing informal relationship between the two companies was cemented in 1978, when C-B Tool, operated then by Charlie Beard’s son, Bill, bought the assets of Lancaster Pump & Manufacturing.
The next year, Bill’s stepson, John Wenzel, joined the firm, which continued to make pumps but moved increasingly into selling water treatment systems.
“Back then, the business was a pump company that also sold water treatment,” said Wenzel, who eventually became the company’s president. “Now we’re kind of a water treatment company that also sells pumps.”
Wenzel said the transition he helped oversee to selling customized water treatment systems made sense because pumps had become a commodity, with competition based mostly on price.
Now, Wenzel is stepping back from the company that now is called Lancaster Water Group. His older son, Josh, recently became president, and his younger son, Mike, now serves as vice president.
The 74-year-old Wenzel, who became chairman of the company when his sons assumed their new roles, says that while he never really envisioned that his sons would continue the business as leaders and owners, he’s thrilled that they have.
“I love it. I think it is tremendous,” he said. “I personally am blessed to be in this situation. I’m blessed to have my two sons operating this business.”
A combined company
Today, C-B Tool, which continues to operate as a custom machine shop, remains the parent company of Lancaster Water Group, which manufactures pumps and also assembles water treatment systems from its circa-1952 plant at 1340 Manheim Pike.
The Wenzels declined to disclose annual sales, saying only they are “multimillion.” Overall, the company has 44 employees, with 23 at C-B Tool and 21 at Lancaster Water Group.
The 42-year-old Josh Wenzel became one of its employees when he was 19 years old. Wenzel, who didn’t finish college, worked his way up through a variety of jobs including manufacturing, assembly, shipping and sales before moving into leadership.
Josh Wenzel now owns the majority of the company with his 34-year-old brother, Mike. Their father still has a minority ownership stake and serves in the new role of chairman, which he likens to being a part-time consultant.
The three Wenzels say their personalities mesh well in the business. The elder Wenzel is the visionary with the experience. Mike Wenzel is the methodical organizer with a business degree from Millersville University. Josh Wenzel is the natural salesman whose suggested headline for this article was “Best water treatment equipment in the world.”
Water treatment options
Locally, Lancaster Water Group operates under the radar from its low-slung, tan building just south of the Route 30 overpass, but the services it offers have become increasingly mainstream.
The benefits of “softening” water by removing minerals such as calcium and sodium carbonate were illustrated in a 2009 study by the Battelle Memorial Institute, which showed that household appliances lasted longer with softened water.
The Wenzels still point to the findings of the independent study group which have highlighted some of the possible benefits of their chief product.
“The consumer today is a lot more educated than they used to be,” Josh Wenzel said.
With more awareness about the possible contaminants in water, including lead from aging water pipes, Josh Wenzel said more people have investigated the benefits of setting an in-house system, which can cost around $1,500, before installation.
“We custom define what a solution needs to look like,” Josh said.
For Lancaster Water Group, that solution often begins with a free water test, which Wenzel says will be the last time you hear from the company — unless the consumers take the next step themselves.
Such no-pressure sales tactics are a legacy of the company, which the elder Wenzel says has continued to value the integrity embodied in the handshake that marked its beginning.
“Honesty and integrity drives us,” said the elder Wenzel, striking a meeting table to emphasize those points during an interview at the company’s Manheim Pike office.
“If you’re honest with yourself, you’re honest with your employees, you’re honest with your customers and you have a high level of integrity, you can do nothing but move forward,” he said.