Father-Son Team Mike and Steve Barry Concentrate on Service After the Sale

North Carolina’s AQWA Inc. secures an ongoing revenue stream through great service of the wastewater equipment it sells

Father-Son Team Mike and Steve Barry Concentrate on Service After the Sale

 Technician Jonathan Handley inspects an effluent filter that is part of an Orenco AdvanTex treatment system in Zebulon, North Carolina. (Photos by Gray Whitley)


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What began as a father-son talk about post-retirement careers took form as a new family wastewater business. Twenty years later, father Mike and son Steve Barry can look back on, and look forward to, a thriving and growing operation based in Wilson, North Carolina, and extending into neighboring states. 

Mike knew change was coming with his retirement as an Army colonel in 2002. “Denise and I had been traveling the world for 30 years. We were looking to settle down somewhere,” he says. 

“Years ago I had started a career as a county health inspector in Tampa,” Steve says. Just before Mike retired, Steve moved into the private wastewater industry, saw the treatment systems under development and realized the expanding potential of onsite technology. 

“We had talked about any kind of business, but particularly trying to establish a family business. That was the key factor,” Mike says. 

“He wanted to do something with me and a family business as opposed to some consulting job somewhere in D.C.,” Steve adds. 

They started with a black marker and a piece of butcher paper on the floor of an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, Mike says, and they mapped out what their organization would look like and where it would be focused.


Mike is originally from Decatur, Georgia. He graduated from Georgia State and earned a master’s degree in operations research engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology. As an Army officer he was assigned to the U.S. Southern Command in Miami at the end of his career and was involved in the overall development of Army facilities. Wastewater was part of facility plans, but he didn’t get into the details, “until I got into the business with Steve.”

It was Steve, a 1995 Texas A&M graduate, who suggested they look at North Carolina. In his private sector job with a manufacturing company, he became familiar with North Carolina, especially its Atlantic coast. He found people in the state were interested in high-quality work and found state regulators and installers were forward-thinking about the industry.

“Steve talked about the industry and the focus on quality and trying to establish some rigor in the treatment industry for smaller facilities. And that certainly interested me,” Mike recalls.

So they started AQWA Inc. 

At the time, Steve’s brother Mark was living in New York City and working as creative director for an advertising firm. He designed the business logo, tag line, and helped with some of the early branding. 

Work is about 85% residential, meaning a single-family home or a rental home with a relatively low volume of waste, and 15% commercial.

“But those commercial jobs,” Steve says, “you only need a few of those, and the revenue starts to dwarf the residential side.” Revenue is split about 50-50 between the two types of work. 


The company sells only Orenco Systems equipment for treatment and services about 700 AdvanTex systems across the Carolinas and Virginia. AQWA carries other products, but it is equipment, such as drip irrigation, that supplements the primary treatment system.

“For a long time, we were a residential-focused company,” Steve says. Although they wanted to expand their services, that wasn’t possible until about the last 10 years when Orenco developed larger systems that allowed AQWA to serve larger commercial customers. 

Large onsite systems that the company services can reach 40,000 to 50,000 gpd. Once capacity exceeds 100,000 gpd, an NPDES permit is necessary, Steve says. 

“We do a fair amount on the outskirts of some cities. So we’ll have charter schools that are just outside of municipal sewered areas, and yet they need a treatment system that can deal with, for example, the high nitrogen that schools can put out,” Steve says. 

The economic calculation, he says, is always whether the treatment system cost is justified by the land value, and in the Carolinas land values are soaring. Two projects AQWA is working on this year are a pair of mobile home parks where activated-sludge systems are being replaced with AdvanTex treatment systems discharging to a stream under an NPDES permit. 

“From the first concept of it, the business was built so that we could sell high-quality equipment that we would then service afterward. So we were going to sell ourselves a fleet to become, essentially, a utility,” Steve says. 

They may help with installation, and they help with engineering and design, but ultimately the goal is to operate a fleet, he says. This approach helps insulate the company from the cycles of the building market. By the time the Great Recession of 2007-08 came along, only about five years after the business was founded, Steve says, the company was already servicing enough systems to keep its doors open at a time when home construction was in a slump. 


“Our growth plans are in terms of services we’re providing,” Steve says. For example, the company recently acquired a general contractor’s license, and Steve’s son Ethan recently joined the company with his new degree in mechanical engineering. It’s an advantage especially for larger projects, Steve says, because Ethan can talk with partners as one engineer to another. 

“The engineering will continue to be engineering support for the engineers we work with,” he says. “And the same for the contracting. We see it as allowing some of our existing installer partners to maybe punch a little bit above their usual weight class considering we can bid on some pretty big projects with our unlimited license.” 

AQWA can serve its territory efficiently in part because of modern telecommunications. 

“One of the things we liked about Orenco, when we started working our relationship with them, is they have a tool called VeriComm, which is a web-based system that allows us to remotely monitor our small sites,” Mike says. “On the commercial side they’ve got a little larger system called Tcom, which is a telemetry-based system — and these days it’s all cellular-based — that allows us to monitor the commercial sites’ performance and collect data.”

Technicians still have to make visits. Residences need two visits a year, plus systems in North Carolina need a third visit to collect samples. A route may take a technician to Jackson County in the far southwestern corner of the state (about 350 miles from Wilson) with an overnight stay. The next day could include visiting a couple of residential systems and a commercial system, dropping samples at a lab, finishing the service route and going home. 

“They don’t physically come into the office except for about once a week to go through their truck, making sure that any parts they’ve used are replenished, and doing any paperwork and coordination,” Mike says.


Technicians are equipped with a tablet and Utility Cloud software that keeps the inspection record — time on site, what is accomplished, and any issues that need attention. Hard copy reports generated from the software are sent to customers through the mail. 

One advantage of a large service area, Mike says, is technicians can be rerouted to keep them safe and productive. When a powerful storm with snow and sleet swept through the South in January, technicians were sent toward the coast where precipitation fell as rain.

“We try to be flexible to do that. Sometimes we get in a bind with an alarm,” Mike says. 

If there is an alarm, they may first look for help from someone on site, he says. The AQWA representative will ask the person to go to the control panel and instruct them how to send a diagnostic message to the company office.

“I’d say 50% of our alarm calls tend to be something like a toilet running, or maybe a (circuit breaker) in the electrical panel,” Mike says. Sometimes those problems can be resolved using telemetry, he says, but if a technician has to go, then a technician goes.

“But you’d be surprised at how much we can catch with the telemetry,” Steve says. Given the wastewater capacity in most systems, alarms typically don’t require immediate attention, he says, but can wait until a regular business day. 


Another arm of AQWA is light fabrication. That consumes the full-time attention of a lead technician and an assistant. Much of this is building headworks. 

“We’ll order the equipment from Geoflow, Netafim USA, or others, then we’ll put everything together in a riser or a basin,” Steve says. 

In the last three to four years the company has been building STEP packages. Those start with a plastic tank from Roth Global Plastics. AQWA adds risers, components from Orenco, and ends by installing a full-length lead of flex conduit connected to a control panel that its technicians wire.

“So everything is plumbed in and stubbed out. The pumps are in. The floats are set,” Steve says. All an installer has to do is set the tank, mount the control panel and have the builder run power into it. “We’ve got a few subdivisions and a few utilities that are steadily using that now whenever they need a pressure sewer as an alternative to grinder packages.”


Work comes through engineers whom AQWA has developed relationships with over the years. They’ll outline a project they have and ask what the Barrys think about various solutions.

“When we first started, we banged on doors. We made sales calls to engineers and installers — and had plenty of doors slammed in our face,” Steve says. “We also did a lot of trainings where we would teach people about how to design a system, for example, or how to permit the system, why these systems were the way to go.

“We tried to make ourselves invaluable. While there was a high cost of acquisition of those customers, we were hoping to retain them with the quality of work and equipment that we provided,” he says. Trainings still happen, and face-to-face help will never go out of style, he adds. 

Michael Clayton, the company’s sales manager, is a resource to customers, and that type of service also won’t go out of style, he says. At the same time, he adds, Clayton is a millennial and thoroughly understands how to use the internet. The company has worked hard to develop its online presence, Steve says, and as a result, AQWA gets most leads that way now and can then bring in its partners — the engineers, soil scientists and installers it has built relationships with. 

AQWA is in its third location and has been there for 10 years. That will change in the near future. In terms of layout, the present building is perfect, Steve says, but it has become too small, and its city lot is too small for expansion.  

They want to at least double the size of their present facility, either by finding a new building or building their own solution. More space will make it harder for people to keep up on what other staff members are doing and to offer ideas, Steve says, but team members are starting to trip over each other. 

More space is definitely needed for fabrication, and a bit more for offices, Steve says. He’d like a little more room for equipment because the company has a couple of jobs under its general contractor license. “I think we’re going to bring a trencher in, and we may get to the point of a little mini-ex or a portable generator — tools for the job that most contractors have from the start we’re just starting to accumulate,” he says.


As an operations company, AQWA works without the usual yard full of heavy equipment. 

For service calls, technicians are equipped with an assortment of hand tools. One particularly valuable tool, Steve says, is a turbidity meter. That simple tool can quickly tell a technician about the state of media filters in an AdvanTex pod, he says. 

With a couple of exceptions, the company uses only Ford F-150 pickups with camper shells or boxes to hold tools and parts. Most of trucks are XL work trucks. A couple have four-wheel drive, which is handy at some sites in the mountains and along the Atlantic coast.

The AQWA team includes Steve Barry, CEO; Becky Barry, bookkeeper; Mike Barry, chief operating officer, and Denise Barry; Kevin Johnson, vice president of manufacturing; Michael Clayton, sales manager; Tammy Sanders, operations manager; Patrick Vanhook, project manager; Karie Bolton, administrative assistant; Ethan Barry, engineering support; and operators Chad Allen, Jonathan Handley, Jeff Cranmer, Chris Taylor, David Parker and Paul Smith.

Recent staff additions were Vanhook to superintendent jobs, Ethan Barry for engineering, and Bolton to handle office work. Given the pace of growth, Steve says, it’s likely the company will be looking for more people in the near future.

The strength of its team is one of the company’s advantages, Steve says. “You make a lot of mistakes along the way when you’ve been in business for 20 years, but one of things I think we’ve done right is hire great people.”

And in return, he says, the company makes sure to do right by employees. “They give a lot to us, and so we want to make sure we return that to them,” he says. 


While many parts of Florida are busy with septic-to-sewer conversions, the onsite industry in the Carolinas and Virginia is alive and strong, Steve says. 

“The ability to sewer every road and subdivision in the Carolinas or Virginia, or anywhere, is a pipe dream. Not only is it a pipe dream, it is also, I contend — and I’ll always contend — poor thinking,” he says. Sewer system failures can be catastrophic, whereas an onsite failure requires a simple replacement at a single home or requires a larger treatment system. 

The coast of North Carolina is fairly unique because it is not sewered, yet it is dense. It is an area that requires systems more complex than a conventional septic tank but simpler than a municipal system. “That niche is where we live. And you need to do it well, and continue to do it well, or else somebody’s going to come along and say, ‘Well, we need a sewer,’” Steve says.

Their company, he says, is engaged in a balancing act to provide systems that allow development without promoting overdevelopment. 

“This our 20th year,” Steve says. “Every year we have an end-of-year party, and we do some evaluation and some remembrance, but this year is definitely a special one. 

“My dad and I, we’ve never really been about growing, per se. We’ve been about doing things well and doing things the right way, and growth has been just a byproduct of that.” 


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