Fighting the water wars

    Like most wars, it started slowly and then escalated. I was simply approving some invoices and noticed for the 46th time that we were paying $20 per month to rent an employee drinking fountain. But this time I made a note to ask someone why. No big deal.
    At the next staff meeting I casually asked Ms. Ferguson, my loyal office manager, to check into purchasing the water fountain. That was all.
    Little did I know the Great Water War had begun.
    It turned out the drinking fountain could not be purchased, only rented. No one seems to know why. So Ms. Ferguson, thinking I was insistent on purchasing, had it removed.
    This caused quite an uproar among employees, who liked stopping in the hallway for a little swig of water about 23 times a day. I missed it a little myself, and asked Ms. Ferguson what she had in mind.
    "I had no choice," she replied. "They wouldnít sell it to us. I had to purchase a dispenser for hot and cold bottled water instead. It was only $150 versus a rental of $16 a month. Itís coming tomorrow."
    "I hate that bottled water stuff," I said. "You have to use a cup every time, even if you only want to wet your mouth. Then you have to find a garbage can to throw the cup way. Itís awfully tedious."
    "Do you want me to get the drinking fountain back?" she asked.
    I made an executive decision. "Yes."
    But it was too late. The next day Ms. Ferguson showed me notes from employees thanking her for the bottled water. "It tastes so much better than San Francisco tap water," wrote one. "I really enjoy my water breaks now," wrote another.
    "Now what do we do?" asked Ms. Ferguson. "And by the way, the water company called. They made a mistake. Itís not $150 to buy the hot and cold dispenser, itís $250."
    I was already mighty tired of talking about water. "Fine. At least we own it instead of renting it. Iíll just have to learn to live with the cups."
    So it was agreed. That was on a Friday. On Monday Ms. Ferguson wanted to talk water again.
   "I couldnít believe it," she gasped. "The weekend employees went through three bottles of water at $8 each in only two days. Thatís $24 worth of water. What do we do now?"
    If thereís one thing Ms. Ferguson and I share in life, itís frugality.
    "Thatís ridiculous," I cried. "Are they taking it home with them? Washing their hands in it? Whatís going on?"
    Ms. Ferguson shrugged. "This canít go on. It would cost us almost $300 a month in water. Letís get rid of it. Thereís nothing wrong with San Francisco tap water."
    I agreed. A couple of hours later Ms. Ferguson returned. She had found a company that would sell us a drinking fountain for $550.
    "How much to rent it?" I asked.
    "They donít rent, only sell. And you have to buy a maintenance contract so theyíll come and change the filter every six months."
    I sighed a powerful sigh. She handed me a couple more notes from employees about how much they appreciated drinking bottled water over that San Francisco sludge. Then I started thinking about the $20 per month rental charge for the old drinking fountain versus the $550 cost for the new one. Letís see, in 28 months it would be paid for but you have to figure in depreciation, maintenance, a present dollar value ratio.
     My head was beginning to spin. A decision had to be made. The employees clearly liked the bottled water, but it was expensive. I liked the drinking fountain, but I grew up in San Francisco and had acquired a taste.
    "What should we do?" Ms. Ferguson asked again.
    This is a column about small business and this was a classic small business decision. While larger companies are deciding whether to dive into the blossoming Russian and Vietnamese economies, I am deciding whether to go with bottled water with cups or San Francisco tap water, taken straight. And to top it off, there was that nagging question of rent versus purchase.
    A decision had to be made. I turned to Ms. Ferguson and announced that I had come to a conclusion.
    "What is it?" she asked, breathlessly.
    "Iíve decided," I said, my voice crackling with authority, "that I donít care. You make the decision."
    Thus ended my part in the Great Water War.


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