By Lou Hirsh
PALM DESERT -- These are busy days for the president and chief executive of USFilter Corp. In that sense, things havenít changed so much over the last 12 years for Andy Seidel.
In every other respect, change has been a constant in Seidelís corporate life at USFilter. At the age of 41, Seidel has already overseen the acquisition of 250 companies, and participated in two momentous company listings on the New York Stock Exchange.
He presided over a major internal transition as USFilter was acquired in 1999 by the French firm Vivendi, now known as Veolia Environment, transcending numerous corporate cultural differences in the process.
The winds of change are blowing again. Seidel, who has been USFilterís CEO since the French acquisition, is now preparing for Veoliaís sale later this year of large portions of USFilter.
It also put up for sale business units Culligan and Everpure. Last month, USFilter completed the sale of Everpure to Pentair Inc.
USFilter is a gem in Veoliaís portfolio. It was recently named North Americaís top water and wastewater treatment company in a survey of municipal customers done by New York research firm Frost & Sullivan.
USFilter by itself has $1.1 billion in annual sales, and Culligan racks up $700 million. As a result, there could be a long line of potential suitors when the companies officially go on the market.
"We expect a good amount of interest," said Seidel, relaxing in his Palm Desert office recently at the end of a week filled with meetings with bankers. Those meetings are part of what will be a yearlong screening process that began last fall, and wonít be final until an agreement is reached with a buyer around September or October.
The coming changeover raises questions about USFilterís future in the valley. Executives say the headquarters might stay where it is if a private-equity buyer acquires the company. But if itís bought by another corporate titan -- for instance, General Electric -- operations would most likely be shifted elsewhere.
The pending sale also brings inevitable queries about Seidelís own future with the company, which he joined in 1991 after being brought on board as a founding executive by entrepreneur Richard Heckmann.
"I would be excited by participating with a private equity buyer, but I have not ruled anything out and weíll just have to see where the process takes us this summer," Seidel said.
Whatever happens, Seidel said any future jobs must have elements of what he already enjoys about USFilter. That includes an informal and collegial workplace, set in an unpretentious headquarters building at Cook Street and Country Club Drive that reminds passers-by more of a quaint resort than a corporate landmark.
Family is an important theme in Seidelís life -- he lives in Indian Wells with wife, Phaedra, and their two young children. The walls of his company office sport photos of not only that family, but also a business family that heís been a part of since his MBA days at the University of Pennsylvaniaís Wharton business school.
One photo shows Seidel with several of his Wharton classmates -- six of whom were with Seidel not only in business school but during his days as a management consultant with Deloitte & Touche. Three are still with him at USFilter.
He and his colleagues took on all sorts of unusual challenges in their Deloitte days. Seidelís consulting clients included several California maximum security prisons, and he was brought in to help make inmate manufacturing facilities -- where prisoners made items like furniture and license plates -- more efficient.
"Why we were trying to make prisoners more efficient, I have no idea," Seidel quipped.
Even though Seidel has a bachelorís degree in chemical engineering, the water filtration business presented him with a serious learning curve. It meant combining the science of how USFilterís products worked with the challenges of running and growing the business.
"I had an MBA and thought I knew everything, but of course I didnít," Seidel recalled.
Early mistakes, however, were forgiven by the overall health of the economy and business markets, and USFilter steadily grew its customer base and revenues throughout the 1990s, leading to its eventual purchase by the French conglomerate.
"We had the right growth story in the right decade," Seidel added.
Seidel values his decision to stick with a group of people who share his world view and business priorities. That type of loyalty ensures that everyone is on the same page in terms of their commitment and their sense of where a company is heading.
"You should go into business with people who are on the same wealth curve if possible," he said. "That way you have people as hungry as you are."
Family life is important, and Seidel has been able to maintain a steady home life in spite of being on the road sometimes four or five days a week, visiting USFilterís 250 sites around the country. Over the recent Christmas holiday, he took his first-ever two-week vacation in the 12 years heís been with the company.
He also manages to remain active in the community, serving, for example, on the board of the private Marywood day school in Rancho Mirage.
And he has made a priority of ensuring that USFilter remains a good corporate neighbor. The most high-profile example is its work in the ongoing effort to improve the water quality of the environmentally troubled Salton Sea.
"People thought we had something up our sleeve -- that we were going to sell the water or something," Seidel said of the initial response to company initiatives. "Itís not that way at all."
He said the efforts stemmed from a desire to serve the community, and gave the drive for solutions a needed push forward. "Whoever this company is sold to is going to benefit from the good will that we have created," he added.
Change is something he has learned to thrive on, but not everything has to change for him to be happy in his life.
And if the next job lets him stay right in the Coachella Valley, where heís enjoyed living with his family for the past seven years, that would be fine with him.
"I really donít want to leave here," Seidel said.