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LEWIS LEUNG, Star Tribune

Rivals are in a dust-up over cleaning technology

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER
  • Star Tribune
  • April 15, 2012 - 6:59 PM

The rivalry in industrial floor cleaning has gotten down and dirty.

During the past five years, Tennant Co.'s chemical-free cleaning technology has been the major growth engine for the Golden Valley-based company. But since 2010, competitor Nilfisk-Advance has protested that Tennant's marketing claims for the eco-friendly products aren't legit, stirring up a dust storm between the competitors.

Nilfisk recently scored a victory.

Responding to a complaint from Nilfisk, an arm of the Better Business Bureau examined Tennant's marketing claims for its technology, which electronically converts tap water to activated water to clean without chemicals. The Council of BBB's National Advertising Division (NAD) concluded Tennant had overstated the new products' cost savings and should stop asserting it delivered a "superior" cleaning performance.

Nilfisk, a Danish competitor with U.S. operations in Plymouth, pounced on the ruling. The company contacted media outlets and issued a news release proclaiming it had unmasked Tennant. Nilfisk announced that Tennant's activated water cleaned no better than plain tap water.

Nilfisk soon found itself in hot water.

Turns out, its release violated an NAD rule that prohibits companies involved in the ad group's proceedings from using rulings for promotional purposes. Tennant had e-mailed the release to the NAD, which promptly chastised Nilfisk.

"Being publicly called to account for behavior that does not represent fair play is a sanction," said NAD spokeswoman Linda Bean. She said it's extremely rare for the group to call out companies for breaking the rules.

It's also pretty unusual for companies in the $24 billion commercial cleaning business to snipe at each other, said Bill Balek, a spokesman for the International Sanitary Supply Association. "It's a very collegial industry," said Balek, whose group counts Tennant and its rivals among 6,000 members that make everything from mops to high-tech cleaning machines.

Nilfisk isn't the only competitor that's taken aim at Tennant. Alfred Kärcher GmbH & Co. KG, a German rival, has sued Tennant, alleging claims for the technology are false and misleading. The suit is pending, but a German court last week ordered Kärcher to stop publicly criticizing Tennant's marketing.

Balek declined to comment directly on the fracas between Tennant and its rivals. But he said he has seen similar disputes when a company launches a dramatically new technology that seeks to upend the market.

Tennant clearly views its chemical-free cleaning products as transformative. "We think that this is a disruptive technology in the marketplace," said Karen Durant, a vice president. The company agreed to discuss disputes with competitors on the condition that it not comment on the NAD proceedings to comply with the ad group's rules.

Introduced in 2008, Tennant's patented ec-H2O technology has taken off. Sales of scrubbers equipped with ec-H2O have grown from just $17 million, or 2 percent of total sales, in 2008 to $140 million, or 18 percent of total sales, last year. The company has forecast 15 percent to 20 percent sales growth for chemical-free products this year, compared to single-digit growth for the company overall.

Durant said the technology has brought Tennant new large retail customers like Kroger, Whole Foods and Ikea. About 50 percent of ec-H2O customers were new to Tennant in the first two years the technology was on the market, she said, a clear sign the company has grabbed market share. Chemical-free products also have enabled Tennant to capture a larger share of business from customers that have multiple cleaning suppliers, Durant said.

Nilfisk spokeswoman Amy Rotenberg says the company is pleased with its financial performance. The company, which make a variety of indoor and outdoor cleaning equipment, said in its annual report that global revenue rose 8 percent last year and growth in floor-care revenue in North America was "satisfactory." Nilfisk has its own line of green floor scrubbers called EcoFlex that use tap water but can switch to various amounts of detergent if more cleaning power is needed.

Rotenberg said Nilfisk doesn't think it violated NAD's rules, but even if it did it has no regrets about publicizing the ruling.

"This is about telling the truth," she said. "If a competitor is not playing fair it should be called out."

Both sides cite independent tests of ec-H2O that support their views of how well it cleans. Tennant initially asserted the technology converted water into "a powerful detergent" but dropped that claim after it was criticized by Nilfisk. Tennant told NAD it had even stopped using the "superior" claim before the ad group reviewed its marketing.

"Ad campaigns evolve and change all the time," Durant said. She said the company stands behind its technology. "We don't have customers returning our machines," she said.

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

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