If you have been in the water gardening business for 10 years or more, you’ve certainly had a front-row seat for the evolution as well as the devolution of our industry. We’ve gone from an era of seemingly every contractor having a pickup truck and retailer having a storefront doing and carrying water features, to water features serving as primarily a niche item handled by specialists.
Indeed, the specialty water feature contractors and retailers are not just surviving, but thriving. If the macroeconomic picture of our industry appears bleak, the microeconomic reality for the passionate companies who remain in the water feature industry today is bright! As Aquascape enters the milestone of its 25th anniversary, the landscape of the waterscaping industry is very different from when we started. The opportunities in our market are still there — you just need a much more focused effort to uncover them. And, at least in my case, a positive outlook with a little perspective from the school of hard knocks doesn’t hurt, either!
I launched Aquascape in 1991 as a summertime job to make some spending cash, and I had no problem landing work through some very rudimentary marketing efforts. Classified ads in the newspaper, a flyer at the local rock yard and word-of-mouth advertising helped me land five jobs totaling $21,000 in sales with a tidy, $11,000 net profit for my three months of efforts. Ah, the good-old, simple days!
Building the Team & Catalog
One thing led to another, and soon enough, landscapers were asking to buy my products so they could do the installations themselves. I recruited my father, Gary Wittstock, who had recently taken an early retirement, and together we set out to create the industry’s first commercial skimmer and biological waterfall filters. Soon after, a young scientist named Ed Beaulieu was intrigued by the title of a talk we gave at a local library, “The Aquascape Ecosystem,” and he subsequently joined our team. Ed joined me along with three or four other laborers in the field. Almost immediately, we began experimenting with custom-designed, fiberglass prototypes based on our original garbage can mechanical skimmers and biological cattle trough waterfall filters. It was an exciting and crazy time for us all, with my father dealing with patent attorneys, tool and dye makers and plastic factories. Our collaborative efforts resulted in the pond industry’s first-ever commercial skimmer and waterfall filters. It felt like we had just given birth when we finally saw our first beautiful, rotationally molded units.
In the spring of 1995, armed with our recently-awarded skimmer and Biofalls patents, Aquascape launched the first professional pond products catalog in the industry. With a rented list of landscape contractors, we mailed 26,000 catalogs introducing our products and the Aquascape Ecosystem philosophy to the world. Using our expertise as contractors ourselves, we taught others our 20-step, 20-product approach to systematize and standardize the installation process. This revolutionized the ease with which water features could be installed, and through our catalog, classroom and hands-on builds, we spread the word about what we were doing in Chicagoland. Water features were a hot, new trend; the economy was burning up; and contractors and retailers were eager to learn all that we could teach them about building, selling and retailing water features.
In the summer of 1995, catalog orders were streaming in, and we hired our first full-time warehouse employee. Brian Helfrich, a red-headed, freckle-faced kid right out of high school, came walking through our doors for the first time. No more than three months later, we gave in to his insistent nagging and assigned him to work outside with his hands. Twenty-one years later, Brian is our second-longest tenured employee and now heads our Chicagoland research and development team.
The decade from 1996 to 2006 represented double-digit growth every year for Aquascape and landed our company in the Inc. magazine list of the 500 fastest-growing, privately-held companies four years in a row. But with our rapid growth came an equal amount of discord. Our success spawned a growing number of competitors who entered the market and tried to replicate what we were doing.
Furthermore, my father and I couldn’t agree on the direction to take the business. I bought out his share of the company, and he created Pondsweep Manufacturing, which would become Aquascape’s first direct competitor. A few of our distributors soon followed suit, setting up competing operations. Eventually even some of our customers, enticed by this expanding marketplace, created their own competing businesses. It can be said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but for all the success Aquascape was having, I was learning the very painful lessons that often go hand-in-hand with a business’s growth.
Nothing, however, could prepare me for the rug being pulled out from underneath me when the recession hit in 2008. We hit a sales peak of $59.4 million in 2007 but dropped a whopping $12 million the following year. Like a lot of the rest of the world, I was thinking, “What the hell just happened?”
The next few years were the most challenging, but they were surprisingly rewarding, as our team struggled to right-size the ship. With the clear edict from our then-CFO Colleen Heitzler to reduce expenses, we painfully trimmed our payroll from a peak of 195 people to just more than 100. We also invested heavily in the innovation of smaller water feature products, consumables such as water treatments and items like fish food that could be utilized in existing water features. Scott Rhodes, our then-director of product marketing, analyzed every product we made, with the goal to maximize the value of each in the marketplace. From design and warranty to packaging and price point, everything we sold was analyzed against the criterion of being the best overall value for our customers — and ultimately the end users. Our efforts paid off, and we were able to turn the corner and begin growing sales again.
The Fall of Aqualand
Then, just when things started looking up, everything literally came tumbling down. On Feb. 11, 2011, my vision for a workplace utopia, Aqualand, collapsed under the weight of a near-record snowfall.
It’s been said that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent what you do about it. It’s also been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What our team did – operating out of three different facilities in three different towns while rebuilding Aqualand over the next 10 months – was nothing short of transformational for me.
As I continued to focus my efforts externally on selling water features to contractors and retailers, Colleen Heitzler, now the president of Aquascape, led the day-to-day operations of the management team. The rewarding part for me came from my hard-earned, newfound love for our team and the greater industry as a whole. I will never again take for granted the importance of what we do and the honor I feel doing it with such quality people.
For that reason, the building collapse coming on the heels of hopefully the worst recession of our lifetime actually became the single greatest defining event for me in our company’s evolution. Having survived the worst blow conceivable with the economic downturn and the collapse of our building only to come out stronger on the other side has made me confident that our team can survive whatever challenges lie ahead.
The Aquascape Foundation
What’s happening today is a direct reflection of the factors that have shaped us. Through the entire experience of rebuilding our sales and eventually our building, we stayed true to our company’s core values, especially philanthropy. Starting in 2009, the Aquascape Foundation, the brainchild of my wife Carla, traveled annually to install Aquascape rainwater harvesting technology in third-world countries. Over the past seven years, we have never had a shortage of certified Aquascape contractors willing, eager and able to lend a hand, regardless of their own business struggles.
Our world has changed in profound ways that I could have never perceived a scant decade ago. Aquascape is embracing that change and doing what it takes to help the industry grow again.
New Opportunities with New Technology
With so many ponds in the ground, there’s a huge market in simply upgrading existing water features that are already out there. As a passionate, hobbyist-led company, we are all very much focused on improving the consumer experience with water features. As such, we’ve been able to innovate many new products, like an automatic water treatment dosing system and ionizer units that reduce a consumer’s need for maintenance, while expanding the opportunities for the contractors and retailers we serve.
Despite our success in achieving new growth through servicing existing water features, the thing we are most excited about is creating a new demand for new water features. Nowhere else is the opportunity greater than through the use of new technology. Long gone are the days of Aquascape printing millions of catalogs and distributing them through the U.S. Postal Service. Starting with the fall 2014 premiere of “Pond Stars” on Nat Geo Wild, our marketing efforts have been laser-focused on growing consumer awareness and the demand for water features worldwide. We are now exporting our American-made products around the world, including our newest marketplace, China. In the beginning of this year, Aquascape completed its largest project to date, a $2.3 million water feature for a “Pond Stars” fan at his new shopping mall in Villavicencio, Colombia, led by none other than our director of field research and Aquascape’s longest-serving teammate, Ed Beaulieu.
With more options than ever to spread the great news of the water feature lifestyle among professionals and consumers alike, I feel like a kid with a key to the candy store! That’s both the opportunity and the problem we face today. Aquascape’s digital media department is working nonstop just trying to keep up with our constantly connected world. Our library now consists of a couple hundred videos with more than 10 million YouTube views and countless more views on social media. We just completed the construction of an in-house studio and soon will be able to generate multiple inspirational and educational videos each week. With water features, it’s hard to beat a medium like video for getting the good word out there. And as hobbyists ourselves, getting the right word out there is a gift that technology finally allows us to share. With more than 60,000 fans alone on the Aquascape Facebook page and the ability to constantly update content, distributing a cohesive message to a growing online audience is easier than ever.
By promoting our motto, “Ponds Done Right, Customers Served Right,” we are able to support all of our contractor and retail customers by growing consumer awareness, and ultimately, the demand for water features. The internet is a bold, new world of marketing and consumer power, where 40 percent of all consumers start their product searches, and the rate is growing. Being front and center with quality content online is the future of marketing. As the only full-line aquatic products manufacturer in the world with a construction, retail and maintenance division, we have an endless supply of pertinent information and a passion to get it out there to the masses.
A Quarter-Century in the Books
For many people, 25 years would be a good career. For me, it feels like I’m just at halftime. I can’t wait to get the second half started! Ushering in the next growth phase is what I feel the first 25 years has prepared our company and team for.
For the next chapter of this story, one thing’s for certain. We are a lot smarter and, in particular, stronger because of what we’ve collectively gone through as a company and an industry. As wonderful as it was to experience double-digit growth over the first 16 years in business, you don’t know what you’re made of until you’ve survived a downturn. You also don’t know what you’ve got until you’re about to lose it.
“The definition of hell is a life without problems,” they say. That’s all business is — fixing problems. The bigger the challenge, though, the bigger the opportunity. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to make the world better for the stakeholders we support in this industry. It’s a gift I will never take for granted again.