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Sea what happens


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. January 16, 2015
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Executive Summary
Industry. Residential and commercial aquariums Key. Industry has started to come back after being down in the recession. Trend. Aquarium installation companies have reported more big-ticket jobs.


New business owner Sean Stalter, who relocated to Sarasota in 2012 partially to escape Ohio winters, found himself in frigid New York early last year on an unusual business trip.

The founder and CEO of Manatee County-based SeaQuatic Aquariums, Stalter was more orchestra conductor than entrepreneur on that project. His firm was installing a 16-foot-wide, 15,000-gallon custom-made aquarium in a basement of a house. The installation required permits, a police escort to get down some streets, a crane and a 15-person crew. The aquarium, which SeaQuatic also designed and manufactured, was broken into five pieces to make it inside the residence. Then it was reassembled.

The hectic, urgent-yet-delicate approach of that project is a microcosm of SeaQuatic's fast rise to the surface of the niche custom-built aquarium industry. The company, with aquariums that cost from about $30,000 to at least $1 million, recently doubled its space when it moved into a 7,000-square-foot facility north of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

And annual sales at SeaQuatic, currently in the mid-seven figures, says Stalter, more than doubled in 2014 over 2013. The firm, with residential and commercial clients, has six employees and Stalter expects to hire a few more this year, including someone to handle marketing. Clients range from the New York house and another residence in Cape Coral to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and a shark tank in a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. Stalter plans to target clients overseas in 2015, especially public aquariums that need remodeled and new exhibits.

All this from a business Stalter, 26, launched on his own in 2012 —two years after he graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio with a degree in physics. “We have a unique market capture,” says Stalter. “We do everything in house. We handle it all.”

SeaQuatic is also one of several aquarium businesses on the Gulf Coast to ride a surge in new work and clients. For example, Richard Bettis, who has owned Sarasota-based Sea Clear Aquariums since 1989, says annual sales at his firm have doubled over the last two years, from $500,000 to more than $1 million. Bettis projects Sea Clear will grow sales at least 25% in 2015. Says Bettis: “We expect to go nothing but up from here.”

Creative Aquariums of Tampa, which opened a storefront location on Dale Mabry Highway in 2008, is also in fast-growth mode. Co-owner Tom Mars says sales are up 15% to 20% a year in each of the past few years, and the firm has added several employees, for a current payroll of 10 people. “We are growing at a nice, steady pace,” Mars says.

High-tech additions
The home and commercial aquarium industry, mostly a hobby, was battered by the recession. But it's on the way back. The number of freshwater fish in U.S households recently surpassed 17 million, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, up more than 20% since the downturn. People keep aquariums an average of seven years, the association reports.

The housing market resurgence is one reason for the industry rebound. More construction, from senior living complexes to luxury homes, means more opportunities to sell tanks and fish. The aquarium industry, adds Bettis, “kind of runs neck and neck with new construction.”

The aquarium sector is doing so well it's attracted the reality TV crowd. Shows include “Tanked,” on Animal Planet, which follows the antics of the owners of Las Vegas-based Acrylic Tank Manufacturing, a company the show claims is the largest aquarium-manufacturing firm in the country. Closer to the Gulf Coast is “Fish Tank Kings,” on the Nat Geo Wild network. That show profiles aquariums built by Fort Lauderdale-based Living Color Aquariums.

Another reason for the industry growth, according to trade publications and websites, is changes in aquarium technology have made it easier to buy and maintain tanks for novices and beginners. That includes cleaning systems that can delay the growth of algae and conditioners that remove chlorine and other chemicals with one usage.

The industry has even entered the high-tech world of wearables, sort of, with FishBit. Launched earlier this month, FishBit is a smartphone app and connected device that allows aquarium owners to monitor their tanks when they aren't there. The app's sensors, working wirelessly through the glass, can track pH levels, temperature and other key tank data. It reports the information on the app. The San Francisco-based developer of FishBit is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a beta run.

For companies like SeaQuatic and Creative Aquariums of Tampa, the changes have not only meant more business, but more complicated work. Many projects are games of one-upmanship that require more than just marine science knowledge. “When you do custom installation,” says Mars, “you really become a general contractor. You really have to understand the lingo.”

Mars, Stalter at SeaQuatic and Bettis with Sea Clear Aquariums in Sarasota, have all recently overseen projects that require a heavy dose of logistics and precise planning. Sea Clear Aquariums, for instance, installed a new supersized aquarium inside Sharky's On The Pier in Venice. “We specialize in any shape and any size,” says Bettis.

Stay strong
Stalter says he built SeaQuatic with the same ethos.

An important aspect of the model, he says, is the firm builds acrylic fish tanks, in addition to the traditional glass models. Acrylic provides better visibility and less distortion, says Stalter, and acrylic materials are also lighter than glass, so SeaQuatic can build bigger and even more unique aquariums.

SeaQuatic also has a patent on an acrylic bonding method. Engineers and technicians use that process to make large panels, up to almost any size, without seams to tie the pieces together.

The SeaQuatic method, says Stalter, is highlighted in the 32-foot-long, 4,000-gallon tank the firm completed last summer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The hydrodynamic tank is for wave research, so the requirements were to build something durable and strong. So strong, says Stalter, the final product was placed on a blue powder coated steel stand that could support 40,000 pounds.

Stalter says he's gotten the word out about SeaQuatic's capabilities mostly through a combination of online marketing and networking within the industry. But with his time spent more frequently on project management, Stalter says his biggest challenge is to hire the right marketing and sales person to bring in more business.

While Stalter says he enjoys running his own company, his true passion comes from the art of doing. “When you consider that we start with nothing but raw materials and end up with this product, it's pretty incredible,” says Stalter. “I like being able to create something.”

 

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