Corporate owned and never happier Featured

9:48am EDT July 22, 2002

Steve Orr, like many entrepreneurs, always wanted to have his own business.

He was 21 when he quit college and jumped at the opportunity to start his own company servicing aquariums.

“Dad, I’m quitting electrical engineering to go scrub algae for a living,” he jokes.

But soon his little aquarium service, Premier Aquatics, grew into a bona fide business with a dozen employees and a half-million dollars in annual sales.

This from what started as “just a job” in custom sales at Byerly’s aquarium stores; he’d purchased the Byerly’s service division to create his own company.

“I never even had a goldfish when I was a kid,” he says, “but it quickly became a love and a hobby.”

That was in 1988. A decade later, his picture changed.

In walked Aquarium Adventure superstores. With the backing of multimillion-dollar parent Petland Inc. of Chillicothe, the newcomer nearly sank Orr’s retail business. Then Orr uncovered a golden opportunity that led him to put an end to his own company and join the retail behemoth.

Rather than regret moving from the top of his own creation to a player in a much larger organization, Orr found just the opposite.

“For me it was liberating,” he says. “Before, I was doing all the administration, paperwork, payroll, taxes, meeting with the accountant, paying the bills and ordering the product. Now all of that is done by specialists. So it frees me up to go back to my focus, to do what I do best — custom aquariums.”

Treading water

Premier Aquatics had grown at a steady pace. Orr bought out his partner in the first year and added service trucks, as well as a high-end, salt-water specialty store on Bethel Road. He was seeing annual revenues of $500,000 — and a fork in the road.

“We had hit a size where we couldn’t operate as a small business anymore,” he says. He struggled to grow to the next level, say 50 employees.

“We had reached no man’s land,” he says, explaining the period small business owners experience after the start-up stage but before their company really grows.

Then came the turning point.

Aquarium Adventure, the superstore concept by Petland, moved into Central Ohio — three miles from Orr’s store.

“They opened a 12,000-square-foot superstore right up the road in a great location, and it pretty much nuked our retail business,” he says.

He decided to close his retail sales operations and focus solely on servicing customers.

Then he paid a visit to his competitor.

At the asking, Columbus-based Aquarium Adventure executives shared with him their business plans.

“They were struggling to get a service division going,” Orr says. “Their focus was retail.”

Orr was left standing with his foot unexpectedly in the door.

A new school of fish

Very early on, Orr says, both parties realized it would make sense to partner.

“The bottom line is we’re businessmen,” Orr says. “We both wanted to grow our business. It was obviously good business sense.”

Within six months, the companies had merged. Orr is now the manager of Aquarium Adventure’s installation/service division.

Orr at first found it tough to make the transition to corporate life from owning his own business.

“It was sad to let that go,” he says of the certain “club”-like group of fellow entrepreneurs who had built their companies from scratch. “But I quickly realized that the crux of that is just pride in good work and a job well done, and that doesn’t go away. It’s still challenging and a level of expertise that is my responsibility. The bulk of it doesn’t change — or didn’t for me, at least.”

He’s never looked back, and he’s reaping the benefits.

  • For the first time, he’s working with peers. “There are big pluses to that,” Orr says. “I have people I can go to and discuss issues with. It isn’t all on me.”

  • He’s got the pull of big business behind him. “It allows me to grow easier; there’s less problem with capital and cash flow; there are much greater resources in inventory and staff and advertising and marketing because there’s an economy of scale,” he says.

  • Personnel issues are easier. His employees made out in the deal with greater pay and benefits. Plus, it’s easier for him to hire, because employees prove their worth in the retail division before they’re eligible to join Orr’s service staff.

  • Stability has become the norm. “I can cash my paycheck each time I get it. I used to be the last one to be paid,” he says, referring to his days as a business owner settling bills and payroll before drawing any profit.

Adjusting to the new habitat

Orr and his new boss, Bill Wymard, Aquarium Adventure’s director of operations, both say attitude has been key in making the merger work.

“That was a big plus for Steve coming on board with us. There could have been a situation where, when you sell your own business and you’re your own entrepreneur, to sell it could be very difficult. There could be ego problems,” says Wymard, who himself sold his own Petland franchise before launching Aquarium Adventure.

Orr says he had to adjust to the culture of a large company, even though he saw the advantage to having peers in management.

“At the same time, I had to be respectful of the other people running the company,” Orr says. “I couldn’t make snap decisions like I used to.”

The arrangement requires both sides to give and take.

“There are things that I’m sure Steve felt strongly about and wanted to continue to do or to operate in a certain way,” Wymard says, “so we say, ‘You’ve got the background and experience. Although that’s not the way we would do things, that’s fine, we’ll step back.’”

For example, Orr insisted he be able to provide the same level of service to customers as he did while operating Premier Aquatics. In fact, he met with his existing customers at the time of the merger to alleviate fears that he would not be the person taking care of them under the ownership change. In addition, because Aquarium Adventure was a new division of Petland, he was able to use systems he already had in place and inventory he preferred.

“They really gave me free reign to run services as we needed to do,” Orr says of Petland executives.

“It also takes close monitoring from the beginning to make sure both sides were comfortable,” Wymard says, noting boundaries are set and tested so each side needs to be flexible.

Overall, Wymard stresses, each party needed to acknowledge the expertise of the other.

“I think it’s the checking of the egos and being a good team player, with everyone understanding what the goal is and working together,” Wymard says. “Ultimately, the company needs to be successful and everybody wins.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.