John McNally 2012-12-14 02:29:18
Mike Zimmerer understands how to achieve liftoff. It’s hard not to know how to take off when you’re working in the aerospace and space shuttle industries. But even after working a few years in a romanticized industry such as aerospace, Zimmerer wanted to make a change. “In 1976 I was a little disenchanted with the aerospace industry,” Zimmerer recalls. “I was young and I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get out of Los Angeles.” Zimmerer – a City of Angels native – connected with an old boss who had been laid off from the Skylab program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “He convinced me to come to Florida,” Zimmerer says. “He had done some work on starting a plumbing supply company.” What’s in a name? Aqua-Draulics is an unusual name for a supply house, but it’s a name with history for the 11,000-sq.-ft. operation tucked away between natural barriers some 54 miles east of Orlando in the town of Rockledge. Zimmerer’s old boss had developed and patented a hydraulic boat lift he expected to be the next best thing and thought there was going to be such a demand for the product that the team (including two other investors) should create a supply house for materials. “It basically worked on a garden hose and was made out of PVC pipe,” Zimmerer says of the lift. “We developed that as a business. We were a little bit headstrong. We thought we were going to sell so many of these boat lifts that we needed a supplier. We decided to have Aqua-Draulics Plumbing Supply to buy our material from so we’d have it on both ends. Needless to say, the boat lifts didn’t take off. The plumbing supply did.” The “Draulics” in Aqua-Draulics still exists today as Aqua-Draulics Marine. It manufactures lifts and gates for whales, which are sold to SeaWorld and other marine water parks around the world. In 1991, Zimmerer and his wife, Mary Anne, decided to focus on the plumbing supply industry and today no longer have a working partnership with Aqua-Draulics Marine. A balancing act The Zimmerers, who married in 1986, have worked well together for the 21 years they’ve co-owned Aqua-Draulics. They continue to do strong business just outside Florida’s aerospace center. However, the job never ends for the pair. “It’s 24/7,” Mike says. Mary Anne chimes in just after Mike finishes his thought: “It really is.” “The only way we can stop thinking about this place is to get out of town,” Mike says of the family’s RV trips out west. There were moments in the past when Mike and Mary Anne thought it was the right time to expand Aqua-Draulics. Mary Anne, who admits she’s more hands-off with the business, always preached a more conservative approach. “I learned a lot from my folks,” Mary Anne says. “I learned about not getting in over your head. Mike and I learned to keep our noses clean and don’t get overleveraged. That’s what we did.” Almost immediately after they took control of Aqua-Draulics, the Zimmerers paid off the remaining balance on its Brevard County location. Eliminating the overhead has helped the company during the lean years. When the 2008 recession hit and the decomissioning of the Space Shuttle program occurred in 2011, Aqua- Draulics still retained its entire staff and did not cut employee benefits. “We used to have everyone work 50 hours a week,” Mary Anne Zimmerer says. “But for a couple years we cut that down to 40 hours and that tightens your belt real quick when you do that. We’re really proud that we have not had to cut anybody during one of the worst downturns I have ever seen.” Some of those employees include Aqua- Draulics Managing Director Harry Prosser and Showroom Consultant Laura Scott. Prosser has been with the company since 2001, while Scott came aboard in 2009 and has been in the plumbing showroom industry for more than seven years. The counter staff ’s “short-timer” has been with the company for 18 years. Aqua-Draulics’ showroom features TOTO, Delta, Brizo, Gerber, Grohe, InSinkErator, California Faucets and Moen. Other manufacturers such as Grundfos, Zoeller and Bradford White also are available for contractors or walk-in customers. Being a one-shop operation, Prosser and Scott make it a priority to provide flexibility for their customers. Typically the location is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but both are available to open thestore during off hours by appointment. This is critical for showroom customers and contractors alike because Aqua-Draulics isn’t always able to reel in larger contractors, but instead caters to smaller, local ones. “We’re doing everything we can to support the contractors,” Prosser says. “When we’re in contact with the end user or homeowner, we become an advocate for the plumbing contractor. We tell them not only about the services we offer, but also the benefits they’re going to receive from the plumbing contractor as well by keeping everything in the proper channels.” Scott appreciates the autonomy she receives from the Zimmerers and Prosser to generate showroom sales. The fact that she doesn’t need to run a decision up multiple flagpoles for approval has played a role in the company’s success. “We have the ability to sell what we want and what the customer wants,” Scott says. “We don’t have anyone from headquarters pushing us to sell a certain item. We sell what we have good experiences with and good support with.” Prosser adds: “If there are issues that come up, the decision makers are here. There are not five channels. There is one channel; down the hall.” Wishes and dreams Brevard County is a unique market tucked between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the St. John’s River and a series of lakes to the west. Aqua-Draulics, which counts seven competitors in its area, has tried to penetrate the Orlando market from time to time to varying degrees of success. Still, its name and reputation have made an impact outside its general region. “We’re smaller, but we have a good customer base in this area,” Scott says. “I’ve had customers drive all the way from Orlando to our showroom even when there are bigger outfits in Orlando. I have even had customers travel from Daytona down to the showroom, which is great.” Prosser says despite its size, Aqua-Draulics can reach the wide range of clients that make up the market area. Brevard County has every type of client from the budget-conscious customers who appreciate form and function to ones seeking the heights of luxury. Scott is starting to witness a sea of change to what the younger and older generations desire in their homes. “This market has been a traditional market in terms of style,” she says. “In recent months, I’ve seen more of a lean toward simplistic and contemporary designs. Not uber-contemporary, but more updated with clean lines. “We have a lot of aging-in-place with the retired consumers and they’re staying in their houses longer and want to have a bathroom that will work with them when they need that functionality.” Aqua-Draulics is a member of Omni and the buying group’s sister program, Luxury Products Group. The Zimmerers credit both with opening new avenues for the small company. Prosser adds Omni has been an “equalizer” for Aqua-Draulics, while the Zimmerers believe Omni gives the company a chance to compete against strong local competition. “Being in Omni has probably saved us. Between the rebates and the extra discounts we get through them, it puts us on a level playing field,” Mike Zimmerer says. “It’s a great way to network. That’s been the bottom line for us.” Aqua-Draulics association with LPG has increased business significantly in recent years. “Before we joined LPG we had a smattering and small offering of luxury products,” Prosser says. “When we became partners in LPG we changed our focus at that point to have a more diverse range of products. We didn’t get rid of the products we were successful with, but we realized there was more opportunity for us to offer something to a different clientele. When Laura came on board she pushed that to another level.” Mike Zimmerer is pleased his company has expanded its customer base and believes in the theory of continually offering luxury products throughout the company’s showroom to demonstrate to customers the possibilities they have for their own projects and to attract the high-end designers and clientele they didn’t have in the past. “If you only have a $1,000 toilet in your showroom, most people aren’t going to buy it,” Mike Zimmerer says. “But if you don’t offer a $1,000 toilet and only offer a $500 toilet, most people will buy the $300 toilet. If you offer a $1,000 toilet, maybe they’ll buy the $800 toilet. By having luxury products in our showroom, we’ve attracted the designers and higher-end clientele we were missing out on six or seven years ago.” To a person, everyone at Aqua-Draulics emphasizes they wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they’ve been without reaching out to and working with other small businessmen. “We’re not necessarily after the largest plumbing contractor in the area,” Prosser says. “We are a small company and we like relationships with small companies. Doing business with people you know and you trust is the key.” In May, Scott hosted a successful new product showing at the showroom for luxury product manufacturer Victoria + Albert and its Edge freestanding bathtub. Many local contractors and designers stopped in to see the product, but Scott was rewarded by the retail customers that showed up that night after previously expressing interest in the product line. “Three retail customers came in and I got sales orders from all three,” Scott says. “The designers were really excited about the event and it’s something we’re going to continue to do on a more regular basis because of the success.” If a company is going to continue to reach new heights over a span of 36 years it needs to evolve and Aqua-Draulics has done that with great success. The company takes the tools at its disposal and makes them work inside its own walls and – most importantly – for its customers. “We leveraged our relationship with Omni and LPG to remain competitive with the larger wholesalers in our market,” Mike Zimmerer says. “Being a smaller wholesaler, we can provide the products our customers want by listening to them and being flexible enough to meet their needs. We know our customers and they know us, so we can provide personal service as well as competitive pricing.”
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