The following Q&A is part of a larger interview done with the two leads in the new Animal Planet television show “Tanked.” Here “Tanked”stars Wayde King and Brett Raymer, co-owners of Acrylic Tank Manufacturing (ATM), field questions about their business.
AFI: How did ATM come about?
Brett: Wayde and his family had been in the industry for a long time in New York. They used to buy their aquariums from a guy in San Diego, and Wayde moved out to San Diego. The guy decided to move his operation to Vegas, and Wayde came along to Vegas, too. The guy was getting a little bit old and didn’t want to do it any more, and he kind of let Wayde take over.
Wayde met my sister and met me, and my dad put up the money to get us going, and I moved out here. I was going to open a sports bar, but Wayde and I hit it off from the beginning; he was dating my sister [Heather is now Wayde’s wife], so my dad thought it would be a good idea to put up the money and take the business and move it forward. Five years after we got started, we became number one in the world in custom shapes.
AFI: Were you some of the first to do some of these custom shapes?
Brett: They were doing a flat panel and a bowfront back in the day, and we came up with bullets and racetracks, triangles, and all unique shapes, the Hilton shape, the keyhole – I mean all different shapes of aquariums that we’ve done.
We never really said no to anybody. They were like “you can do this?” Wayde and I were like: “We’ll give it a whirl and see what we can do.”
When we started this company I was 27 and Wayde was 30. We were young guys, and we both took the New York attitude; I had the salesmanship, he had the workmanship, and we kind of brought that over to the West Coast: never say no and give everyone great customer service.
AFI: How has the themed-aquarium trend changed your business?
Wayde: We actually bend the acrylic; we thermal form it to any shape or design they want. Years ago a lot of people built aquariums, and what they did was theme the outside of the aquarium, the stand and canopy, to match the decor in the house.
We wanted a theme inside the aquarium, so we make these coral inserts, and we can put a logo on them, put a design on them, a baseball, a bat or a basketball or a car; we can actually theme them to fit someone’s house or office or restaurant. That’s what we’ve been doing.
Brett: Same thing with the exteriors. We want to make the tanks unique and different. Anyone can go out and get a regular aquarium, but you can’t go out and just get a themed aquarium.
AFI: What other services does ATM offer?
Wayde: We have a 14,000-square-foot warehouse and 2,500 square feet of retail. We manufacture a little 5 gallon up to a million gallons, whatever size you’d like. We’re a turnkey company; we do the tanks, the stands, the pumps, the filters, the coral inserts. If it’s freshwater or saltwater, or if it’s a reef, we’ll build anything you want all the way up to a dolphin aquarium. We’re a one-stop shop.
Brett: We offer maintenance here in Vegas. We also have a set of retail stores where we sell livestock, coral, freshwater, saltwater; we sell everything.
AFI: What would be a themed aquarium for a home?
Brett: The beer keg aquarium [featured in an episode of “Tanked”] was for a guy’s mancave, and the phone booth [aquarium] was for a guy’s home as well. We’re doing a jukebox aquarium that we did for the show, which is actually for a guy’s business. The jukebox could be one for a home. We’re doing a gumball machine aquarium, which is going to be for a business, but it could also be for a home. The gumball machine was built from scratch. The jukebox was an old jukebox that we refurbished. The phone booth was a real phone booth that we refurbished. We do a combination of both. We take an idea and build everything from scratch, or we refurbish something. In the beer keg aquarium, we installed a tap into the aquarium, and the way we designed it, underneath it you can put a pony keg, so it looks like when you tap the beer, beer is actually coming right out of the aquarium.
AFI: Do you guys come up with all these ideas yourselves?
Brett: One of the things I get ridiculed about all the time is that I like to go over the top. So the client will come in with an idea and we try to make it above and beyond [the customer’s vision].
AFI: Do you retire ideas, or are they open for others that might want the same kind of setup?
Brett: Once the show airs and we are able to show some of the creations we can do, then at that point we’ll put up pictures and probably Internet catalog them.
AFI: Do you ever coach clients about some of the proposals they want ATM to build?
Wayde: The main problem with a lot of customers is that they say, “I want this tank for the whole wall of the room.” They don’t realize that could be a million dollars. And then they actually step back a little bit. But if someone wanted a tank or a [tank] building, any size, we can build it; it’s not an issue. We can build whatever they want. When you’re doing a very large aquarium, the taller you go, the thicker it is, and the thicker it is, the more expensive it is, and people don’t realize that. But we’ll try to accommodate anyone’s budget.
AFI: You do about 200 jobs annually. What’s the average size and cost of the jobs you do?
Brett: I’d say the average a person’s going to walk out of here with is a good-sized tank between 300 and 500 gallons for about $15 to $20 grand total – I’m talking everything: tank, stand, filtration. There are smaller tanks that we do – 100, 150 – where you’re going to spend $5 grand. We do a lot of small tanks where the tanks are only a couple of grand. But like I said, it just depends on if you’re buying a whole system with everything or you’re buying a tank only.
AFI: Talk about your installs.
Wayde: We do these all around the country. Let’s just say you’re in St. Louis and you want a 150-gallon aquarium, it doesn’t pay for me to send my crew out to install that, so what we do is build everything here, put everything together and then we have affiliates all around the country. So what we would do is call up our affiliate in St. Louis and let him know that we have this job in his area. We’d put him in contact with the client directly, he [our affiliate] installs it, works out his negotiation with the client and he [our affiliate] gets the maintenance.
AFI: How do you do huge acrylic panels for clients like the megachurch in Dallas? Do you manufacture them in Vegas and ship them?
Wayde: That job was fabricated in Colorado. We transported it to Dallas and sent a crew there over a two-year period. We had crews there for weeks on end working on the aquarium. [This tank is 70,000 gallons.]
AFI: What’s the biggest job you’ve ever done?
Wayde: It’s [the megachurch aquarium] the longest acrylic panel we’ve ever done. It’s not the most gallons we’ve done. But it’s the biggest actual aquarium we’ve built from scratch from beginning to end. We did everything on this job from engineering to filtration to the coral insert to installing; we did everything from A to Z. The panel is 70 feet long by 18 feet tall and 7.5 inches thick. The tunnels were 5.5 inches thick.
AFI: What do you mean by coral inserts?
Wayde: Artificial coral insert. It comes in pieces and is assembled on site.
Brett: One of the things that Wayde and I also do is we’re coming out with our own product line. We’re coming out with a phosphate remover, a sludge remover, an acrylic and glass cleaner and a “green” all-natural dechlorinator. We have a live culture bacteria that we’re coming out with as well.
Wayde: We’re trying to do a lot. Today [August 1, 2011] is our 14th anniversary. Today is our 14-year anniversary of being in business.
AFI: When did you decide you could make a living doing this?
Wayde: We never actually decided yet. We’re still trying.
Brett: I guess we’re all up for challenges. Wayde knew there was money to be made because he’s been in the industry for a long time. That’s what his family did. And I didn’t have any idea about the industry; there was kind of a learning curve when I got into it. I was always up for a challenge. It seemed like something pretty cool to do.
AFI: Do you notice any trends in your business?
Wayde: There are a few out there, like trend with all of the plants growing [hi-tech planted tanks]. We feel after the show we’re probably going to do a few of those. We’ve done a lot of zoos already, and exhibits for zoos that have all of the live plants growing in them. We did all of the exhibitry at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Brett: One of the things I see a lot of is people like to do fish with live rock only. The reason that I see that is because the live rock gives the fish a good eating source, they don’t have clean corals, it’s a healthy environment for the tank and it’s a lot easier for people to maintain.
AFI: Talk about the eco-friendly suppliers you have business relationships with.
Wayde: In reference to the dead coral you see (the white stuff), a lot of that is eco-friendly because of how it is collected. Say a barge hits a reef and the reef is going to die off, then they’ll go pull the corals out. Then you would also have propagated corals like Exotic Reef Imports; all their stuff is being propagated. We don’t want to take corals out of the ocean if we can get propagated. We also use a farm-raised fish if we have a choice.
Brett: We make sure that our fish suppliers aren’t getting any fish that are caught with cyanide. Cyanide used to be a big thing back in the day in the Philippines and around the world. We’ve been with the same companies for years, and we try to make sure their suppliers are doing the right thing by the animals.
AFI: OK, thanks guys.
Wayde and Brett: Thank you.