The last of four children, Randy was born in 1965 to Mary and Shelton “Cap” Stewart. He graduated from high school, where he was an All-State wrestler and played football, although he balked at having to run track during practices. “I tried to get out of it as much as I could, but once in a while I was still forced to run by my wrestling coach.”
In his early years, like most young people, he didn’t have an inkling of what his calling in life would be, or that one day he would be named Waterscaper of the Year.
During high school and college summer breaks, he read electric meters and managed truck stops. “That introduced me to the long hours involved in managing a business,” he said. At Oklahoma State University, Stillwell, he took a double major in business administration with a concentration on marketing and management. He graduated in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science degree.
After that came a series of sales jobs. In 1996, a second cousin of Stewart’s, Alan Buck, who was general manager for Unit Liner, bought the company. Unit Liner had been in business since 1967, serving industries such as NASA and major food companies that required environmental-containment solutions.
It was a much smaller company back then. They made PVC liners for the oilfields, and some heavy-gauge liners for the chrome-plating industry; they also custom-built PVC liners to protect their clients’ tanks from acid. “At that time, the company was doing primarily oil field and industrial-type applications,” Stewart said. The total volume for the company was around one million dollars a year. He was brought in to see what he could do to diversify the company.
It was supposed to be a gradual transition. However, in March of ’96, two of Buck’s key people quit, moved to Houston, and became competitors. “So he had to bring me on immediately, and threw me into the fire.”
“We put a lot of ideas forward. These were the fun days of ‘throwing things against the wall to see what would stick,’” said Stewart. “Buck was a real idea guy; he’d toss something out, and if I thought it was feasible, we’d try it. We were always trying crazy products. I was in charge of a campaign that built fitted baptistery liners for churches.
Just a lot of real oddball stuff; some things would hit, some wouldn’t.”
Not too long after Stewart joined Unit Liner, the company became the main supplier of fabricated, fitted fish-grade PVC liners for a major maker of aquatic environments.
(Since then, the industry has evolved to using EPDM, a type of synthetic rubber, as a liner.)
It wasn’t long before the locals and do-it-yourselfers found out that the company could do fish-grade liners, and people started to come in and ask for them. (Back then, all the books on the subject said that you needed PVC liners for water gardens with live fish.)
By the late ’90s, Stewart had discovered the Internet, and noticed that a couple of other pond-liner companies were selling online. He taught himself how to build a web page, grabbed the domain name “pondliner.com,” and in 1998, launched it on the World Wide Web.
“I put our pond liners up, and sales started to boom,” Stewart says. “We added EPDM liners and a few other items, and things took off from there.” During that first quarter, Stewart was a one-man band, dealing with the unexpected avalanche of sales. He fielded the phone calls, made the sales and hand-wrote the orders. Then, he personally trotted over to the warehouse to have them filled, and even helped with some of the shipping.
Though Stewart essentially built Pondliner, the division he now runs, (Buck sold Unit Liner about five years ago) he’s modest about it, not wanting to take too much of the credit. Pondliner.com, as it is now known, is a multimillion-dollar company for seasonal water garden supplies.
“Although I’m the one receiving this award, when I sit here and look at what I do—as opposed to the team that works around me—it’s really just a testament to their hard work,” said Stewart. “I have a really, really good team here.”
Presently, his biggest professional challenge is staying ahead of the ever-changing marketplace, which includes competition from Amazon .com and direct imports from China.
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“The Chinese manufacturers are trying to get a foothold into our distribution network and cut us out.
Nothing’s happening yet on any scale, but it’s something we’re always aware of.”
In 1991, Stewart met Tammy Bollin; a year later, they got married. Juggling the demands of work and home has never been easy. Their older daughter, Emily, just got married a few months ago, and their younger daughter, Miranda, is a junior at nursing school.
The Stewarts are active in their church. They also try to spend a fair amount of time with their kids. “A lot of our enjoyment is just family time, taking walks with the kids,” said Stewart. About three times a year, the couple gets away alone, to Texas, to watch NASCAR events.
There’s also a little boy in the picture who just had his first birthday; he’s been with the Stewarts since he was just three days old. He’s a foster child, one of 34 the couple has sheltered over the past eight years. Why did they choose to add foster parenting to their already-demanding schedules?
“My wife’s the director of a day care, and she just sold me on it,” Stewart says. “When she sees someone in need, it just tugs at her heartstrings.” At first, he was hesitant, but allowed himself to be ‘dragged’ to the first of the nine required classes.
“Tammy said, ‘Just sit through a couple of these, and then we’ll decide.’ Well, we got through the first one, and she said, ‘We’re doing this.’ I said, ‘Well, okay.’” The couple takes in children who are five years old and younger. At one point, they had six fosters in their home, two of them infants. “You kind of move into survival mode,” he says, laughing. “We reached the point where we couldn’t wait for Monday morning to come around, because we got to go back to work.”
Stewart’s work on behalf of foster kids doesn’t end there. He also sits on a Post-Adjudication Review Board. One night a month, he meets with other board members and caseworkers from the Department of Human Services to review files.
When asked about the future of his company, Stewart commented that he believes his company has great potential ahead.
“The pond industry is experiencing small growth overall; I think we’re all just biding time until the economy turns around. We’re going to continue being aggressive, to take market share, so that when it does turn, we’ll be in a position to take advantage of it.”
Pondliner mainly serves the lower 48 states, with a few international shipments. “We’re branching out into some other Internet businesses,” says Stewart, “and quite a few things on the technology side, to provide the very best customer experience.”
Retirement is a possibility, maybe fifteen years down the road. “Perhaps, when we get to that point, my wife and I will do a little bit of traveling,” he says.
“One thing I know about my wife and I is that we’ll continue to stay busy,” Stewart added. “Whatever we’re doing, it’ll be something to help other people. You may think that you’ve given so much, but when you look back at what you got out of it, you can see how you’re the one who really was blessed.”
By staying on top of his game, Randy Stewart has impacted the pond and water feature market in a positive way. His attitude has served him well. When asked what he liked best about his business, he remarked, “It’s the people. From top to bottom—from our distributors, to our customers, and even our competitors—I rarely run across anyone who isn’t a genuinely good person. I enjoy the quality of the people who are in this industry and the relationships I have with them.”
With his desire to care for others, he has touched the hearts of many, and to be able to juggle all this in the course of a day, a week or a year, is admirable. The pond and waterscape market has certainly been blessed to have Randy Stewart as part of it.
For his contribution to the pond and water features market, Irrigation and Green Industry magazine is honored to name Randy Stewart as its Waterscaper of the Year.