Ever since he could remember, Willis Dane has been a tinkerer. Born and raised in North Central Illinois, Dane can remember when,as a young boy of 11 or 12, he built a little scow, dragged it down to the Vermillion River where he and his friends enjoyed many trips rowing up and down the river.
At the age of 13, he built a shop in his back yard by hauling and disassembling grain doors from a cement mill dump that was nearby. Dane made some boats and built a 16 foot sailing catamaran that he tried to sail above the dam on the Illinois River, only to find that suitable winds were rare during the Illinois summer evenings.A lanky boy, Dane was quite the athlete. During his high school and junior college years, he was a high jumper, long jumper and a tennis player. He placed fourth in the high jump at the state meet while he was in high school. Dane says, ?Our little junior college won the state tennis title.?
Dane graduated from the University of Illinois, with high honors in engineering and psychology. When he was19, he fulfilled a desire that he had for a long time ? he wanted to take a bicycle trip. That trip took him through Illinois, Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa. He covered 2,000 miles and it took him six weeks to accomplish.
Upon graduation, Dane took a job at a local chemical company, where he worked in engineering. He redesigned the key, but very troublesome, electrolytic cell, that was the heart of their process and which continued to be used, unchanged for almost 40 years.
Dane quit his job, after becoming frustrated with his supervisor. He then designed and built a 32 foot sailing catamaran and sailed it, mostly with a 12hp outboard providing the breeze, down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, along the Gulf, around the tip of Florida and up to Baltimore. The trip took nine months.
Wherever he docked, he would see older men fishing or just lounging around. They would engage him in conversation and they would say enviously, ?I always wanted to do that.? Dane remarked, ?It was good to ?do it? and although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I got it out of my system and have no desire to repeat it.?
He had planned to find a job on the East Coast and live on the boat, but he couldn?t find a job in a warm enough climate, so he accepted an offer to return to his old job, this time as supervisor. He was happy in this job, but he aspired to own his own business. And so, some years later, he opened a machine shop. Although slow to start, the shop grew until he eventually had 70 employees.
Every machine shop owner thinks his shop should have a product to make, own, and sell. One day in 1970, someone walked into the shop and inquired if Dane could do the machining for the pump for his floating fountain. He didn?t have any money to pay for the work, so Dane became a partner in what soon became Aqua Control.
Dane?s job was to redesign and manufacture the products, and his partner was to handle the selling. Unfortunately, his partner could not sell anything. They went to a small company that was in the pump manufacturing business to buy an unrelated product. His partner was so effusive about the aerator business with Dick Ott, the pump manufacturer, that Ott soon went into the aerator business himself. Dane?s partner?s big mouth created a competitor. Ott later sold to the Barebo family and that was beginning of the Otterbine aerator.
After some years of very little activity, Dane bought out his partner. He was busy running the shop, so the floating aerator business was put on hold. One day in 1990, Dane received an offer to sell his machine shop. It was an offer he could not refuse. The new owners were not interested in the floating aerator business, so Dane continued to own Aqua Control.
Dane was able to hire one of his former executives, Reanna Pelszynski, now the Aqua Control general manager. Together they re-started Aqua Control. They analyzed the market and their product line and determined that there was an adequate market to create a real business. Fifteen years later, Aqua Control plays an important role as a supplier of floating aerators.
The machine shop he sold began to fail and has been resold again. Because of that Dane has been able to hire some of his key people from the machine shop, including his production manager, IT manager, and sales manager. Aqua Control?s business today is nearly twice the sales of his machine shop.
?This company has given me an opportunity I did not have during my many years in the machine shop business,? said Dane. ?We just made parts for other people. Now I can work to ?make a better mousetrap.? That?s the part of the business I really enjoy.?
Having expanded five times in their old facility, they recently purchased a 100,000 square foot building. They now occupy one third of the building and have adequate room to grow.
This recent grandfather, looks to the future with as much excitement as when he was a young boy rowing down the Vermillion River.