Feb. 17 2011 12:00 AM
Pond products and fish farming? Dave Ouwinga would be the first to admit that while he was growing up in the small town of Grant, Michigan- population 2,023- he never dreamed that one day he would be the president of one of the major manufacturers of water gardening, water feature and pond management equipment in North America.

But that’s exactly what happened to Ouwinga, the son of a roofing contractor whose journey to success began even before he took his first step.

Born into an enterprising family with strong Midwestern values, Ouwinga’s father, Steve, moved his family from Minnesota to Michigan to join his brother in the roofing business when Ouwinga was barely a year old. His father divided his time between his son, his roofing business, and his hobby, fish farming. It wasn’t long before Steve’s passion for his hobby grew to the point where he convinced his brother to join him in a new business venture, and in 1970, Stoney Creek Fisheries was founded.

Ouwinga’s dad didn’t immediately jump from the roofing business into the fishery. It would take him several years of working both jobs before he would be able to devote himself full time to Stoney Creek. The stouthearted Midwesterner tirelessly spent many Saturdays and weeknights installing roofs, until the fish farm was making enough money so that that he could give up the roofing job. Ouwinga’s uncle, on the other hand, did just the opposite; after approximately four years, he left the partnership and returned to roofing full time.

As far back as he can remember, Ouwinga worked in at Stoney Creek. After school and on weekends, he sold fish to the customers at the farm. “People would come in to buy fish and they would ask me, ‘Where did you get that liner? Or, ‘Who makes that pump and where can I get it?’ For a long time I simply referred them to our supplier, but then I came up with the idea that we should be selling those items as well as the fish.”

After he graduated high school in 1986, his parents gave him a one-third interest in the company. With his strong background in fish farming, a number of manufacturers made him a distributor for their pond products. Ouwinga began to sell the components his customers had been asking for. Within ten years, the business had grown to three fish farms and 96 production ponds. The company was selling 2 million fish annually.

Along with the increase in fish sales, sales of component products were also rising. “We started selling pumps, liners, and filters along with the fish,” said Ouwinga. “We developed a catalog that listed products available for sale and got into the catalog business.”

By the early ’90s, Ouwinga began noticing a new trend developing that would take him off into another direction—out of the fisheries and into the waterscape market. “As waterscapes and ponds for the residential market started to grow, we began getting calls from landscape contractors inquiring about various components.”

“Contractors would come in to buy some equipment and they would ask me, ‘How do you do this?’ I would go out to the jobsite and help them . . . so along the way, I built or help build about 175 pools. Even today, if there is a large project and a contractor asks me for help, I go to the jobsite and pitch in. I like being outdoors periodically, and don’t mind getting on a piece of equipment and moving some dirt around. In fact, I like it once in a while.”

Ouwinga said that his experience working in his family’s fish farm business taught him a great deal about how to build, maintain and repair ponds. “You learn a lot about ponds when you build that many, and that hands-on experience comes into play when you’re sitting in your office selling pond supplies. That was my college. I learned through the school of hard knocks.”

“I never envisioned having my own brand. Then in the fall of 2000, I looked over what we were doing, and realized that water features and ponds were growing at a more rapid rate and that it was a burgeoning market. So I said, let’s build a better mouse trap and do our own thing. ‘Easy-to-use profes sional pond products’ was the tagline we originally used to tell contractors how easy it was to get into building ponds. We shortened it a little to come up with the name of our company: EasyPro Pond Products.”

With an eye towards retirement, five years ago Ouwinga’s parents started slowly withdrawing from the business. Ouwinga has been buying out his parents, and a year ago his mom and dad fully retired. These days, Steve and LeAnn are retired and enjoy spending time watching their grandchildren grow into the next generation of entrepreneurs, just like their son.

To help achieve this success, Ouwinga spends a fair amount of time travelling around the country. He is an invited guest lecturer, visits his distributors and gives seminars in pond building. Today,

EasyPro Pond Products manufactures many of their own products and carries a complete line of pond equipment. Stoney Creek remains the name of their retail store, as well as the fish farms.

Like his father, he’s not only an entrepreneur, but a family man as well. He and his wife Chris have three children: Kalie, 19, is a sophomore in college, daughter Kendall is 16, and son Connor, 12.

What do they do in their spare time? His daughter and son play basketball and Ouwinga loves to shoot baskets with them. They enjoy outdoor sports, like hunting and fishing. For a getaway weekend or over holidays, the family has a house on a lake and enjoys water sports and jet skiing.

The old adage, “Keep your shoulder to the wheel and your nose to the grindstone,” does pay off— just look at Dave Ouwinga.