March 1 2007 12:00 AM

Chic Kelty will be the first to admit that if he had the chance to do it over again, he would do some things differently. On the other hand, maybe it was because of these life experiences that Kelty is where he is today.

Kelty is in the pond and waterscape business. He is the founder and CEO of Savio Engineering, Inc., Santa Fe, New Mexico... but we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Kelty was born in Santa Fe 39 years ago, into a family of modest means. His father worked for IBM in the service department; his mother worked in the financial field. While many kids his age were playing Little League baseball or Pop Warner football, Kelty, at the tender age of 11, got a job in a pet shop.

While working part-time at the pet shop, he observed that many of the customers who owned aquariums or ponds wished that they could find a service to take over the maintenance of their aquarium or pond.

Realizing that there was a need, he grasped at the opportunity. At the age of 14, while still working at the pet shop, Kelty 'went into business' maintaining aquariums and ponds. As he developed clients, he began to try his hand at installing ponds.

With his business thriving, Kelty dropped out of school when he was in the 10th grade. Being young and foolish and with more spending money in his pocket than his contemporaries, Kelty wanted to experience life. He experimented with recreational substances, and eventually became addicted. We've all heard of or experienced these horror stories, but Kelty lived through it.

He continued to operate his maintenance and installation business and still worked at the pet shop part-time. In those days, at least in Santa Fe, some ponds were sold through pet shops. In 1986, when Kelty was 18, he bought the pet shop from his boss.

"If I could turn back the hands of time," remarked Kelty, "I sure would do things a little differently. I tell this story in the hopes that other kids won't follow my tracks. I would urge them to stay in school. I dealt myself this hand and I had to play it out," he said. "Fortunately, I was able to overcome my addiction and I've been clean for the past 19 years."

Kelty's not proud of what he did, and is reluctant to talk about it. However, this publisher feels it's a story that needs to be told. Instead of languishing in a stupor, he made the effort to pull himself up by his own bootstraps.

With this experience behind him, 23-year-old Kelty started a new company, Santa Fe Water Gardens. The year was 1991. The pond business was in its embryonic stage; there was no road map about how to build a pond'it was through trial and error. He kept experimenting with various products and different components, and soon began building ponds and waterscapes in earnest, and started promoting it.

The market for ponds was growing, but at that time, some products that are commonplace today were not even conceived of. Kelty remembers when he would take old barrels and cut them in half, filling them with media to make bio-filters.

As the demand for pond products grew, Kelty started a wholesale operation to supply professionals and pond enthusiasts with components. He called it International Pond Supply.

All through the late '80s and '90s, pond building was perfected with the use of liners instead of concrete. It was a much less complicated way to go, and made ponds affordable to the homeowner.

Kelty determined that there would soon be a need for a professional line of products for this emerging market. However, during this early period, he felt the market would not support the price of quality. By 1999, he felt the timing was right for these products, and Savio Engineering was born and incorporated in 2000.

This was a major undertaking for someone who had no manufacturing expertise and a somewhat limited marketing background. Through trial and error, using money that he had saved over the years, and lots of credit cards, Kelty began to put the Savio brand through its paces.

He has positioned his company to take advantage of a market that is growing at a 20 to 40% annual rate. It serves the professional contractor through its distribution channels of irrigation wholesale supply stores, etc.

With anticipated growth of double digits for the next decade, Kelty is envisioning what his company will look like in the future. "We?re excited about it," he remarked. "Now that the component piece is in place, we're looking at the aftermarket for continued growth; we're developing floating islands, chemicals, etc."

Kelty lives in Santa Fe with his wife Jessica and his six-month-old daughter Amelia. He loves to hike and fly, and he does some gardening. During the flying season, he will log 120 hours a month in the cockpit of his airplane. Kelty uses his airplane to travel from one distributor to another; he does a lot of training with them.

A modern day pioneer, Kelty has contributed to growing this market niche into an industry. "There is so much room to grow," he said. "Contractors looking for a new twist for their business will find building ponds and water features exciting and profitable."

Starting off with two self-administered strikes against him, dropping out of school and using substances, Kelty was able to turn his life around. It shows that if you set your mind to it, you can do just about anything. Way to go, Chic.