Feb. 23 2009 12:00 AM

Ken and Harold Fay’s parents started a lumber yard back in 1947 in Ojai, California. When their father passed away, the sons—Ken and Harold— helped their mother run the lumber yard. In time, the mother phased out of the business and Ken and Harold were the proud owners of Ojai Lumber.

As the community grew, Ken and Harold added PVC plastic pipe and began to realize that there was an expanding market for irrigation supplies. They soon decided to set up a new company and separate it from Ojai Lumber. Ken’s wife, Louanne, had the honor of naming the new company: Aqua~Flo Supply. The original office was 18 x 20 feet in the corner of a large shed in the lumber yard. Hardly an auspicious start! That was over 40 years ago.

Initially, Harold ran the lumber business while Ken operated Aqua~Flo. It was not long before they decided to open another branch, about an hour away in Goleta, California, just north of Santa Barbara. After a short time, they sold the lumber business and Harold managed the Goleta branch. From the onset, being from a small town where you know everyone, Ken and Harold put the emphasis of their business on customer service. “People come in today and tell us how my dad and uncle helped them with their sprinklers,” said Ken’s daughter Eileen. His son Barry chimed in, “I remember customers would call in the evening and on weekends, and my dad would have me open the store to serve them. That’s the way we learned to do business.”

Ken and Louanne have five children: Eileen, Barry, Sharon, Matt and Andy. As is typical in a small business, the kids grew up listening to business talk around the dinner table. Eileen recalls, “When we would be out at Aqua~Flo as youngsters, Dad would let us make things out of pipe to entertain ourselves.” In addition to entertaining themselves, the children began doing jobs, like counting inventory. Once they were able to drive and make deliveries, they worked more regularly and really started to learn the business. All five children worked summers during high school and college.

Eileen went to the University of California, Davis, for pre-med but found she really did not want to be in the medical profession. She realized that she did well in economic classes and pursued a major in agricultural economics. Upon graduation, she went to work for an irrigation installation company in Northern California, before joining Aqua~Flo. Barry graduated from the University of Notre Dame and went on to become a certified public accountant (CPA). He then continued his education at UCLA, where he received a masters in business administration (MBA). Upon graduation, he accepted a position with a national real estate development company.

Sharon graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Prior to joining the company, she traveled the world as a flight attendant. The lure of the family business was more enticing than Bora Bora! In the meantime, back at the company, Harold’s health was declining. The business was growing and in 1984, Eileen entered the business on a full-time basis. By the early 1990s, Harold had developed Alzheimer’s disease. It was obvious that he could not continue in the business, so Ken and Louanne began to explore various options. Before thinking of selling Aqua~Flo, Ken spoke with his children to find out if they had any interest in joining the company.

Eileen was already working there, so she was certainly interested. During 1992, the other four children all joined the family business and Harold was bought out. “Those years with all of us in the business were exciting times,” recalled Eileen. “We had an abundance of energy and talent.” “We used that energy and talent to modernize the company and greatly expand it by opening up five more stores,” added Barry. The second generation was intent on continuing the theme of customer service that had propelled the company since the beginning. “We want our people to be solutions providers, not order takers,” says Eileen. “That takes training and empowering and we put a lot of emphasis on both.” Over the ensuing years, Ken retired after developing some health problems. Matt left to start a company with an innovative high tech approach to supplying the industry with plants and hard goods, and Andy left to pursue other interests.

Eileen, Barry and Sharon continue in the tradition of their father and uncle. Barry is president and manages the operations of the company; Eileen handles sales and marketing while Sharon oversees accounts payable, accounts receivable and HR. In 2008, Aqua~Flo celebrated its 40th anniversary. “We are about long-term relationships of value to the customer,” said Eileen.

Barry adds that they strive to expand the potential of the industry by promoting products and practices that benefit their customers and their clients, whether that is smart controller technology, LED outdoor lighting, fertigation, environmental solutions, or synthetic turf.” Sharon continued, “Having a core group of long-term employees who are dedicated to Aqua~Flo’s continued success has really enabled us to excel.” Will there be a third generation in the business? At this point, that is anybody’s guess.

By coincidence, the three siblings have four children each. Barry and Sharon’s children are still very young, Barry’s oldest being 14 and Sharon’s 12. Eileen’s four children are a little older, the oldest in college. “We have a long way to go before thinking of succession,” Barry said. “We’re all still pretty young and have lots of energy and enthusiasm.”

Eileen Laber, Barry Fay and Sharon Allen endeavor to make Aqua~Flo Supply a lasting legacy to their family’s 60-year commitment to exceptional customer service.