The ‘Wow’ Factor

Living Color Enterprises grabs customers’ attention with its spectacular aquariums.

By Helen Kuhl

     
Living Color Enterprises Inc.

Ft. Lauderdale, FL

www.livingcolor.com

Year Founded: 1988

Employees: 65

Annual Sales: $5 to $10 million

Shop Size: 50,000 square feet

FYI: The company builds about 200 aquariums a year and has two marine biologists on staff to design life support systems and develop fish “portfolios” for customers.

 
   
     

Question: If you are very wealthy and you already have the most expensive cars, a lovely yacht and a home filled with fine furniture, the latest high-tech gadgets and audio equipment, what else can you buy to impress your friends and stay a step ahead? One answer is a custom-made aquarium, with furniture-quality cabinetry, your choice of reef and fish, and big enough to make friends and neighbors say, “Wow!”

That’s the type of client being served by Living Color Enterprises, Inc. of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. For the past 13 years, the company has built custom aquariums starting at $25,000 and up primarily for residences, but also some businesses. It is a “sexy” product that has a lot of appeal, says president Scott Nash.

“We came in during the mid-’90s when the economy was doing very well. A lot of people were flush with money and they were thinking, ‘How do I stay one step ahead of the Joneses?’” Nash says. “Not many people have a 500-gallon aquarium. They could put something in their home that nobody else had. It also was a time when everyone was staying home to relax, and there was heightened interest in the ecology. So there were a lot of factors that facilitated the aquarium market taking off then.”

Business Development Manager Chris Evans adds that the company distinguished itself from competitors by being completely turnkey, maintaining high-quality products and services and offering unique finishes. “We are known for pushing the limits,” he says.

     
 
This residential aquarium for a home in Jacksonville, FL, has two rectangular end units with a radius center unit. The overall length is 20 feet and it is 5 feet high and 3 feet deep. It is antiqued maple with custom fluted columns, mouldings and raised panel doors. The tank volume is 2,240 gallons.  
     

Today, even though the economy is drastically different from the ‘90s, there is still a strong market for custom aquariums, Evans adds. “9/11 brought people closer to home. People started to say, ‘I’m going to turn my home into a resort-like retreat.’ The market for luxury items like ours has been booming.”

Theme Park Legacy Brings Useful Skills

Before developing its focus on aquariums, the company was doing theme park work and landed a big job working on DisneyWorld’s Animal Kingdom. The company “ramped up” to handle that project and its experience in managing large-scale projects has been helpful in doing big aquariums. The Disney work also spurred Living Color to move into its current 50,000-square-foot building, which now provides ample space to produce the various components required for aquariums. In addition, some of the aquariums themselves require a themed setting, which means that the shop still does some work in fiberglass and urethane foam similar to its previous theme park projects.

In building a custom aquarium, the tank itself is the first consideration, and the cabinetry is built around it. The tank is acrylic and is almost like a plastic cabinet, Evans says. The acrylic sides use special miters and are welded together, which creates a chemical bond. For radius tank walls, the acrylic is bent in a wooden form and then baked.

The “reefs” are created by artists, starting with a raw mesh form that is covered with a fiberglass-epoxy composite. The reef not only is decorative, but also camouflages the piping for water and air. It is covered with synthetic epoxy corals, which are produced in the company’s coral department. Reef artists have a coral budget for each aquarium and “shop” in the coral department from among more than 900 varieties of corals, fish, seahorses, clams, etc.

The artificial coral production is very proprietary; how each company formulates its coral is a trade secret, Evans says. Master silicone molds are cast directly from fossilized animals and used to make production molds. Individual pieces of coral can range in price from $5 to $500. Evans notes that most aquarium owners want synthetic reefs because it is much lower maintenance than living creatures would be.

     
 
This custom aquarium in a Miami, FL, high-rise condo features rosewood veneer cabinetry and a granite serpentine countertop. The cylindrical tank is built to hide a structural column; there is a two-foot round pillar inside. The tank measures 6 feet in diameter and is 6 feet high; the volume is 1,265 gallons.  
     

Of course, the aquariums do contain live fish, and Living Color has two marine biologists on staff to determine each aquarium’s life support system requirements. They also recommend a specific fish “portfolio” for each job, depending on the owner’s interests (ornamentals, aggressives, sharks, etc.)

Not Your Everyday Cabinetry

While Living Color’s aquarium cabinetry may look like other high-end cabinets, it has distinct differences. Most of its aquariums have tanks bigger than 200 gallons, which means that a structural steel stand must be integrated into the cabinet to support the weight of the tank and water. The cabinet also must fit the tank precisely in order not to create uneven stress points, so it must be built to close tolerances.

The “cabinets” at the top and bottom of an aquarium are not standard cabinet boxes with shelves that provide storage, but are open space. The cabinetry on top provides access to the tanks for cleaning and lighting and may include HVAC fans. The cabinetry underneath houses pipes and life support equipment, such as filters. However, for tanks larger than 300 gallons, the life support equipment is too big to fit underneath and is “remote,” housed in a separate room; the clean water and air are piped into the tank. As an example of the large space required, a 1,000-gallon tank needs an 8-foot by 10-foot room for its life support equipment.

Because the aquariums are going in high-end environments, their cabinetry must have the style of fine furniture, especially in a residence. Not only do they feature fine wood and veneer work, but also a high-quality finish. Living Color produces all the popular specialty finishes, like crackles and glazes, and also does high-build lacquers, dye stains and a high-gloss finish that is very popular in the Florida area, which is its main market.

“We are seeing the appearance of a yacht look in home furniture, especially with the high-gloss finish,” Evans says. “Finishes are our forte.”

“We find that the finish is what’s catching peoples’ eyes,” adds David Shaffer, director of designer relations.

The shop has a full crossflow spray booth equipped with Binks and DeVilbiss HVLP spray guns. There is a separate compressor for the clear-coat and sealing guns to make sure that they are clean. The company uses M.L. Campbell products almost exclusively.

“We took some of our talented theme park artists and had someone from Campbell come in and train them as our finishers,” Evans says. “They can do anything now.”

The cabinet construction work is done in two areas of the shop. There is a wood shop “prep” area, which has an Invicta SCI-320 sliding table saw, Delta shaper and 10-inch table saw, a Jet 16-inch thickness planer and a DeWalt portable thickness planer. There also is a 4,000-square-foot cabinet shop, which houses a Virutex EB25 edgebander, a Delta table saw, four miter saws, a Jet bandsaw and a Julius Blum hinge boring machine. The shop uses all Blum hinges and slides.

There are seven craftsmen in the cabinet shop. The aquariums are designed using CAD 2000, and there are five CAD designers on staff. The company recently purchased a Multicam NG Series CNC router, primarily for acrylic work. “But there should be some time available for the cabinet shop to use it, too,” Evans says.

Beyond Aquariums

Since the company was purchased by a former customer about 1-1/2 years ago, it has been gearing up for expansion into related areas. One is development of a limited edition line of aquariums, the “Discovery Collection,” in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. They will be sold through interior designers to customers who cannot afford custom pieces.

There are four basic cabinet styles and four reefs offered in the collection, plus a choice of wood stains and reef colors. The casework is 3/4 maple with hard maple mouldings and is designed to be as simple to purchase as furniture. “You push it in, plug it in, pour in the water and you are ready to go,” Evans says.

     
 
Living Color’s background in building theme parks is occasionally put to use in fabricating aquariums such as this one, which features a molded fiberglass faux coral stone architectural surround. Built for a Ft. Lauderdale, FL, home, there is a win-dow in the ceiling above the aquarium so it can be viewed looking down from the room above.  
     

Living Color is initially marketing the line through a network of southern Florida interior designers who have retail showrooms. It also plans to open a gallery in Los Angeles and hopes to establish a similar designer network in that market as well.

In addition, the company wants to expand into the full-fledged custom cabinet market, taking advantage of its cabinet shop’s skills, as well as its project management infrastructure that can handle large-scale projects.

“We are marketing our cabinetry as a separate service,” Nash says. “It’s not just an adjunct to the aquarium side anymore, it’s a stand-alone division.”

While aquariums are big-ticket items, they also are one-time purchases, Nash says, and the company would like to tap into some repeat business. Living Color has traditionally worked direct with the end client, and it is costly to convert prospects into customers for just one job, he adds. The company hopes to start getting cabinet jobs as well as aquariums from interior designers and build repeat business. Because cabinetry has a wider prospective customer base than aquariums, Nash says that designers may eventually think of Living Color first for cabinetry and then “graduate” up to aquariums.

Evans says that Living Color is well positioned to succeed in the high-end, whole-house cabinet market because of its extensive personnel base. “We have the infrastructure in place to turnkey large scopes of work smoothly. We have project managers, designers, fabricators, installation crews and lots of dedicated people to support big projects,” he says. Having such personnel also enables Living Color to hit its due dates every time, which is a problem for other local shops, he adds.

The company already has completed several large casework jobs, including one residential project involving 80 pieces of furniture, which went off without a hitch, Evans says. “We scaled up to more than 200 people for that job. We are not afraid of large projects,” he says, adding, “That’s part of the legacy of having worked on the Animal Kingdom project.”

Living Colors also is capitalizing on its aquarium work by selling its synthetic coral pieces through pet supply stores. In addition, it has a service division, which handles maintenance of its aquariums. For clients within a 500-mile radius of the shop, Living Color contracts to clean and maintain their aquariums on a regular basis for a monthly fee.

However, even as it diversifies, the company will keep its focus on doing high-end, unusual work, Evans says. “The person looking for a straightforward, normal wall unit won’t be our client. It’s going to be the one who wants to push the envelope,” he says. “Designers will know that Living Color is a little more expensive, but it’s the one to send diverse projects to.”

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