Creating with the Magic and Motion of Water
“Hello, Mr. Martin? Please hold for Donald Trump.”
Before Ken Martin could ask whether the call was a joke, the voice of the polite secretary was replaced by music. A moment later, he heard the unmistakable Queens accent of real estate magnate Donald Trump commending him for the design of the show fountain that recently opened outside of his building in downtown White Plains, NY. As one of the prime investors in the development of the city’s Renaissance Plaza, “The Donald” was very impressed with how the fountain’s jumping jets of water and choreographed musical shows had become the focal point of the revitalized downtown district.
“He told me I was ‘at the top of my game,’” recalled Martin, who still remembers the conversation from 2004 and Trump’s sincere appreciation. “Before I could think of anything to say, he said his goodbyes and left me with the dial tone. I still had the phone to my ear.”
From Orlando to the World
When Martin started Aquatic Design & Engineering (ADE) 26 years ago, he didn’t think that the small firm’s accomplishments would draw the praises of billionaire business tycoons or heads of state half the world away. Today with his son, Josh, Martin leads the Orlando-based company in designing water features, fountains, resort pools, and spas for developments around the world, but he credits the company’s success to the hospitality industry in its hometown.
Early on in the business, ADE proved its mettle through design work at local theme park and hotel properties. With more than 1,000 projects in Central Florida alone, the company’s portfolio covers the gamut of iconic hotels from The Peabody Orlando and Orange Lake Resort to Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando and a slew of Walt Disney World Resort properties.
“Orlando really has made us resort experts,” explained Josh, who will transition to his father’s role as president over this year. “When visitors come to enjoy Florida’s year-round great weather, they expect first-class swimming amenities. Resorts can’t afford to close their pools for unscheduled repairs or maintenance, and that is why we design enduring features that are beautiful, but also operationally efficient.”
Creating the “Wow” Factor
The same is true in designing fountains; though spectato
rs are dazzled by the colored lights and water shooting in the air, so much more goes into making it all work from pumping and hydraulic systems, to thousands of coordinated LED lighting units and different sized nozzles and jets.
“That ‘wow factor’ is what we strive for in the creative design process,” said Josh. “But on top of designing an appealing and visually engaging water feature, our prime goal is to engineer something that can be constructed properly, and be easily operated and maintained for life.”
Longevity is a critical aspect for Ken Martin, who participated in the only graduate course ever offered by Harvard on aquatic design. “One of our first key assignments was a study of the ‘dead’ fountains around Boston to determine why they had been shut down, abandoned or dried out,” he said. “It charted the waters, so to speak, for my career in water features.”
ADE’s commitment to quality design earned the company a reputation in the industry among major developers and landscape architectural firms, which primarily serve as the lead consultant for outdoor development spaces and bring on niche firms like ADE as part of their teams for large scale projects.
In 2005, multinational landscape architectural firm Sasaki invited ADE to participate in the early conceptual design process for the Olympic Green – the principal venue of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As the company’s first foray into international work outside of the Caribbean, the project helped open the door to another opportunity and what would become the company’s largest project to date in another Chinese region: Macau.
Called City of Dreams Macau, the development was master-planned to be similar to the resorts located in Las Vegas. For ADE, designing the choreographed show fountain, water walls and other features for this major destination helped prove that a small American specialty firm could go toe-to-toe with the big fish.
Re-Engineering the Company
At the time, ADE wasn’t so small either; the company had expanded to nearly two dozen employees with more growth on the horizon. Then the recession hit.
“When the real estate and development markets tanked, it opened our eyes to how under-utilized our staff was even before the recession,” said Ken. ADE aggressively restructured the company, which unfortunately meant reducing the workforce by 60 percent. “While it was difficult, the recession was a blessing in disguise for us because we used it as an opportunity to retool the company and prepare for what was coming. Josh implemented new systems and automations that allowed less team members to accomplish substantially more work.”
The economic downturn also forced ADE to proactively seek out more opportunities in international work as domestic projects dried up. One place where development was still booming and where ADE had started to expand its presence was in the oil-rich nation of United Arab Emirates (UAE). Just prior to the full brunt of the recession, ADE opened an office in late 2007 in Dubai, a UAE city-state that was quickly becoming known the world over for its opulent standard of living and architectural wonders. ADE was finding that alongside towering skyscrapers, developers in the Middle East desired water features for their desert designs.
“Water is a central part of the culture and religion,” explained Josh. “In designing water features that ornament residential gardens, beautify public spaces or entertain visitors, we attempt to model an oasis in the desert – paradise on Earth.”
ADE’s expertise in water garnered the firm a few key projects in UAE that helped to broaden its client base at a time when projects in the U.S. were cancelling or going on hold.
At the height of the recession, ADE landed a marquee job to design a water feature as part of a grand entrance to Ferrari World, the largest indoor theme park in the world and the first of its kind dedicated to the iconic sports car brand. Located on the newly developed Yas Island in UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi, the fountain serves as visitors’ first impression to the entertainment destination – and what a welcome it is. The fountain comes complete with more than 700 nozzles that shoot water up to 90 feet in the air and 2,100 color-changing lights that complement the bright hues of the welcome pavilion hovering above. It spans the length of two football fields and descends 45 vertical feet across multiple stepped levels, making it the largest choreographed water feature in Abu Dhabi. Ferrari World opened in late 2010, with the Yas Island Welcome Pavilion fountain delighting visitors with nightly shows.
Today, ADE is continuing work in the Middle East on the Presidential Palace, also in Abu Dhabi, which will serve as the new seat of government for UAE. “This would be like putting the White House, Capitol and most every other executive government office on one site, except in a setting like no other,” said Josh.
ADE is designing more than 65 water features situated across expansive courtyards and gardens over 370 acres on a peninsula that juts into the Persian Gulf. The project is ADE’s largest in scope and adds to the company’s bulk of work done in the Middle East, which accounted for more than 70 percent of revenues from 2009 to 2011.
Looking toward the future, Ken and Josh see a steady stream of both international and domestic work on the horizon. While the company transitions leadership and Ken passes the torch, Josh will take on more of the business development responsibilities and opportunities to open up global markets.
ADE is growing its staff modestly to avoid mistakes of the past, but ultimately the father-son duo attributes much of the success of the company to their employees and the time and skill that they devote to each project. “Of a staff of 13, the collective experience in the industry totals 206 years, and 125 of those years were spent at ADE. That’s saying something,” said Ken.
While perhaps not as apparent as a call from Donald Trump, Ken considers the commitment from ADE’s employees to his 26-year-old dream as high praise indee