He handles liquid assets

Runner-up

FOSTER LAKE & POND
MANAGEMENT INC.
Headquarters: Garner President: Johnny Foster Employees: 12 Founded: 1983 Proj. '07 Revenue: $1.5 million Business: Pond management

Pinehurst native Johnny Foster fell in love with the sea at an early age. Inspired by things he read and the exploits of marine researcher and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, he got hooked on aquaculture, the cultivation of water plants and animals, when he was about 10. “I thought that would be a neat way to make a living, to be around salt water and on the water and scuba diving all the time.”

After getting a bachelor’s in fisheries and marine biology from N.C. State in 1974, he went to work at a university research farm, where he studied species’ suitability for aquaculture and eventually managed 24 ponds. Nine years later, he decided aquaculture was still a long way from a viable industry, but people with ponds came to him with their problems. So he went into business for himself doing essentially what he was doing at State.

Cashing in his retirement account — just a few thousand dollars — he set up an office in a spare bedroom, but his venture floundered for years. Foster would be the first to tell you that he’s less interested in managing his business than doing the work. His first wife’s schoolteacher salary sustained him, he says, until their financial straits helped push them toward divorce in 1987. He still wasn’t ready to abandon ship, because he saw pond management gaining momentum elsewhere. And besides, “I could put a whole lot of time and effort into it without a whole lot of compensation because I enjoyed it so much.”

In 1989, the business had grown enough that he could hire a full-time employee. Making his first profit in 1997, he hired Patti Salevan as office manager to handle the business tasks he shuns. Three years later, he incorporated the business as Foster Lake & Pond Management Inc. and finally started paying himself a salary. Most of the business’ growth has come since.

Today, it provides year-round services — mainly managing storm-water runoff and controlling aquatic plants and animals — to more than 600 customers. About 60% of revenue comes from residential properties, including homeowner associations and property managers. Most of the rest comes from businesses and local governments.

He projects that the company will gross 26% and net 50% more in 2007 than 2006. The purchase this year of Professional Ponds in Atlanta and the planned addition of a Charlotte-based employee in January should help boost 2008 revenue. “We could do a lot better if I was better at managing finances and managing the business.”

What helps is a rising tide of interest in pond management, pushed by development and changes in local-government policy. Farm ponds are becoming centerpieces of new subdivisions, and runoff is a big source of pollution. Many municipalities require regular inspections and maintenance of retention ponds. “Almost every new subdivision has a retention pond that needs to be inspected and maintained,” Foster says.

At 55, he’s different in many ways from the little boy with big dreams of farming the ocean. But “I still really love being around the water and knowing about aquatic sciences. The position I’m in now allows me to continue to study those things and play with new techniques and technologies. It’s a lot of fun.”