AS SEEN IN The Virginian-Pilot, April 27, 2014: Written by Stacy Parker
After Kevin Tucker left college with a business degree, he worked at his family's landscaping company. It was all about plants and soil. Then one day a client asked him to clean a pond. From that experience, a new multimillion-dollar niche business evolved.
Tucker turned what he learned on that first job into what eventually became SOLitude Lake management, a Beach-based company with customers from New Jersey to North Carolina.
All of them have an enemy they depend upon Tucker to subdue.
It's algae - stagnant green mats of it that can quickly cover a pond and turn it ugly and smelly.
The company he founded as Virginia Lake Management in 1998 has grown to 25 employees. The team of aquatic biologists and environmental scientists keeps ponds and lakes shimmering across nine states in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
What's driven SOLitude's growth is the explosion in the number of stormwater retention ponds over the past several decades.
After the Clean Water Act of 1977 was signed into law, developers had to do much more to control runoff and filter out nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that choke oxygen from streams, rivers and bays.
Retention ponds became a catch-all solution in new developments, from apartment complexes to office parks. In Virginia Beach alone, there are 865 such ponds, city records show.
The ponds are often nature-inspired, adorned with cascading fountains and sloping, rocky shorelines. They can brighten an area where green space is scarce and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.
But if they're not properly cared for, they easily become eyesores.
That's because the ponds collect not only stormwater but everything that flows with it - oil from roadways, fertilizer from lawns and bacteria.
Fertilizer contains nutrients that support algae growth.
Homeowner associations, golf courses, hospitals, office park developers and private landowners have turned to SOLitude to keep their ponds from mucking up. The company manages several of Olympia Commercial Real Estate's lakes, including the Convergence Center north of Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach.
The large fountain that fronts Interstate 264 at the center simply looks great, said Cecil Cutchins, Olympia's president. "It's part of the ambiance, something to capture your imagination."
But the fountain has a practical purpose. By aerating the water, it helps prevent algae accumulation.
It's SOLitude's job to keep that fountain doing what it's supposed to do.
"Fountains tend to get a lot of notice; they tend to get the most attention, but that's not the biggest part of what we do," Tucker said.
What's also important is what goes on beneath the surface - the synthetic and natural chemicals that the company uses to keep everything in balance, for example.
A graduate of James Madison University's College of Business, Tucker always wanted to work outdoors. He's the kind of guy who, when hiking in the woods, tries to find "water trickling over rocks," he said.
For two years after starting his business, he worked alone out of his garage at home and on a johnboat when he was out on a lake. He started with two York County ponds and quickly found that stormwater retention-pond management was an underserviced market.
As business grew, Tucker steadily ramped up his staff, drawing from a pool of biologists and scientists who love water and the outdoors and who can tackle a variety of problems in the field. Jobs have included analyzing sediment buildup in lakes using 3-D technology, stocking private fisheries with largemouth bass and shaping up a mucky golf course pond just in time for a professional tournament.
SOLitude recently installed solar-powered pond aerators at the new Kellam High School in Virginia Beach.
The company has 1,600 clients, said Tucker, who is 41. Though he declined to provide SOLitude's annual revenue, he said it's been growing at a rate of 20 percent a year.
Dave Ellison has been working at SOLitude for seven years, back to when he was one of only a few employees. He stopped by South Beach Apartments in Virginia Beach on a recent afternoon, pulled a metal boat off the top of his truck and climbed inside it at the edge of the complex's stormwater pond. One of the fountains had stopped working, and after inspection, Ellison removed the motor for repair back at SOLitude's shop off London Bridge Road.
Ellison graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in biology. He has seen ponds in deplorable conditions, smelly and completely covered with algae and weeds. "Like a layer of carpet you could walk across," he said.
SOLitude solves problems like that. In recent years, the company has minimized its use of herbicides, taking advantage of advancements that have made products more effective in low doses, Tucker said.
Educating clients has become an important part of SOLitude's customer service. The company teaches clients things they can do to prevent algae, including planting vegetative buffers to filter nutrients.
"You can prevent problems before they happen," Tucker said.
He's aiming for more clients in the states SOLitude already serves and in new states. There will be plenty of business as more communities seek ways to manage stormwater while maintaining an attractive landscape.
"Retention ponds can be very pretty on the surface and feel very lake-ish," Tucker said. "It's our job to keep them that way."
Contact the experts at 888-480-LAKE (5253) for all of your lake, pond and fisheries management needs.
Since 1998, SOLitude Lake Management has been committed to providing full service lake and pond management services that improve water quality, preserve natural resources, and reduce our environmental footprint. Services are available throughout the Eastern United States. Fisheries management consulting and aquatic products are available nationwide. Learn more about SOLitude Lake Management and purchase products at www.solitudelakemanagement.com.