Turning a Fascination into a Business
From a garage to large complexes, founder Elwyn Segrest has spend the past 50 years in fish hobbyist nirvana.
By Michael Ventre
Imagine a little boy going to the five-and-dime with his grandma. She wants to shop, so she plunks him down in front of the tropical fish tanks to keep him occupied.
|At-a-Glance: Segrest Farms|
Location: Gibsonton, Fla.
Number of Employees: 125
Years in Business: 50
Areas of Distribution/Business: U.S., Canada, Caribbean, EU, South America
Product/Business Categories: Ornamental freshwater fish and invertebrates; ornamental marine fish and invertebrates; freshwater and marine plants; reptiles
Most kids would gaze at the lazy meanderings of the tiny swimmers for a minute or two, get bored, then run around the place yelling and creating havoc.
Elwyn Segrest, on the other hand, not only kept watching the fish, he turned it into a career.
Segrest Farms, located in Gibsonton, Fla., (just outside Tampa) is the direct result of a passion for tropical fish. Today, the facilities cover five acres with multiple interconnected buildings, but in 1961 they consisted of 16 aquariums in Elwyn’s garage.
He raised angel fish as a hobby, and then began doing it for tropical fish wholesaler Fred Cochu, who brought tropical fish via air freight from South America. After a partnership with Ross Socolof, another major tropical fish seller, Elwyn went solo and has been on his own since the late ‘60s.
“Our goal at one time was to sell $5,000 worth of fish in a week,” said vice president Sandy Moore, who has been with the company for 20 years. “Since then, we’ve grown to become the world’s largest wholesaler.”
Segrest, which has 125 employees, went from minnow to whale in the business thanks to Elwyn’s homespun touch (when someone calls the main number, his welcoming drawl is on the initial recording), his knowledge of the terrain (or in this case, body of water) and his love for fish.
The company likes to think of itself as a haven for the hobbyist, so much so that it even allows fish fanatics to tour its facilities--with restrictions; since it’s a large-scale commercial operation, visitors won’t be coming home with a tied-up plastic bag filled with water and a couple of goldfish.
Segrest proclaims itself No. 1 in the selling of ornamental fish, which are supplied to pet stores, public aquariums and research institutions. With Segrest’s catalog of products, retailers and hobbyists could start their own ecosystems. The company offers freshwater tropical and coldwater fish, Glo-fish, saltwater specimens, aquatic plants and reptiles. It also sells such ancillary items as coral and live rocks, dry goods, live food and testers.
Elwyn calls himself “semi-retired” and he probably is to people who consider working every day except Wednesday semi-retired. His son Quintin works at Segrest, running the marine saltwater end of the operation. Elwyn’s grandkids? Not old enough yet, although it wouldn’t be surprising to spot them in a store somewhere, peering into tanks of tropical fish.
The five-acre spread contains fish that have been bought or are ready to sell; the raising of new fish takes place at other Segrest facilities. The company is thriving, said Moore, although the recession has taken its toll.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could expand in this economy?” she said. “But we’re holding our own and we’re very blessed. I’m sorry to say that some of our competitors are not faring very well.”
|Among Segrest’s numerous livestock offerings are the popular Glo-Fish.|
To attract business, Segrest offers a pick-five program.
“For new customers, we let them pick out five fish that they want to promote, versus us telling them what to promote,” Moore said. “They tell us what five fish they want to run an ad on and we incentivize to let them do that.”
Segrest also sends out nitrifying bacteria to help prevent some of the initial startup tank problems that new stores experience.
“It’s unique to us,” she said.
The wholesaler also guides store owners on which fish will be appropriate for their particular markets.
Because we do sell to a variety of different stores, from very small pet stores to big box stores, we have a pretty good idea of what’s popular around the country and area by area, so we can help the person choose what fish will be successful in their market,” Moore said.
Chris Deer is the owner of Tideline Aquatics in Charleston, S.C. The store has been in existence for 27 years. About 10 years ago, he began doing business with Segrest.
“There are so many fish farms in Florida,” he said, “We used to work with another large one; but the quality of fish started going down, they had disease issues, major fish problems. I started looking for another supplier.”
He said he had once refused to do business with Segrest because of an old policy that required store owners to clip the tails off of any dead fish that arrived in a shipment and return them to serve as proof when requesting credit. But Segrest scrapped that policy and Deer said he decided to give them a try.
“When I order fish now from Segrest, the DOA count is little to none,” Deer said. “In most cases I don’t ever have to make any claim. But if I have a problem, if the fish happen to come in bad shape, I contact the sales staff and they have no quarrels about it.
“That’s what I look for in a supplier,” he continued. “Someone who sells me good quality fish that comes in the size it says it will and not with a lot of treatment issues. I’ve found them to be so easy to work with on any problem I’ve had.”
And, of course, there’s Elwyn.
“He calls me out of the blue every now and then to speak to us randomly,” Deer said. “He wants to know how things are going, and if we’re happy with the service, and if anything needs to be improved. That says a lot, because you don’t get that from businesses anymore.”
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