a water-tight model for an employee-owned company
With employees that thrive, Aqua Engineers prove that an employee-owned company can swim beyond the competition
Since dipping their toes in the water sector, Aqua Engineers has continued to lead the competition in the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. Tracing its roots back to 1981, Aqua Engineers has worked towards a Hawaii that is sustainable and has an abundance of clean water, through their provision of world-class operation, maintenance, management, and engineering for water and wastewater systems.
This employee-owned company is dedicated to designing, building, and operating potable and non-potable water systems with an innovative approach that integrates energy-efficient and renewable energy solutions. Their commitment to sustainability and operational best practices over the last four decades has developed a reputation for quality, flexibility, and unparalleled service throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
Aqua Engineers provides a diverse suite of water and wastewater services that cover operation and maintenance, engineering and construction, collection systems, septic tanks, cesspools, and army project services. From pumping, cleaning, and disposal to inspections, permit monitoring, and compliance advice, Aqua Engineers has a customizable solution for any residential or commercial requirement.
President and CEO David Paul introduces Aqua Engineers as an industry leader for water and wastewater services in Hawaii. He has been part of the Aqua Engineers team for 12 years and has more than two decades of industry experience.
“We are a full-service provider working with commercial and residential clients across the state. Since our establishment in the 1980s, we have grown from a four-man band working in Kauai to a team of nearly 100. Today we serve over 30 wastewater systems, 15 water systems, and 70 stations.”
Paul continues, “We are really proud to produce the highest quality effluent in Hawaii, and we do so with a commitment to accountability, service, integrity, and Ohana (Family) values.”
“Aqua Engineers treats our facilities like we own them, in that we provide services like maintenance and operation, but also recommend improvements and upgrades, construction management, and advice or reporting on things like compliance and regulations. So, what we have developed is really a customized, turnkey solution to anything our clients might need,” he elaborates.
While most of Aqua Engineers’ clients are commercially aligned, the team is more than happy to support residential systems.
Paul explains, “Most of our residential clients have either Aerobic Treatment Units (ATUs), which are self-contained electrical treatment systems that require a licensed operator for two years after completion or their own wells or water catchment systems that they need help managing. We also provide septic tank and cesspool cleaning on those smaller scales to keep residential systems running smoothly.”
Aqua Engineers’ largest client, Paul says, is the U.S. Army. “We took on the privatization of the local Army’s wastewater systems through two 50-year contracts, located at Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu. We actually developed a comprehensive Army Project Services Program, which streamlines the standardized review process of all work associated with Army sewer system modifications, expansions, upgrades, rehabilitation, etc.”
“We review and approve construction plans, permits, connection requests, and future project proposals, coordinate issue resolutions, and consult with developers to determine the best routes for off-site wastewater works,” Paul adds.
Aqua Engineers took on an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) model in 2006 with support from the company’s four original founders: Ian Kagimoto, Walter Briant, Seichi Oyama, and Frank Kiger. Mr. Paul shares that becoming 100% employee-owned meant staff at Aqua Engineers felt they were intrinsically valued and directly involved in the growth of the business.
“ESOP is an incredibly powerful wealth transfer business model. When you share the wealth with employees, they start to see the gain in their own accounts and really feel the benefits of the hard work they put in every day. I think it changes their focus from just showing up to ensuring every job is the best it can be from both an operational and service perspective,” Paul describes.
“Their career becomes more than just a job; it’s a long-term investment. Usually, when you form an ESOP, you have to buy the company from the owners at 100% debt. Our founders kept some cash in the company to help us get started, which got us on our way a lot quicker. We actually had that initial loan completely paid off by 2011.”
The Aqua Engineers team is a huge supporter of community-led projects and environmental industry initiatives such as the Kauai Make A Splash event and multiple sustainable wastewater plant designs, which have landed them national and state-level awards and recognitions.
The impressive list of recognitions includes the Top 100 Most Charitable Companies in Hawaii (Hawaii Business), Performance and Innovation in SRFs Creating Environmental Success (PISCES) Award, Secretary of the Army Sustainability Team Award (U.S Army Garrison-Hawaii), GE Ecomagination Leadership Award among others.
Aqua Engineers has also run their own annual scholarship for the last four years- the Employee-Owner Dependant Scholarship Program. The scholarship’s mission is to “provide financial assistance to the dependent scholars of active, full-time employee-owners, in recognition of their academic achievement and their pursuit of higher education or vocational training.”
As part of their commitment to the Hawaii community, Aqua Engineers maintains collaborative relationships with a number of industry partners, including the Hawaii Food Bank, Hawaii Business Education Association, American Water Works Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, Harvey Brothers Construction, Pacific Pipe, Hawaii Engineering Services, Mega Construction, Cogo Construction, and the ESOP Association.
Paul continues with a note on sustainability. “I’ve always thought of our industry as green. Engineers that work on these projects and design the facilities are always looking to be energy efficient, not only for the environment but because clients don’t want to spend a lot of money on treating and managing their water and wastewater.”
“Our company is directly sustainable in that we produce reclaimed water in five of our facilities. Reclaimed water can be used for a variety of irrigations, which saves a lot of potable water for our consumption. Right now, about 2 million gallons a day head from our Schofield plant to the Kunia agriculture corridor along County Road, and they use that water to help grow crops, which supports the local food economy and the sustainable angle of our food chain,” he outlines.
“Finally, we look at Aqua Engineers’ future. 2023 has a number of large construction projects in the works, two of which broke ground this month. Management is keeping a close eye on inflation and its impact on costs,” Paul says.
“At this stage, the sooner we can execute our projects, the better. All industries are predicting that inflation will only continue to rise, so we want to make sure we’re executing work as efficiently and effectively as possible, to try and stave off any potential disruptions to our projects.”
In conclusion Paul shares, “From an internal perspective, we are always focused on what can make our employees feel more productive, supported, and valued. If you have a strong employee base, one that’s learning and growing, then you have a strong company. We will continue to provide training to our staff, whether it’s in basic skills acquisition, obtaining licenses, or professional upskilling. That’s going to be an even bigger focus moving into the future, so we can keep an employee base that exhibits great retention, high morale, and exceptional talent.”
AT A GLANCE
What: Full-service solutions for water and wastewater operations and management
Where: Aqua Engineers is headquartered in Lawai, Kauai
Bank of Hawaii – www.boh.com
Bank of Hawaiʻi serves as a financial and strategic partner for a wide range of businesses, consumers, and governments in Hawai‘i and the West Pacific. Its long-term focus is directed toward sustainability, which includes supporting client business growth and projects that foster healthy, vibrant communities.