Business View Magazine interviews Tal Thevenot, founder/principle designer of AquaTerra Outdoors, for our focus on Best Practices in the US construction sector.
Tal Thevenot has a passion for the outdoors. Over the last decade, he’s built a team that embraces that passion and a business that thrives on it. Based in Plano, Texas, AquaTerra Outdoors is an award-winning design/build/management firm that embodies a culture focused on quality, attention to detail, and delivering outstanding outdoor lifestyle solutions that exceed expectations.
Business View had a fascinating Q & A with Thevenot, Founder & Principle Designer at AquaTerra Outdoors, about the intricacies and mindset of his highly successful company. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVM: What niche were you trying to fill when you first started the company, and how has it evolved?
Thevenot: “My background is with landscape architecture. I studied at Kansas State University, and when we formed AquaTerra, just over ten years ago, our focus was a single source, outdoor solution for our clients. Unfortunately, in our region, the focus has been somewhat segmented into a pool contractor, a landscape contractor, maybe somebody who does outdoor kitchens. And at that time, there weren’t many of us focusing on an encompassing design/build/management solution.
“We currently have six professional designers, and we are a full construction company. We build swimming pools, landscaping, irrigation, drainage, cabanas, verandas, arbors; and we have a management solution, too. Our management is broken into two departments: TerraCare is our landscape maintenance, and AquaCare is our pool service. Since we were creating these environments for our clients, we wanted to maintain them as well. So many times, over the years, I’ve created beautiful, one-of-a-kind landscapes and then had to hand them off to maintenance companies that weren’t able to maintain them with the level of excellence with which they were built.
“We’re continuing to build our team with employees that share the same passion I have for creativity, quality and service. We use those three words internally all the time, and we’re constantly judging and ranking ourselves based on how we’re doing in those areas, where we can improve, and how we’re going to improve.
“We have 29 employees, including three principle designers / project managers. We work closely with the client, which allows us to stay engaged during construction and beyond. In this way, we can ensure the property is being properly maintained and therefore, continues to be a spectacular environment within which the homeowners can live, relax, and play.”
BVM: What territory do you cover?
Thevenot: “We design internationally, but most of our design work is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Currently, we offer the full compliment of design, build, and management only in Dallas-Fort Worth. We have travelled for construction work in the past, but our market is now saturated with work, so there’s no need to travel. We design as far away as South Africa, Australia and the Caribbean, as well as throughout the U.S., such as North Carolina and Colorado, but that’s a very small percentage of our work.
“We only actively market within Dallas-Fort Worth, however, with Houzz being such a great resource for homeowners today, that’s where a good percentage of our work outside Texas has come from. Additionally, word of mouth referrals and clients that have properties in other states have expanded our footprint. We’re currently looking at a project on the east coast for a client of ours that has a home here in Dallas, and a place in the Hamptons, too.
“About 95 percent of our work is residential. But we do what I call, ‘soft boutique commercial,’ for some clients we’ve worked with in a residential setting, who have a commercial business or are invested in apartment complexes. They are looking for the same high level of creativity and quality implementation from the construction that they received residentially. We don’t like to bid commercial projects; it’s not a good fit for our team. Inevitably, it becomes about the budget rather than creativity and quality. But the boutique commercial instances, where they’re willing to invest more for a higher-end product, we’ve really enjoyed those projects.”
BVM: Is most of your construction work done by sub-contractors?
Thevenot: “We have a hybrid; a lot of sub-contractors, and we have crews within, too. Our new corporate headquarters is under construction in Carrollton, Texas, not far from our present one in Plano. We’re building it so we can develop more in-house teams. Currently, most of the landscaping work is done internally, as is some of our masonry, and a lot of our plumbing on swimming pools and drainage. Much of the other work is outsourced and sub-contracted.
“Our mode of operation is, if we can’t have true artisans focused on one trade year-round, then we’re probably going to outsource it. We want to foster artisans that are true professionals at their trade, and deliver the best every time.
BVM: Do you work only on specific types of properties?
Thevenot: “It’s a blend of everything. Right now, there’s more new construction in Dallas than there has been for years, but we still have a lot of renovation projects, or situations where people bought a house where the backyard wasn’t finished. We come in and master plan the property; maybe renovate the front and then complete the backyard.
“We’re a professional design/build firm, so we don’t engage creatively without a design contract in place. When we initially meet with the client, it’s a free consultation to sit down and talk about their project, their scope of work, their vision. We answer any questions they have about us and our process, and from there, we’re able to outline that scope in further detail and deliver a proposal for design services. If they engage us professionally, we work through a custom landscape architecture design process, and ultimately find the perfect solution that we can bring to fruition for them.”
BVM: Is competition an issue?
Thevenot: “Dallas-Fort Worth is a big city. There’s a lot of great talent, but only a few of us creating some of the best outdoor spaces in the world. There is certainly competition, but we don’t worry about what others are doing, we’re busy developing our team and focus on creativity, quality and service. We’re in business to make money like everybody else, but we are sensitive to delivering good value for our clients.
“We aren’t just isolating swimming pools or landscapes. We create full, cohesive, outdoor environments. When we’re master planning our spaces, our scope of work tends to be large, and the budgets are large. We try to make each project a show piece, and must be efficient with our resources, and value-sensitive to materials. At the same time, we’re staying true to creativity and quality.”
BVM: After 10 years in business, you must have some valuable long-term relationships.
Thevenot: “There are a lot of relationships. We’ve used Pentair Pool Equipment for a long time on most of our swimming pool construction. We partner with them, and we buy their product through the SCP – South Central Pool Supply – distribution center. Also, Southwest Nursery are wholesalers with consistently high-quality plant materials, and we enjoy working with them and their team. Long Horn Irrigation and Drainage Supply is where we buy most of our white goods; PVC pipe, drainage products, landscape lighting. I’ve been working closely with most of these trades for about 18 years, they are great business partnerships.”
BVM: Does energy efficiency and sustainability play a role in your designs?
Thevenot: “Absolutely. We use Pentair IntelliFlo pumps, one of the most energy efficient pumps in the industry. And some of the best technology in irrigation systems that enables us to connect the system online, so it can monitor air temp, rainfall, wind, and adjust itself accordingly. We only use LED lighting, and we’re always looking for premium environmentally conscious products to implement into our outdoor spaces.”
BVM: How do you envision AquaTerra Outdoors five years from now?
Thevenot: “Honestly, we don’t want to change much. We want to continue building our team and our talent, continue educating ourselves and delivering amazing product to our clients. We also want to build more trades in-house to better control quality and schedules. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but we’re very happy with who we are and where we are.
“Some key things that have contributed to our success are: Never stop learning. Be the best you can possibly be and build your team accordingly. Find people that share your passion, and create a culture of business where you can work hard and have fun doing it. That’s what it’s all about.”
Hurricane Harvey didn’t physically reach the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but its emotional impact did affect the team at AquaTerra, who had friends and family in hard hit areas. So, they decided to help. Tal Thevenot shares: “We sent a few of our trucks, loaded up with goods, down to the coast. And sent some of our employees to deliver goods down there, as well. We tried to help out where we could. Now we’re trying to do some stuff for Puerto Rico and the BVI, because we were lucky, and all the devastation is just so sad.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: AquaTerra Outdoors
WHAT: Award-winning firm that designs builds and manages custom outdoor environments
WHERE: Plano, Texas
Independent Bank – Independent Bank was founded in 1913 and is based in McKinney, Texas. It provides personal and commercial banking products and services to individuals and families, businesses, professionals, and community organizations. The company also provides wealth management services. Independent Bank operates as a subsidiary of Independent Bank Group, Inc. – www.independent-bank.com