How We Started

Let’s be honest, the Holz and Barrow partnership got off to a bit of a rocky start.  We first met on the basketball court at the University of Nebraska’s esteemed East Campus Recreation Center for noontime pickup games for students and faculty.  We were a couple of slightly overconfident twenty somethings trying to live out our unfulfilled high school careers and we frequently had quite different interpretations of the “call your own foul” rule.  We must have eventually grown tired of the elbowing and trash-talking because we both started syncing our arrival times to ensure that we would be on the same team.  We quickly realized that although we were both equally annoying, we were also decent teammates and became friends (and, in our minds, East Campus Basketball Legends).

Beyond our unrealistic basketball aspirations, we learned that we also had shared research interests in the general field of lake water quality.  Tadd was working at the interface of fisheries management and limnology and was researching the effects of water quality stressors on habitat selection, feeding behavior, reproduction, and recruitment of sensitive fish species.  John was nerding-out over algae.  In particular, how much phosphorus different algae require for growth, how these nutrient requirements determine dominance in a lake, and how the algal community responds to phosphorus reduction vs. enhancement in terms of stability, resiliency and predictability.

We are grateful for the terrific mentors we had at that time that left lasting impacts on our careers and personal lives.  Drs. Kyle Hoagland and Ed Peters encouraged and guided us to pursue continued research at the intersection of our skillsets and interests.  Apparently, this was push we needed as we began accumulating frequent and significant grants to support our research.  As University of Nebraska faculty members, Holz taught courses in Limnology, Advanced Limnology and Lake & Reservoir Management.  Barrow headed UNL’s Lake Management Extension program, ran the Limnology & Water Quality Lab for the University, and co-taught courses.

Meanwhile our research was evolving with an increasing applied and practical lake management flavor.  We must have investigated around 10-12 different techniques aimed at improving lake water quality by reducing nuisance algae.  Out of all of these, we were repeatedly impressed by the exceptional effectiveness of aluminum sulfate (alum) across a wide variety of lake types.  We tested alum in the lab, then in outdoor tanks, then we divided up a lake with a temporary dam for a direct alum vs. no-alum comparison, and finally conducted whole lake alum applications for research purposes.

Word of our successes with alum started getting out and Tadd began fielding calls through his Extension program from Nebraska lake owners looking for a company to apply alum to their lakes.  There were not any companies offering those services in our region, but our only reaction at that point was to make a joking comments about starting an alum application business someday.  I guess the extension callers wore us down because we started having some semi-serious discussion about starting a company, then we remembered our reality:  we had never had a business course, we dodged balancing our personal checking accounts at all costs, and we had no discretionary funds (we were absolutely convinced that we could never afford business insurance, let alone the other start-up costs).

A couple of more years later we were teaching five-week summer limnology course at the University’s field station in western Nebraska.  One evening during that session we were revisited the business idea over an 80-proof beverage.  By the time the bottle was empty, we had scratched out a handwritten “business plan.”  We then returned to Lincoln and worked up enough nerve ask the University lawyers for permission to start a small alum application company, which was granted.  We proceeded to scrape together a little cash, purchase a dilapidated pontoon boat, stripped everything off of the deck, figured out a way to increase its buoyancy and rigged it with the necessary equipment to apply alum to small lakes in Nebraska and earn some beer money (Oh, and our first insurance policy was only $500 per year!).  We didn’t realize it at time, but we had stumbled (literally) into what became our calling.  We were only conducting a couple of small projects a year during our vacation time, but we found it enjoyable and fulfilling.  Maybe it was our small-town Nebraska upbringings, but it was rewarding to work with our hands, “fix” something (a lake), and see immediate results.  However, we also were using our scientific skills and building upon our training as research scientists.  It was definitely a good fit for both of our personalities.

A couple of more years later we decided to quit our perfectly good university jobs at start dedicating all our time to the alum application work.  Pretty much everyone we knew thought we were nuts.  I remember one family member informing me that the two most respected professions in the world were Professors and Medical Doctors…why would you ever stop being a Professor?!  Tadd’s barber also tried to offer some valuable advice when he said “Remember, the only ship that sinks is a partnership!”  Even in the face of such “sage” advice, we talked our way into getting financing for application barges and equipment and established HAB Aquatic Solutions in 2010.  Driven by a fear of failure, we hit the ground running and landed a contract for what is still the world’s largest alum project in early 2011.  

Today there is a photo in our office bathroom that sums up our thoughts at that time.  We are sitting on the edge of one of our new barges that just arrived for this enormous project.  There is an entire construction crew running around setting things up.  There is a massive crane setting a 25,000-gallon alum tank in place on the lakeshore.  Our elbows are resting on our knees and we are staring at the ground.  In that picture, John was asking Tadd “what in the hell have we got ourselves into?”  Tadd’s reply was simply “I really don’t know.”  What a great photo.

But we figured it out and committed ourselves to staying true to science-based and results-driven lake management.  HAB aquatic Solutions is now the premier alum application company in the US and Canada.  Our technically advanced application equipment and application strategies are state-of-the-art and unique to the industry.  Our experience, lake management knowledge and expertise are unparalleled and continue to lead the field by a significant margin.  We have also stayed connected to the scientists in us by continuing research to better quantify internal phosphorus loads, increase the precision of alum dosing, further improve alum effectiveness and longevity, and by exploring some pretty cool new horizons at HAB Innovations.  We are proud of what we have accomplished, but probably prouder of how we did it.

So, that’s our story as reluctantly told by John and Tadd.  Numerous people have encouraged us to write it all out, but we declined until recently.  We guess we are glad that we did.  It’s a pretty good story with some chapters still unwritten.