When George Ruiz emigrated from Peru 25 years ago, he brought an entrepreneurial spirit that took root in his new land. He began by cutting lawns, hauling his mower in the trunk of his car. Today he runs a lucrative business located on an acre of land just off the Pinellas Trail in Dunedin. Since he opened at this location in 2001, heaps of rocks, pebbles, aquatic plants and waterfalls misting the path have regularly drawn the attention of bikers and skaters passing by.
Cool Ponds, the business operated by Ruiz, 55, and his wife Melody, 47, has two parts: general landscape maintenance and the retail sales of decorative pond and waterfall supplies. The gently rippling water and colorful rocks visible from the trail showcase the time and hard work that went into making this business succeed.
"It's always been a struggle," said Ruiz. "You are constantly stretching yourself to cover new fields and learn all you have to know."
Ruiz, who began by working for a local landscape maintenance firm, opened his own business out of his Palm Harbor home in 1991. He mowed residential lawns and uprooted weeds for nearly a decade when a drought hit and business plummeted.
"The lack of rain was killing the little grass that was left," he recalled, "and people began cancelling their service."
It was a tough go for years. But in 2001, Ruiz read an article in a landscaping magazine that focused on low-maintenance landscaping requiring little water. After watching his customers' lawns dry up in the hot sun, he introduced his first low-maintenance lawn design items.
Ruiz attended seminars on installing aquatic landscaping and launched right in, putting in waterfalls, ponds, walkways, bridges and eventually gardens. The couple imported large rocks from Tennessee, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Gallons of pebbles arrived from Mexico and Indonesia.
"For a while we were spread too thin," said Melody Ruiz, who manages the sales of pond and pool supplies. "We wanted to offer everything."
Within a few years Ruiz geared his business to supplying the materials for all forms of water décor, but no longer did installations. He referred his customers to contractors instead.
"We realized early that this was a good niche," he said of aquatic landscapes. "People are enthusiastic about ponds and waterfalls and offer their own ideas on what they want done."
The pool and pond end of the business, Ruiz said, is their mark of distinction.
"As far as I can tell, ours is the only such business in Pinellas County," he said, adding that customers have come from as far afield as Sarasota and Ocala.
The landscape maintenance business has endured more fluctuations, he said, which has required continual learning.
Ruiz took classes throughout the 1990s to learn about Florida grasses and plants. He slowly added fertilizers and pesticides to the array of products he stocked. He hired a licensed sprayer with a pest control truck.
The couple added staff to handle their growing operation, but as late as 1995 neither Ruiz nor his wife had learned to use modern technology.
"He was handwriting bills and working out of the house with no computer," said Melody Ruiz.
In 1996, the couple conceded to the use of software programs which replaced Ruiz's notebook and pen.
A staff of 12 now helps in all aspects of the business, which has grown every year. The couple has added several expansions, including several supply rooms stacked with pumps, solar-powered jets for pond water, pond filter kits and a variety of cleansing agents.
Learning how to run the business with all its components has been a decades-long challenge, said Ruiz, but he is not deterred.
"We have a big goal," he said. "I want to be the biggest and best landscape maintenance company in the country."
A look from his wife drew a less ambitious response.
"Okay," he said, "maybe in the state."