I get lots of questions on how i started in the tropical fish industry and how i started my own business, Premier Aquatics ltd. I have always been fascinated by fish and owned my first fish tanks at the age of 13! two 3ft aquariums, one that housed a peaceful community tank and the other with a large oscar as a pet fish!
From there i eventually graduated to a small fishroom holding 18 tanks and in my 30's this had grown to a large outdoor fishroom holding 90 aquariums of various sizes. So you can see that my hobby of fishkeeping had grown over 20 years or so to be a major part of my life.
In 2010 i was working as a fork lift truck driver for a timber company, it was a dead end job that i disliked, i was just there for the paycheque and completely unmotivated and uninspired by my work, if i could call in sick to spend time with my fish, i would do, and did so regularly, i was hard working but not a good employee, i was not passionate about what i did for work. My true passion was at home in my fishroom and hobby, i couldnt wait for the work day to end to go home, see my family and head out into the fishroom where i would spend my spare time breeding fish and raising the offspring. I was also heavily involved with several local and national aquarist societies and learned many skills through this such as public speaking, working with other aquarists, organising large events and advertising via the internet!
The many years of self teaching really began to pay dividends, my home fishroom was very popular with other hobbyists and a constant stream of people made their way to visit and purchase my home grown fish, the sale of these helped to run the fishroom by paying the bills and also allowed me to purchase new broodstock and equipment when needed. In 2012 i was reading Practical Fishkeeping magazine and an advert caught my eye, Blue Planet aquarium were looking for a Freshwater aquarist and for the first time ever i contemplated applying for and working in the aquarium industry. With no formal industry experience i felt disadvantaged, but started my CV from scratch, i included all of my hobby activities and achievements, 600+ freshwater species bred, Large fishroom at home, Large library of aquarium literature, my committee positions at the British cichlid association and Preston and District aquarist society and i tried to convey my deep passion for the aquarium hobby. It worked, i got an interview, aced the interview and started work at Blue Planet aquarium in Ellesmere port, i was officially a freshwater aquarist and incharge of 30 or so freshwater tanks containing everything from celestial pearl danios to a 3ft Electric eel! i was in my element. I implemented a series of improvements across several displays and all were well received by my bosses and customers, in hindsight the most important change was a small tank that was used to display blind cavefish, we changed it to a splash tetra (Copella arnoldi) biotope and on the launch of that tank they started to spawn, our PR team got the unique behaviour into the local paper as a news piece and several years later a researcher for the BBC saw the newspaper report, contacted me and i was employed as a consultant for a BBC documentary showing Copella arnoldi spawning behaviour and voiced by non other than Sir David Attenborough himself! It constantly amazes me how one tiny stroke of luck (The fish breeding) can lead to bigger and more exciting projects further down the line!
I was eventually promoted to Display supervisor and oversaw all displays in the building including the huge shark pool, marine aquariums, freshwater tanks and the large quarantine section. I didnt last too long in this role as i caught the eye of Chester Zoo and when a job came up as assistant team manager in the Chester zoo aquarium i was encouraged to apply and got the job! WOW, what a transformation, from a fork lift truck driver to second in command of the aquarium in the largest zoo in the UK and one of the best in Europe! i could barely believe my luck (For a few years i would tell anyone that would listen how 'Lucky' i was, in the end i stopped myself saying that and trained myself to except that it was not luck that got me into these positions, it was years of learning, reading, studying and travelling the country to hundreds of fish events. I created my own 'luck' and there is not a University course in the world that could of trained me better in what i knew) nowadays i have a confidence that my position in the aquarium world comes from hard work and a dedication to learning our hobby that is so deeply ingrained that it is part of my daily life.
I joined Chester zoo as Assistant team manager in 2014, a pivotal time in the zoo's history as they had just started the HUGE islands development and our aquarium team were to install tanks and have displays in the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the UK! I was actively involved in these projects and memorable events include moving two 13ft crocodiles into our Asian biotope pond, handling over 5000 fish and learning how to quarantine, move and introduce huge numbers of fish into new displays. The year of 2014/2015 will remain an exciting memory and managing such a project stood me in good stead when i decided to work for myself!
After the Islands development opened to the public, we took on several more substantial projects including a revamp and restock of the Jaguar house aquarium and the internal refurbishment of the old 1950's aquarium building. Again, being involved in such large and complex aquarium projects added to my CV and knowledge and were both hugely entertaining and satisfying but also crucial in developing my skill set and experience level that gave me the confidence that i could run my own aquarium business at some point.
Other noteworthy events at Chester include several trips abroad, in 2017 i was sent out to Mexico with my colleague Nadia, we were to study and observe the work of the University of Morelia and their excellent project to reintroduce Zoogoneticus tequila back into the Rio teuchitlan in central Mexico, i spent two weeks with the University staff and saw every part of the project including us being involved with the release of 500 fish into the river in only the second of several reintroductions.
Secondly was a two week trip to Brazil in 2018 to study the ornamental fishing industry along the Rio Negro, i was on a houseboat with around 15 other people and we made a two week long trip up the Rio Negro to visit exporters, middlemen, fish collectors and anyone else that was involved in the sustainable collection of ornamental fish such as cardinal and rummynose tetras plus Discus and angelfish etc. This trip was a trip of a lifetime for me as i have studied the Amazon river and its fish for over 25 years. It opened up new experiences that will live in my memory forever and i will return back to South America and the Amazon rainforest!
In 2019 i started to suffer with my mental health, i was having issues with several
female team members, i was not enjoying the day to day routine of zoo life, the work rota was boring and i was feeling uninspired, unmotivated, unsupported and unimpressed! sadly i took six month off work and slumped into a depression of which i had never had before or after! I was very badly effected and really struggled to be happy, i rarely left the house, didnt feel like communicating with people and saw the bad in everything! i knew that i needed to 'snap' myself out of this but had no idea how, the doctor wanted to put me on medication which i refused as i knew that this was temporary and i was not a depressive person, in the end i started running and within six months of hard work and challenging myself mentally and physically i returned to Chester zoo, happier than before but knowing that after 5 years my time there had ran its course, i was tired of being an employee and being told how to do my job the way someone else wanted me to do it, i didnt always see eye to eye with the other fishkeepers in my team and it was this that effected me so badly. I decided in mid 2019 that i was going to leave the zoo and to start my own business!!
So in September 2019 i registered with Companies house as a sole trader under the name of Aquazoo, i quickly learnt that another business was trading under that name so after a week of pondering different names and working with different combinations i settled on Premier Aquatics for two reasons. premier
first in importance, order, or position; leading.
And secondly because i knew that our main business demographic were young to middle aged men and what were these men watching and searching for every week? "The Premier league football" the name was already on the tip of a lot of peoples tongue and i wanted to name my business something easy to say and easy to remember. Premier Aquatics was registered and trademarked, and because i was still working at the zoo this was all done behind the scenes with only a couple of close friends and family privy to what was about to launch! My business plan was to open a fishroom similar to my one at home, to import fish and sell them online via a website. I had no intention to open a walk in shop and all my plans were along the lines of starting a fishroom and selling online. After registering the business i needed to find a commercial property to trade from, this was not as easy as it sounds! there were an abundance of industrial units but they were too cold for my meagre budget, insulating them or heating the water in such a cold room would of been too expensive, after a month or so of searching i stumbled across an advert for the Heath business park offering laboratory space to rent, it sounded perfect, i had no intention to be a shop and i could setup a fish lab and ship direct to customers. A deal was agreed and i signed the paperwork for a monthly rent costing more than my monthly wage at Chester zoo, i did have nerves and worries about if i was doing the right thing? but i was determined to do whatever i needed to do to start, own and operate my own business.
At the start of December we moved into Lab 107a and started work to build the fishtanks, install the racking and life support and get ready to start selling! I say we, i had the help of my best friend Graham and without his help it would of taken me twice as long to build the fishroom over the Christmas of 2019!
We were finally finished and ready to open, the local council inspected us and were very pleased with the quality of my setup and my plans for the business, they awarded me the licence to operate a pet shop and on the 22nd of January 2020 we launched our business with only 64 aquariums and nothing else! during the initial opening weeks you could not even purchase a tub of food, we had no intention to be a shop but things work in mysterious ways.
Within a few weeks we were constantly getting requests from local fishkeepers to visit our 'shop' not wanting to turn anyone away we started to allow people to visit, the fishroom located in the science building was off limits to walk in customers so we had to operate a appointment system, the customers would get to the locked outer gate, call my mobile and i would walk out, let them in and escort them into the fishroom. This worked ok for a couple of months and then we were hit by the news that COVID had hit and all businesses were to close! i was scared to death, not for health reasons, but i had put my life savings and months of hard work into starting my first business and now we may have to close, i had just signed a rent agreement and it would of killed me to close Premier Aquatics! luckily i was given a boost when pet shops were allowed to trade as an essential business, that was all i needed and i did everything possible to make sure that we survived! we stopped visitors from entering the fishshop and turned to local deliveries, i would take orders, list the delivery routes and then hop into the car and drive for upto 8hrs a day around Liverpool and Manchester delivering fish, plants, foods and treatments. Some people argued that fish were not essential and many businesses made their own decisions not to sell livestock for that reason, for me that was pretty much all i had to sell so i had to do everything possible to survive! Luckily the covid lockdown proved to be a boom year for the aquarium industry, people locked up at home with extra money and no where to go and spend it was a winning formula and the number of new aquarium owners jumped, our business was growing and taking on a mind of its own! After a year and a half of being in the lab i had to make the decision to make a move to a larger premises, the entry to what had become a full on shop was tricky and difficult and we felt that we needed more sales tanks and more choice of dry goods, we had filled the current space and in spring 2021 decided to move into a larger store..... I will tell that story in a later blog post. Thank you for reading, i hope that you enjoyed my journey from working a dead end job to being one of the lucky few that cannot wait to jump out of bed and head into a job that i absolutely adore, i often say, i cant believe that they pay me to do this stuff :) !
If there is one piece of advise that i would give is this
'A person spends over half of their waking hours at work, if you do not enjoy what you do, have a think about what you are passionate about and look to change your job to do something that resonates with you and fills you with excitement, we spend far too long in work, to do something that does not fill you with joy and enthusiasm' Its never too late, i was 43 when i started Premier Aquatics and have not looked back since!...