A childhood passion for fish and pond construction led Brian Fitzsimmons to launch his own business right out of high school. Read the story below to learn how he formed his specialized company — or watch the video to visit one of Fitz’s Fish Ponds’ jobsites.
At age 13, shovel in hand, Brian Fitzsimmons headed to the backyard of his family home. His parents were away on vacation; this was his chance. He began to dig. And dig. And dig some more.
“I always wanted a pond, and I convinced my aunt to take me to Home Depot and buy me the stuff to do it,” Brian says. “My parents weren’t that mad. It started my journey into the pond business.”
He got a job at a local pond store the following year, where he learned the ins and outs of the pond business. In 2008, at 18, he left that job to launch his own koi pond construction, design and servicing company, Fitz’s Fish Ponds, in Fairfield, New Jersey.
“I rented this little shack that was 12 by 15 feet,” Brian says. “I had a retail store there for two years, and when the lease ended, I had grown my business large enough to rent out the same location of the pond store where I’d worked as a teenager.”
While running his pond business, Brian earned a financial planning license, picking up more skills for running a company.
“I realized at a young age that I wanted to build a company, not a job,” he says.
Building a business
Brian estimates that there are about 25 other companies in New Jersey that specialize in ponds. To stand out from the pack, Brian has tailored his company to be a one-stop shop for all types of ponds.
“A lot of contractors build just one style of pond, but we specialize in many different types,” Brian says. “If somebody wants a formal one in their garden, a really natural-looking pond, something they can swim in, or something really unique, we can get pretty much anything done. We’re like a specialty contractor.”
Brian stresses the importance of hiring a specialized pond company when customers want to add water features to their yard.
“We do this every single day,” Brian says. “We build environments for the fish, for the plants, so everything works together. We’ve been building ponds for years. We know how they work, and we get it done right the first time. That’s why a lot of customers trust us with their backyards, even though we might not be the cheapest company. They like the work that we do.”
He keeps a large staff – 25 employees – so someone is always available for an emergency service call to handle any customer needs. And Brian added a second store location to make it even more convenient for customers to pop into a store with questions or to pick up pond supplies.
Starting his equipment fleet
Compact equipment plays a big role in Fitz’s Fish Ponds’ success. The company started renting machines as needed in 2012, but it eventually made more sense to purchase.
“As the company grew, we always wanted to buy the best equipment,” Brian says. “I knew an excavator would be a really versatile machine so we could do a lot of different work with it.”
The company began exploring the addition of a Bobcat mini excavator to its toolkit in 2014. Brian’s local Bobcat dealer, Garden State Bobcat, let him rent a few models first to determine what size of excavator was best for his work. He settled on an E35 mini excavator because it can easily fit through backyard gates while still providing enough power to move large rocks and loads of dirt.
Fitz’s Fish Ponds wasn’t a one-machine company for long.
“I was always telling my dealer that a lot of times I want to get into a backyard, but I can’t because the patio or the landscaping is already done,” Brian says. “They told me the MT85 can get into any backyard. I bought the first one sold in New Jersey.”
Not long after buying the MT85 mini track loader, Brian signed on the dotted line for an E20 mini excavator. The E20 has a retractable undercarriage, meaning the machine can maneuver through backyard spaces as narrow as 39 inches. That’s a critical feature for the tight, established spaces where the crews work. Brian extends the excavator undercarriage before he starts operating the E20 for optimal stability.
“We do projects that range from a really small backyard – a garden pond or a 5- by 5-foot patio – to big projects like a large, natural koi pond,” Brian says. “A lot of times we measure a gate and realize we can just fit the MT85 or the E20. They save us from bringing in the wheelbarrows.”
“The equipment saves us a lot of money and a lot of time,” Brian says. “The part I dislike about renting machines is having to send a guy to pick up a machine and then bring it back at the end of the day. You’re paying a guy to just transport a machine. When you own the machine, the equipment is always there.”
Building a pond
When installing a pond, Brian selects the equipment he brings to the job based on jobsite access and the size of the space he’ll be working in. For the dig, Brian opts for the E35 and a large-frame loader for excavating and moving dirt. On smaller jobsites, he subs in the E20 and MT85. A breaker attachment helps the crew when they hit a solid surface in New Jersey’s rocky soil.
“It’s great having a big breaker in our arsenal,” Brian says. “We can break through pretty much anything, including concrete pools and stone.”
A compact loader paired with a rock bucket lets the crew sift out debris and smaller rocks and save larger stones for landscaping purposes. At a recent job that involved installing a deck, koi pond, upper patio, retaining walls and outdoor kitchen, the equipment helped the crew navigate the homeowner’s tiered backyard.
“With multiple elevations, we had to use the equipment in different areas: moving soil in and out of the tiers, moving pallets from the upper area to the lower area, including 40 pallets of stone from the old patio out and new stone brought in,” Brian says. “Having different machines for different parts of the work was really helpful.”
The machines are a key part of keeping his crew happy and safe on the jobsite, Brian says.
“I think having all the machines leads to the guys not getting fatigued when it’s really hot in summer. Instead of pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill or shoveling dirt into a truck, having the machines on-site speeds up their productivity, helps us get a better price to the client, and we just get our work done faster and safer.”
Expanding his equipment fleet
When deciding on equipment purchases, Brian relies on his crew’s input.
“We look at how much we use a machine,” Brian says. “If my crew says, ‘Oh, if I had that, I would have gotten that job done two days faster,’ and the machine would only cost me $500 a month, why wouldn’t I get it? Payroll for three guys is $500 per day.”
Garden State Bobcat’s financing specials make equipment purchases affordable for the young company owner.
“They often have 0% financing or a bit of a discount if you pay in cash,” Brian says. “We always take advantage of 0% because when it’s on my balance sheet, my bank doesn’t care about the loan if it’s at 0%. It makes it a lot easier for us. When we need it, we just get the machine.”
Brian is a repeat customer because of Garden State Bobcat’s proximity to one of Fitz’s Fish Ponds’ locations and their willingness to loan the company a machine if a piece of equipment goes down.
“They always get a tech out to us right away and have the part we need,” Brian says. “I’ve driven most machines, but I like my Bobcat equipment best. Plus, sticking with one brand makes it easier.”
The dealership also supported Brian after Fitz’s Fish Ponds’ new building burned down in 2019.
“The owner reached out to me directly – and I know he’s a busy guy – and he said, ‘Hey, Brian, we’re here for you. Anything you need, let us know.’ I’m not his biggest customer, but they actually care about our business. They’re a family business, too.”
Looking to what’s next for his business
At age 28, Brian doesn’t plan to slow down his company’s growth anytime soon. Fitz’s Fish Ponds added a landscaping division four years ago to offer outdoor kitchen, fireplace and patio construction to complement its pond business. Brian used to sub out this type of work, but he found subcontractors unreliable and unfamiliar with pond construction. Now, that side of the business is also booming, leading to complete landscaping overhaul jobs.
“[A subcontractor] would hit one of the [waterlines] for the pond, and the customer would get mad,” Brian says. “We decided to bring everything in house so if someone wants a patio, we can incorporate it all together and make their backyard something really amazing.”
Brian also recently purchased a farm to serve as the company’s new headquarters for their wholesale distribution, equipment storage and plant nurseries. They import supplies and koi fish from Japan that they provide to other stores and contractors around the country, and Brian may soon be raising koi fish on the farm as well. One day he also wants to open a location on the West Coast.
“This work brings something different every day,” Brian says. “Every project brings its own challenges. We’re looking forward to the next 20 years of growth to see where that takes us.”
Want more inspiration to start your own business? Read other company success stories on the Bobcat Blog.