Just add water

Who knew a Canadian company founded by a CPA was a world leader in the waterpark industry? Along the way Geoff Chutter has had his ups and downs, but it’s been a thrilling ride.

In April, Geoff Chutter, president and CEO of WhiteWater West Industries, flew to California to attend the Thea Awards, the themed entertainment industry’s version of the Oscars. The black-tie event is usually dominated by industry heavyweights such as Disney and Universal Studios, but Chutter’s Canadian waterpark company took home the Technology Award for designing a ride that combines aquatic thrills with interactive gaming software. Called Slideboarding, it’s a huge hit with teenagers. The attraction, which has been installed in a dozen waterparks and will soon be featured on a 5,179-passenger cruise ship, flings riders down a twisting tube on a scooped-out board, while they try to press coloured buttons on the handle of the board that correspond to flashing lights on the interior walls. The game tracks the riders’ scores over the course of a visit, as well as through a downloadable app that simulates the ride, and creates more difficult challenges as their skill improves.

It’s rare for a waterpark to win a Thea Award and Chutter is justifiably proud, but innovation and a willingness to push the technical envelope has been a WhiteWater hallmark since Day 1 and a major reason why it is a world leader in the design and creation of waterparks and in the manufacturing of waterpark equipment and attractions. “We try to make creative visions real. We’re always looking to achieve the wow factor,” says Chutter, noting his favourite WhiteWater creation — the Boomerango, a scream-and-laughter-inducing marvel that sends four to six raft riders sliding down a tunnel before dropping them up the side of a high wall in a gravity-defying moment of weightlessness, then dropping them down a sloping chute. To keep the fresh ideas coming, Chutter says the company employs a 13-person new-product development team dedicated to brainstorming new ideas and asking, what if?

THE PLAYOLOGIST

The accountant-turned-entrepreneur is seated behind the desk at his office in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. Personable and enthusiastic, at 65 Chutter has a boyish quality that suits the nature of his business. After all, how many companies have a professional playologist on staff who advises on ways to appeal to our inner child?

Yet delve a little deeper and a savvy, hard-driving business strategist emerges. He has forged WhiteWater into an amusement industry powerhouse that employs a workforce of 550, generates about $200 million in annual sales and has built some of the world’s most spectacular waterparks, including Caribbean Bay in Yongin, South Korea, and Chimelong Waterpark in Guangzhou, China, the world leader in attendance, with more than 2.3 million annual visitors.

“WhiteWater is certainly a leader in the industry. The company produces a wide range of rides and attractions, nearly everything you could want in a waterpark,” notes David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, a Cleveland-based company that prepares feasibility studies, appraisals and economic impact studies for hotels, resorts, casinos and waterparks.

According to Sangree, the waterpark industry has been growing steadily in recent years, with more than US$550 million worth of new investment in outdoor and indoor waterparks in 2016 in the US alone. Growth is driven by several factors, including more sophisticated rides, improved technology and a greater diversity of markets. The dollar signs are getting larger as well. The cost of the equipment used in these parks ranges from US$3 million to US$25 million, depending on the size of the facility, and the largest rides can cost from US$3 million to US$5 million each. The scale of some of the recent commercial ventures is mind-boggling. Sangree says he is curious to see the public reception to Volcano Bay, a massive new waterpark constructed by Universal Orlando Resort that opened in May. The 12-hectare development, which is centred around a 60-metre-high artificial volcano and boasts 18 rides, was built at an estimated cost of US$600 million, according to analysts from Nomura Instinet.

The rise in waterpark popularity has helped keep WhiteWater employees working at a furious pace. To date, the company has completed more than 5,000 installations and shows no sign of slowing down, adding new ones at a rate of 200 per year. Chutter hasn’t slowed down much himself. He’s about to jet to the Far East, where he will visit Japan for the 38th time. The former CPA keeps tabs on things like that, including his air miles. “I’ve flown 1,172,000 miles just with Air Canada.” In 2015 alone, he racked up more than 100,000 flying miles. Not all of those jaunts were sales-driven; many involved customer relations. “You sign a $30-million contract. You know what? The CEO should get off his keister and go and say thank you.”

RIDING THE WAVE

Born and raised in Vancouver, Chutter entered the business world in Toronto at age 23 with accounting firm KPMG. After five years he’d been promoted to management and was on his way to becoming a partner when his career took a radical detour. While working on an audit in Kelowna, BC, Chutter saw his first waterslide park. It intrigued him. “I just had a gut feeling that it could turn into something,” he says.

He and an uncle purchased 7 hectares of land in Penticton, BC, and raised $1.5 million to construct a 1.2-hectare waterpark. The WhiteWater Waterslide & Recreation Complex opened in 1981. It was dead basic: “Four body slides from a tower, a whirlpool and a fast-food stand,” recalls Chutter. The move was met with bemused skepticism by coworkers at KPMG. “They thought I was a lunatic. They said I could come back after I’d gotten this craziness out of my system.”

In retrospect, Chutter believes his CPA background aided him in his new venture. “For a 29-year-old it provided a level of credibility on the business end. It also allowed me to read financials and make sound decisions.” Working at KPMG also allowed him to pick the brains of management teams at various companies and gain insight into the challenges of operating a business.

The water-play industry was still in its infancy and Chutter and his six employees had to sort out most everything on their own, including designing their equipment. That first summer, four people who visited the park said they were keen to open a waterpark in their hometowns and asked Chutter where he got his waterslides. “We said we could provide the engineering, the slides and the supports for their parks. That resulted in four contracts.” By 1983, Chutter had grown tired of the day-to-day hassles of running the waterpark. He decided to sell the facility and shift his focus to development. He says that getting in on the ground floor of an emerging industry was a boon. It seemed as though almost everyone wanted a waterpark in the 1980s.

Developing strategic partnerships helped propel the company forward. In 1985, WhiteWater merged with Brookside Engineering so it could tend to all its engineering needs in-house, and in 1987 it joined forces with a North Vancouver company that added wave-generating technology and more engineering expertise. Andrew Wray, the company’s owner, became a partner and WhiteWater’s chief development officer. Semi-retired today, Wray still serves on the firm’s executive board. Asked about the traits that fuelled Chutter’s success, Wray says, “Geoff has great foresight. He has an uncanny ability to see where the market is going. He’s immersed in this business and understands it in depth.”

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, WhiteWater inked deals to acquire companies with iconic products such as the AquaLoop, in which riders drop 16 metres down a near-vertical slide, reaching a speed of 60 km/h in two seconds, before entering an inclined 45-degree loop; the FlowRider, a continuous wave people can surf; and the Master Blaster, a flashy, roller-coaster-style attraction where rafts are propelled uphill by powerful water jets. It also licensed the international rights to the first interactive water-play structures and eventually hired the inventor.

This tactic of licensing or buying popular products outright proved to be a key driver in the company’s evolution. By scooping up other manufacturers and expanding on its designs, WhiteWater was eventually able to manufacture every piece of equipment that goes into building a waterpark, lending the company a distinct edge, as most of its competitors are single-product companies. “We don’t just supply the equipment; we typically develop the master plan and design the entire project,” says Wray.

“WhiteWater is a great company, but it has competitors, including several in the US,” says Dan Martin, a Chicago-based consultant and managing principal of Market & Feasibility Advisors. Martin feels that WhiteWater’s one-stop-shop identity works better in Asia than in the US. “In emerging markets they’re more likely to buy the whole kit and caboodle. Here the market is more sophisticated and operators often like to buy rides from different suppliers, angling for the best deal.”

Unlike its rides, WhiteWater’s rise has been a steady upward climb. Only twice has growth been threatened. “The 9-11 attacks had a real impact on the industry,” says Chutter. “Americans didn’t want to get on an airplane anymore.” But this stay-at-home mentality gave rise to a new development — indoor waterparks, which have become a key component in the modern-day phenomenon of staycations.

The 2008 recession was another setback as investment in North American waterparks came to a standstill. At the time, more than 50% of WhiteWater’s clients were based in the US, but the company avoided a serious sales slump by aggressively chasing new markets in China. Today, about 30% of the company’s business emanates from the People’s Republic.

GLOBALIZING THE WATERPARK

Chutter believes his firm’s family-centric approach has enabled it to defy cultural biases and succeed in unlikely locales such as the Wild Wadi Waterpark in Dubai. Built in part by WhiteWater in 1999, it was the Middle East’s first waterpark. Many felt it was doomed to fail because of the restrictions often placed on Muslim women publicly exposing their bodies in the presence of men. As predicted, few females attended after the park opened. Then general manager Glenn Davidson eventually opted to boost the gate with ladies-only nights. Not only would all the patrons be women, so too would the attendants, managers and lifeguards, a novel situation in Dubai. Only six women showed up for the first Ladies Night, but after six months 2,000 were attending.

THRILLS AND SPILLS clockwise: the Super Flume at Dollywood in Tennessee; AquaPlay Giant RainFortress at Cowabunga Bay in Utah; Disney Cruise Line slide; Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast in Australia; and Sunway Lagoon’s Abyss in Malaysia

THRILLS AND SPILLS clockwise: the Super Flume at Dollywood in Tennessee; AquaPlay Giant RainFortress at Cowabunga Bay in Utah; Disney Cruise Line slide; Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast in Australia; and Sunway Lagoon’s Abyss in Malaysia

People also told Chutter that the waterpark concept would flounder in Japan because Japanese women generally avoid the sun, associating a tan with the darker skin of the lower economic classes. “In 2000, our waterpark in Tokyo set a one-day world attendance record of 68,000,” says Chutter. It was true about the desire to avoid a tan, but it didn’t stop people from coming. That being said, Chutter notes they did incorporate significant shade structures into their designs.

It was a similar story when WhiteWater geared up to “bring the fun” to Boksburg, South Africa. Chutter was informed that the locals didn’t swim. It turned out there was good reason to avoid the water — the rivers were rife with crocodiles and there were great white sharks in the sea. Even so, the waterpark drew crowds, albeit with a slightly tentative attitude. “I remember looking at an overhead shot from a helicopter just after it opened,” recalls Chutter. “The scene was all black and orange — black from the skin of the people and orange from the lifejackets they were all wearing.”

Today, WhiteWater has built waterparks in 33 countries and maintains 23 offices and six manufacturing facilities around the world. It has also expanded its client base, creating aqua-play features for 32 Carnival cruise ships and two Disney cruise ships.

Yet, despite the globalization of the marketplace, company headquarters remain in BC. The plant, which opened in Richmond in 1995, has special meaning for Chutter, who can look through his office window across a field and see the Lafarge cement plant that his father once managed. “He was the first non-French engineer hired by Lafarge,” says Chutter.

In the early 1990s, after his father had left Lafarge, Chutter hired him to oversee the installation of giant surf pool equipment in South Africa and Malaysia. Clearly, the hard-working business ethic runs deep in his family. Chutter’s grandfather was managing director of a wire rope manufacturing business in Vancouver and his 35-year-old son, Paul, recently joined WhiteWater as chief business development officer after a stint as a sales director at UBS Investment Bank in London, England.

Today, about 500 people work at WhiteWater’s Richmond plant and at a second factory in Kelowna, along with another 40 or so scattered among 21 international offices. The Richmond site is where welding, painting and steel fabrication take place and where the dragons, pirates, baboons and other fantastic creatures that inhabit the parks are crafted from huge blocks of Styrofoam. The fibreglass waterslides and other attractions are produced in Kelowna and the Philippines.

Chutter, an admirer of Japanese culture, has based the model for his company on a couple of Japanese business concepts from the management book The Toyota Way: kaizen, a productivity philosophy that urges employees to become involved in making improvements; and just-in-time manufacturing, an inventory strategy that aims to raise efficiency and reduce waste.

John Bookless, the company’s director of continuous improvement, says the goal is balanced loads. “One department only makes what the next department needs. Products are worked on and moved on very quickly.” WhiteWater now outsources about 60% of its manufacturing to China, the Philippines and the US. Contrary to what one might expect, this has increased the company’s roster of Canadian employees. “Our facility was full,” Bookless says. “The only way we could increase our overall capacity was to outsource some of the work. We’re [now] able to take on more contracts and that’s led to more work.”

The spread of waterparks has been good for WhiteWater’s bottom line, but it’s also attracted a flood of imitators. Chutter calls the competition “fierce,” saying, “We have about two dozen competitors in China, and there are other companies in Europe and across North America.” Ironically, one rival in the manufacturing sector is another Canadian outfit, Ottawa-based ProSlide Technology. Founded in 1986 by Rick Hunter, a former national team skier, ProSlide has collected a slew of awards for its innovative rides.

RAZZLE-DAZZLE RIDES

Much of the technological wizardry on display at today’s waterparks is the result of operators seeking razzle-dazzle attractions that will set them apart from their competitors. As Claudio Barrera, WhiteWater’s director of product development, admits, “In recent years, there’s been a push to have the newest, the greatest, the tallest, the fastest, the first on the planet.” The frenzy has sparked the advent of seven- and eight-storey-high water coasters where high-powered nozzles or hydromagnetic technology propel people uphill on rafts; whirling, funnel-shaped tornado rides; and body slides taller than a 12-storey building that send shrieking riders plummeting down fibreglass chutes at speeds of up to 90 km/h.

Obviously, when designing rides that stretch the limits of engineering, close attention must be paid to safety. Barrera, who tests WhiteWater’s rides himself, says that the company has an internal technical safety committee that oversees designs and that it can take up to three years to develop an ambitious new attraction.

At the same time, Ron Lausman, WhiteWater’s vice-president of business development and architectural services, stresses that waterpark design is more than just mechanics. For one thing, there’s the challenge of dealing with crowds. “Attendance of 40,000 is pretty typical for a weekend day in a large park in Asia. It’s like having a small city show up on your doorstep,” he says. “In order to deal with that crush you have to understand traffic flow and how people use space.”

Increasingly, waterparks are being incorporated into resort and hotel developments and shopping centres. In China, they are becoming a linchpin of high-end real estate developments. At the same time, Martin says the increase in the popularity of stand-alone indoor waterparks and those attached to hotels and resorts in North America may change the typical clientele of families with small children. “We’re seeing swim-up bars, better-quality restaurants, spa features and other perks aimed at adults. Ultimately, I think you will see some waterparks aimed exclusively at adults.”

Looking ahead, Chutter sees waterparks growing larger and more complex, with an emphasis on interactive aspects and more elaborate theming and storytelling. “We’re working on an exciting project in Mexico right now with Cirque du Soleil in which the waterpark won’t just be a backdrop, but will be part of an evening show.”

And the big ventures keep coming. WhiteWater was a main supplier of Yas Waterworld, a waterpark that opened in 2013 on a man-made island in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Assembled at an estimated cost of US$300 million, the 15-hectare park boasts 45 rides and attractions, including the world’s first hydromagnetic tornado waterslide and an inverted roller-coaster equipped with laser guns that activate ground effects such as water cannons.

These types of megaprojects have kept the lathes running hot at the Richmond plant and boosted WhiteWater’s sales figures by 65% over five years. The company has come a long way since its early days, when a million in sales was considered a success. Yet, even with this escalation of scale, Chutter insists that the core appeal of the waterpark remains unchanged: the holy triumvirate of sun, fun and family.

“At a trade show a few years back I had a chat with an elderly fellow who told me, ‘If I only had one day in my life to re-live, it would be the one where I took my family to a waterpark. We all laughed and had great fun. We still cherish that day.’ For me, that really captures the essence of what we’re trying to do here,” says Chutter.

As I leave his office, Chutter points at a framed document on the wall. “You know, I still have my CPA certificate. I was recently informed that as a 40-year member I no longer have to pay annual fees. It’s strange how things come full circle,” he muses. “KPMG now does our audit.”

It’s a safe bet that no one there calls him crazy anymore.