David Sutherland always admired his father’s aquatic filtration business Vak Pak Inc. and he even admitted he dressed up as a company service worker when he was a kid for one Halloween.
Now, the 32-year-old Sutherland is running the Jacksonville company that pulled in $5.5 million in revenue in 2016.
The company manufactures industrial filtration systems mostly for commercial pools, spas, fountains and water parks, although there are some high-end residential products that Vak Pak will produce.
But most of the systems are destined for hotels, theme park resorts and public-use aquatic facilities.
“I was the youngest of six kids,” Sutherland said from his office that looks out onto the 45,000-square-foot production building. “I think a lot of kids go into the family business because it’s convenient. But this industry is cool.”
Sutherland took over as president of Vak Pak about two years ago after his father, Paul, retired from the business he started in 1970. In that time Vak Pak has built about 19,000 filtration systems for projects in about 40 states, Canada, Australia and several Caribbean nations.
The manufacturing building on Phoenix Avenue between the Jacksonville Talleyrand shipping docks and the Springfield historic district is housed in a brick building that previously was a Baptist church.
There’s another Vak Pak building with storage and office facilities that accounts for another 25,000 square feet across the street.
In the main manufacturing facility, the smell of freshly mixed fiberglass engulfs the production areas where many of the 36 employees toil at piecing together pumps, filters and other control mechanisms into fiberglass housings that are the size of a small boat.
Those housings are one of the main products that are actually built at Vak Pak. They do make some pumps and filters but they also purchase some of those components from suppliers and add them to their custom-ordered systems that can cost more than $20,000 in many cases, depending on the job.
While the systems would be costly for most residents, on a commercial scale, Sutherland said a Vak Pak system can save a contractor time for a project that could take more than a week to construct, piece together and install. A prefabricated Vak Pak system can be installed in hours once it arrives on a site.
While Sutherland became president of Vak Pak a couple of years ago, he worked at the business learning the trade for nearly a decade before taking it over.
He said he’s also had a steady guide and mentor in Vak Pak Vice President Tom Karst who’s worked at the company for 31 years.
Karst said one of the most important features the Vak Pak systems offer is that their water systems are now formulated on gravity-based circulation that veers away from forced-suction circulation systems that could be dangerous.
Those gravity systems are now mandated under Florida law for any new pool or water system, but many other states have no such requirements.
Florida, which has one of the most robust pool and aquatics industries in the nation, stipulated regulations for gravity-based filtration systems to avoid “entrapment drownings.” That’s where a swimmer can get pinned to the bottom of a pool over a water-flow portal due to the force of suction in a main drain.
The name Vak Pak is derived from the vacuum-based filtration system.
“The business is just so unusual, it’s intriguing,” the 57-year-old Karst said. “Gravity-flow eliminates pump-caused suction entrapment.
“The water from the pool is flowing to a [separate] collector tank. The pump is pulling from that collector tank, not from the pool. Water is moving through the main drain by the force of gravity, not by pump-caused suction,” Karst said.
In an effort to keep their filtration systems up to code and performing above regulations in many states, Vak Pak has a 2,000-gallon testing facility in the Phoenix Avenue building where designers and workers and can see the results of their filtration modifications and upgrades.
Eventually, Sutherland said he’d like to expand the business and possibly relocate to a larger production facility. He acknowledged he needs to grow the business a bit before that can happen.
But he said Vak Pak is on track for expansion given the continued demand for their products. Sutherland said his marketing approach does not involve traditional media such as radio, television or newspapers.
Vak Pak sends representatives to trade shows “a few” times a year and the company has increased its internet presence, though social media offers little advantage since commercial aquatic filtration systems represent a very narrow and specific industry.
The biggest advantage for Vak Pak’s expansion remains word of mouth, Sutherland said.
“Our target is not reading the newspaper,” Sutherland said. “The vast majority of it is word of mouth.”
Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098