June 6, 2013
Buddha statues, stalagmites, giant rock formations and centuries old road pavers from China. Visit the AguaFina website (www.aguafina.com) and you’ll get a hint of much more offerings brought to you by the Sylvan Lake, Mich.-based company.
But it’s just a hint, you’ll discover, after spending some time with owner Daryl Toby, a born and bred Michigan native who, despite his turning 43 on April 17, says he feels like he’s never quite “grown up.”
That energy goes way back. From age 12, when he had his first business - a lawn service he financed in part with $200 from his father - he showed he was something akin to a born entrepreneur.
And while we might be getting just a little mired in the past, the reality is that Toby’s business today-AguaFina Gardens International-can be seen both as the sum of influences in his life and what happens when you follow a dream. Even if that dream isn’t all that detailed when it first appears.
Today AguaFina Gardens specializes in stone setting, water features, and detail oriented projects, each one unique and resulting from the collaborative effort of designers, the project owners and craftsmen.
At its Sylvan Lake facility, the company has a rich eclectic collection of items Toby has assembled and continues to assemble from his travels throughout Asia and South America.
That too is an important part of the story because it’s that love of travel that continues to fuel the AguaFina supply chain even as it shapes Daryl Toby.
This thread of the story begins while Toby was finishing a degree in resource development from Michigan State University (he graduated in 1992); a year before he’d participated in an overseas study program that took him to Brazil.
“That experience completely changed everything for me,” says Toby, who admits to catching the travel bug, so much so that he brought a cousin into his lawn service business primarily so he could have someone to keep it going while he took off to feed his new love of travel.
“The pattern was to work so I could travel,” he recalls.
Eventually selling the lawn maintenance part of the venture to his cousin (“It seemed kind of pointless to be cutting lawns when all they would do is grow back”), Toby gradually began to focus on designing gardens, interspersing those periods of work with the travel, where he’d buy pieces to be used in those design projects, doing so from the back of a motorbike.
Saving treasures from China
By this time, Toby had discovered Asia as a travel destination. And began buying pieces of stone and parts of abandoned homes, all at a time before people were buying architectural pieces from places like Indonesia.
And China, where he was able to secure a near treasure-trove of antique pavers that would otherwise have been lost forever as a result of flooding in preparation for the flooding of the Yangtze River for the Three Gorges Dam project.
The same story was told over again and again as China continued a development process that lead to areas being flooded over or discarded.
Those “gathering” trips, Toby acknowledges, were hardly a result of following a standard recipe. “It can vary from country to country and region to region,” he notes. “Sometimes I may store enough in an overseas warehouse until there’s enough to fill a complete shipping container or there may be a custom piece and we’ll ship that one item sent to a client, who may or not be a collector.”
In other words, flexibility is the name of the game.
“A great deal of our work is custom.”
Toby’s work has also changed as he gets closer to fulfilling the dreams and visions of his clients, so much so that he has incorporated water features, all to the delight of his stateside customers.
Toby’s signature designs also began to incorporate what he acknowledges were starting to be “strange things like big stones and doors to people’s homes.”
In fact, he was reclaiming items that were destined for overseas junk heaps had he not breathed new life into them as part of a growing trend in the world of landscaping.
That love for travel has served as more than a global diversion for Toby. It’s educated him on how different interactions with man and nature have shaped the world.
“In Europe, the tendency is to focus on man’s dominance over nature,” notes Toby. “But in Asia, especially in places like Japan, it’s often the case that they take an image of nature and repeat that in a smaller form.”
For Toby, being able to pick and choose from those different styles and influences has allowed him to blend and even create his own hybrid designs, all as part of a unique creative process.
“In a Japanese style garden, there might be a view of a larger ocean, with the sand becoming the waves and the stones being islands on the ocean,” says Toby, clearly musing.
Decidedly not someone who beats his chest and shouts-”this is all about me”-Toby is quick in repeatedly crediting a cadre of designers with whom he shares any limelight that may be shining of AguaFina and its work.
“We have a very talented, very collaborative group of designers.”
And that team, or at least parts of it, are eyeing a much broader focus than what might have been built so far from the company’s Sylvan Lake base.
“The stuff we’re doing now is really interesting and compelling,” notes Toby, who is continuing to build strong relationships overseas, including through initiatives like a recent trade mission with Automation Alley and work he’s doing on projects in the Gulf region, notably Dubai.
Toby acknowledges that just how fast some of those overseas relationships are developing can be, if not overwhelming, a little heady.
The realities of a global time change can involve pulling near all-nighters for several days, hopping between calls to the other side of the world and the work needed to be accomplished from Sylvan Lake.
Making the end result worth it
Even while acknowledging how strong the collaborative process involved in creating an AguaFina project can be, Toby recalls a particular project that may not have started in classic “textbook” fashion but turned out to be “the best process we ever had.”
Having met the client at an art fair, Toby gradually assembled a number of sculptural pieces that he would present to the client for final approval before assembling the project at the client’s home.
Toby acknowledges he’d spent thousands of dollars at this point, investing a great deal of energy and time on what the project would look like.
“But I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel it was the right design and I was worried about how we were going to present it.”
At the same time, Toby began to see a vision for what the design could be, a design he was not only happy with but also so passionate about it that he knew he had to bring it up to the client.
On the Sunday, that’s exactly what he did, meeting him at his home.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” he recalls saying to the man who was already willing to write him a check for work Toby wasn’t crazy about. “I have another idea for the design and I’ve got to tell you about it.”
When he was finished, the client thanked him. And approved the new design on the spot.
The essence of that story, Toby says, has been repeated dozens of times, not because AguaFina and its designers don’t do good work when they first start out, but because they listen and go back and forth, discussing the project with a client and getting to the point where it sings, not merely shouts.
“In this case, we built the project off a napkin sketch,” he notes.
Toby will agree that sometimes the process can be “a little frustrating for some clients.”
But the end result, he says, is worth it.
“It feels. It develops. It’s never trained. Stone wants to be a certain way. In balance.”
In the meantime, the buying trips Toby began making while he was scratching his travel itch continue even today, and the company periodically holds its “container opening” parties to give anyone who will come the opportunity to take a first look (or at least second if you count the buyer) at what treasures might be revealed.
Toby calls it a party. And then he gets a little wistful. “We haven’t had a party for a while. We need a lot more parties.”
At this point, Toby again points to the AguaFina for its share of the credit in what has become a remarkably successful story.
“They are fantastic,” he says. “They get complete credit for the work we do because there’s no way I could do what I’ve been doing. They’re fantastically talented.”
They, he says, are also strong when it comes to resisting (not always successfully it might be said) the pull of Toby.
“I need to let them do their work.”