In 1980, Geoff Chutter was an accountant working for KPMG. He was 28, in management and on track to make partner. He shakes his head as he recalls the weekend his life took a turn for the exciting.
The CEO of Vancouver-based WhiteWater West Industries Ltd.—a water park design and manufacturing company—now heads a multinational company with over $200 million in annual revenues.
But back then, he was in Kelowna, B.C., doing an audit. An uncle with a mechanical business mentioned he had done some consulting on a waterslide park in Kelowna—the first in Canada. Would his nephew want to come have a look? Chutter did. Immediately, he saw an opportunity to feed his entrepreneurial spirit: selling sun, water and adventure.
He started looking for land.
Together with his uncle, Chutter bought 18 acres in Penticton, B.C.—including a campground and mobile-home park—and set about opening WhiteWater Waterslide Park. He quit KPMG by the end of that year. “The only thing more naive than me was the bank,” Chutter recalls.
But by the end of the park’s first summer in operation, Chutter had received requests from four patrons to help create water parks in their own communities. “I recognized at the time that being an expert in anything in life is simply knowing a fraction more than the guy beside you,” says Chutter. “And so even as a 28-, 29-year-old, I was deemed an expert in the water park industry.”
Chutter signed contracts to build waterslides for parks in Washington’s Birch Bay; Niagara Falls, Ont.; and Kamloops and Salmon Arm, B.C. With that, WhiteWater took off. The company quickly expanded to engineer and supply its own fibreglass, and to design and build its own slides. Once he realized he enjoyed developing parks more than operating them, he sold his operation in Penticton and turned his attention to running a design-and-manufacture company. Today, he supplies waterslides, multi-level water attractions, wave-generating equipment and water rides (think splashy log rides). Over the years, WhiteWater has built its client list to include amusement parks, municipal pools, resorts and cruise ships.
WhiteWater is a global company now, with more than 5,000 installations; four regional headquarters in Barcelona, Dubai, Shanghai and Vancouver; and manufacturing operations in places such as Kelowna, India and the Philippines. “They truly are remarkable,” says Don MacPherson, national lead for risk advisory at Deloitte Private. “This is a Canadian company that has established a unique niche and that is globally recognized as a leader.”
The company has allayed critics’ doubts about being able to crack markets like the Middle East and Japan, where clothing restrictions and edicts against sun exposure seemed to stand in the way of running a successful water park. But Wild Wadi Waterpark in Dubai is filled on its women-only nights, and Toshimaen Amusement Park in Tokyo has smashed attendance records, with 69,000 people coming through the gates on a single day. “Part of the fun has been going into countries where we’ve been told . . . the whole thing isn’t going to work for cultural reasons, or that it’s just not going to be as successful, and none of them have proven to be true,” says Chutter. “Sun, water, family and friends trump pretty much everything out there.”
Despite its position as a global leader in the sector, in 2016 the company missed its revenue numbers. Alarmed at the whiff of complacency, the management group immediately developed accurate revenue projections tied to WhiteWater’s various manufacturing facilities. The changes dramatically improved WhiteWater’s financial modelling, allowing the company to react faster to upturns and downturns in the global economy, and letting it advance certain projects if others were for some reason delayed. The company also established a customer service group, with a 24-7 service hotline. Each of its four global offices was given authority over its region’s engineering, project management and sales. The company also adopted a “local-for-local” manufacturing strategy to ensure production takes place as close to the final destination (and customer base) as possible. This helps WhiteWater serve its customers in a culturally relevant way—not just fly in and set up a water park then disappear again. “They’re having people living and breathing those cultures and those needs, both from the consumer perspective but also from their clients’ perspective as well,” says Maryn Wallace, co-lead for Canada’s Best Managed Companies for Deloitte in B.C., “which I think is quite unique and speaks to the strength of their brand over time.”
Innovation is a cornerstone to WhiteWater’s success—after all, theme parks must continually offer novelty to get people through the gate. The company took home four Brass Rings for innovation from last November’s major trade show for the global attractions industry. WhiteWater was the first to add gaming elements to some of its waterslides, enabling riders to score points by hitting a button on their raft when they pass under a lighted target. In 2019, WhiteWater will roll out wristbands that allow park patrons to open their hotel rooms and pay for food and beverages using RFID technology, and to track their family members’ whereabouts in the park. Just as importantly, the bands will collect data to help park operators stay on top of patron flow and park maintenance. While RFID bands aren’t new to water parks, most operate only at short range and are mostly suited for smaller, indoor environments. “We think this is going to completely change how parks are operated,” Chutter says.
Constant innovation in technology, products and services took WhiteWater to the top—sales figures are up 65% over the past five years—but it takes constant innovation to keep it there. Now the company’s leadership—which includes Chutter’s son Paul, who joined in 2014 and now serves as chief business development officer—takes a long view, investing in its people by offering employee coaching, and sharing profits with everyone on payroll proportionate to their wage. To ensure long-term growth, they’ve developed robust succession plans at various levels of the company. WhiteWater hires positive, can-do types with a growth mindset. It helps, notes Chutter, that they’re manufacturing something riotously fun. Get in and hang on—this ride’s a fast one.