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Charly Haley, Published February 03 2013

It's My Job: Aquarium services owner finds success in job he hadn’t planned

FARGO – David Ohnstad describes aquariums as peaceful and relaxing.

That’s one reason he works in aquarium main-tenance.

As the owner of Aquarium Design Services in Fargo, Ohnstad, 51, oversees the maintenance of aquariums in many familiar locations around town, including clinic waiting rooms and at the West Acres Shopping Center.

Q. Describe your job.

We are an aquarium leasing and maintenance company. We primarily lease these aquariums out to businesses, as well as residential accounts. We cover about an 85-mile radius around Fargo.

We provide all of their fish, all of their food, all of their service. … So for the customer, it’s really hands off. All they do is feed the fish, and if there’s a dead one in there, they net them out. Other than that, we take care of all of it.

How many sites do you maintain?

We do about 200 per month.

West Acres, I’m out here cleaning the glass about once a week. Here, it’s just full of lights, and the lights are what creates algae. Plus, there’s fingerprints all over the glass. The whole time that we’ve been sitting here, there’s probably been a 30-second length of time when there hasn’t been anybody around the tank.

And then once a month, we do a partial water change on the aquarium.

How did you get started in this business?

I used to work for a computer software company, and there were a couple of people who had this business – I got it in 1990 – and they had 16 accounts at the time. And I thought, you know, this is silly enough to work, you guys just aren’t working it. So I bought those accounts from those guys and then it just grew and grew and grew.

Then I quit my full-time job, I hired my first guy, my second guy, my third guy, my fourth guy, my fifth guy. This is what my college education went to – I’m sitting here cleaning fish tanks. You never know what you’re going to be when you grow up or what you’re going to do.

What is your favorite part of the job?

I really do like the customer contact. When I have a bunch of accounts and I need to bring on somebody else, I usually give that person 40 or 50 accounts, whatever works for them – and then I miss not seeing my customers anymore. So for me it’s definitely the socializing that I like about it.

Plus, it’s something that’s really win-win. (Aquariums are) something that’s really relaxing, it’s something that’s living inside of an office or home, and it’s something that customers really appreciate. Every month they write out a check, and every month they should want to write out that check. If they’re unhappy with it, then we don’t want the tank there. And we’ve had a lot of our customers – and I mean a lot – for 23 years. That’s something that surprised me about the business is the retention.

What are the challenges of your job?

I think probably the most significant challenge with the job is not overfeeding the fish. People always overfeed the fish. We can always tell when we’re vacuuming out the gravel bed and cleaning. … They’re fish; they’re not chickens. Just feed a little tiny amount of food because it really messes up the water quality.

Every time you walk over to an aquarium, the fish are going to come up and say they’re hungry, but in nature that’s something they do, they forage for food … but don’t feed them. Think of what I would be like if I hit the fridge every time I walked past it.

So that’s probably the biggest challenge, but it’s not much to complain about, I have to say.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311