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Not just deep divers

HydroWorx CEO talks product innovation

Anson Flake is CEO of Dauphin County-based HydroWorx International Inc. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

As journalists, we ask questions all the time. But we tweaked our standard practice for the year-end issue of the Central Penn Business Journal, coming tomorrow. Here’s a sneak peek of a chat with one local CEO who didn’t quite make our first-ever Interview Issue.

The quote, from Olympic long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, appears on a poster hung in the waiting area at HydroWorx International Inc.’s Lower Swatara Township headquarters.

For nearly 20 years, the aquatic therapy company has been giving its all and is now recognized around the world for its line of therapy pools and underwater treadmills.

CEO Anson Flake sat down recently with the Business Journal at the company’s 20,000-square-foot facility — an office lined with banners, helmets and jerseys from professional and collegiate sports teams, helmets, as well as client stories — to talk about the company’s ongoing evolution.

ABOUT ANSON FLAKE

Lives: Hampden Township

Works: HydroWorx International Inc.

College: Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan.

How do you relieve stress? Pool workouts, high-intensity water intervals; time with family; attend sporting events

Favorite vacation spots: Long road trips annually across the U.S. with his wife and kids

Other careers he considered: Lawyer, military and teaching college entrepreneurship One thing colleagues would be surprised to learn about him: He trains six days a week in the water

The company’s sales have grown about 220 times what they were its first year.

Q: What was the business landscape like when you got started?

A: When we started full operations in 1998, there was a dominant competitor in the market. We had a flagship product, the 2000 series, that Dr. (Paul) Hetrick had developed as a prototype. This dominant competitor was about $100,000 less in price than we were, so we had to overcome a pricing issue with the market.

The way we overcame it was with the advanced technology.

We sold our first sports unit to the Indiana Pacers, our first senior-living unit was to Beverly Healthcare (in South Bend, Ind.) and our first health care unit was to Lancaster General.

How has HydroWorx evolved since then?

We had one product in 1998 and now we have eight.

So you’ve got this evolution of the product line, and we can hit every price point with every customer. The new product, the 300 series, now can go into existing facilities.

We had our founders, a handful of us, and now we have 42 employees. The reason we can do the volume that we do is because we run an outsourcing model, and we can handpick elite manufacturers throughout the region and work with them to manufacture the products for us that we develop and test. You can be very profitable with that model.

You’ve got a lot of manufacturing capacity and great suppliers in the Central PA region.

We went from a pool at Dr. Hetrick’s clinic in Middletown to more than half of the NFL, more than half of the NBA, more than half of Major League Baseball. And we have (many) in college football and basketball, mostly in the top 25.

Why is this company still here in Dauphin County?

It’s a great place to raise a family. We’ve got wonderful employees that live here and are in this region. Many of them would be incredibly hard to replace. They are very talented. We like it here. And the access to the suppliers.

Why are you still so passionate about this business? Why not do something else?

The purpose of the company is use water to heal people. I really get excited when you think about how many people we’re healing every day. We’re putting them in a position to reach their destiny, reach their goals. That is incredibly exciting.

On a daily basis, it’s about 24,000 people.

How do you think this business has changed physical therapy or sports medicine?

If you look at sports medicine, it’s become a standard of care. Advanced aquatic therapy, underwater treadmill therapy, Hydroworx therapy, is a standard of care.

It’s gone from some people using it in a YMCA to everyone’s got to have advanced, highly technological aquatic therapy. (And) for certain injuries, you’ve significantly reduced the recovery period.

What does the future hold for HydroWorx?

We’ve got to keep innovating. We’ve got to keep providing great service.

We’ve got an overweight population. We’ve got an aging population worldwide. And we’ve got a fanaticism with sports. Those three trends bode well for the company. We’ve got to keep innovating new products that embrace them.

Continuing to find great engineering and service technicians, that’s a big area for us. One area I also see us growing into is special operations military. Those guys need to be rehabbed just like a pro athlete.

Did you ever consider quitting? How do you overcome those moments of doubt?

I don’t think there was ever a moment where we said, ‘Let’s quit and walk out the door.’ That never happened. But there were times when we were holding paychecks and we had mortgaged our homes.

You do that, and that really calls into question how much you believe. We really felt this technology was needed, and there was a hell of a market for it.

What’s going to keep you in the game in those situations is your passion for the purpose of the business. If you’re not emotionally attached to the purpose, in this case healing people, if you’re not really tied to that and you don’t get really excited about helping people, it would be an easy thing to exit because of the capital demands.

What inspires you away from the office?

I would say traveling and seeing architecture throughout the world, traveling and seeing different products and different engineering designs. It might be a fixture in a hotel.

Sometimes that drives you back to the business you’re in and you can pick things up and apply it to our designs here. A lot of product design comes down to good taste.

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