Interview with Rick Hunter
Founder & CEO of ProSlide
Stefan Zwanzger: Rick, thank you for coming. You're the founder of and owner of proSLide and you have told me once that your waterpark business didn't start-- wasn't planned to be a waterpark business. You had completely different plans for your life. Can you tell me what happened there?
Rick Hunter: Uhm yeah Stefan you know I really started-- it was Ski Racer. I went to university and after my ski racing career with the Canadian team, I thought I really sort of planned on being in the ski business so I had taken sort of sales and marketing for skiing and skis. I had a job lined up with Spalding International down in the States. That's where I was going, so it was all planned until I had a chance meeting at Chicago Airport.
Stefan Zwanzger: You had a meeting at Chicago Airport which turned a ski business into a water slide business.
Rick Hunter: (laughs) That's right.
Stefan Zwanzger: How?
Rick Hunter: It was a chance. I continued to ski-race during my university time. I was racing professionally and I went out to a number of ski races out in Colorado. This was 1979, 1980. I was coming back, I raced dual slalom to make a little bit of money. I was finishing my last paper for my Masters of Business. I'm out ski racing and I flew back through Chicago. I was sitting at a restaurant in Chicago in the airport and I had Salomon bindings. Actually, I raced for Salomon. I had a [Salomon] turtleneck on and there were two individuals sitting beside me. One guy left and the other guy turned to me and said, "Oh, you're a skier?" and I said, "Yup." and he said, "I'm related to ski areas, I sell a summer slide called the Alpine Slide" and he said, "It's very interesting that you're here." and I said, "Well, I know the Alpine Slide. There's one in my hometown of Ottawa." and he said, "We built that." and within about 5 minutes he was saying, "The person who just left here was the owner of the Alpine Slide company and we were discussing--" He was the Sales Manager for Alpine Slide. He said, "We need a guy to sell slides in Canada, we were talking about that." They're from the US, I'm from Canada. He said, "You could be the guy to be our salesperson."
Stefan Zwanzger: Alpine Slides? Not water slides.
Rick Hunter: Alpine Slides. Not water slides, yet.
Stefan Zwanzger: Alright.
Rick Hunter: So this was with a cart, you know? For winter ski areas. But they were starting to get into water slides in 1980. So he said, "Look, send us a resume. Send us a CV please." And I said, "Thanks, but no thanks. I'm going into the ski business with Spalding." And you know what? I sent them a resume, and I reconsidered and I actually had a job selling slides for Alpine in 1980.
Stefan Zwanzger: That's still a far way to go from being the owner of a water slide business. What happened in between?
Rick Hunter: Well I worked for Alpine for 5 to 6 years. The owner at Alpine was into many other companies, many other recreation companies, into housing. He started to build modular homes and he said, "Rick, you've been selling with me. You're helping me manage the business. You should buy the business." And I said, "Buy the business? I don't have any money."
Stefan Zwanzger: Right. How does that work then?
Rick Hunter: Well, how does that work... actually my father had passed away a few years before. He would [have been] a good consultant. He was a Chartered accountant. But his good friend, Uncle Jim, I had him look at the books for Alpine in terms of the Alpine Slide. He said "Rick, you know what? This company is not really in great financial condition. I wouldn't invest in it, and I don't think you should. But could you start your own?"
Stefan Zwanzger: That was your uncle?
Rick Hunter: That was my uncle. It was the idea, "Could you start your own water slide business?"
Stefan Zwanzger: Why water slides then?
Rick Hunter: Because actually the Alpine Slide company did get involved with water slides in that 5-year period. And in fact, they were pretty good.
Stefan Zwanzger: Okay.
Rick Hunter: I actually thought, "Okay, if I was to start my own…" I didn't ever [think] of it.
Stefan Zwanzger: So you never thought of being an entrepreneur?
Rick Hunter: Hadn't thought of it.
Stefan Zwanzger: You were a happy employee?
Rick Hunter: I was definitely an employee who was involved in sales, customer-facing situations which I really enjoyed. But I really wasn't thinking of being an entrepreneur. My father had been in the Canadian government for 32 years. So this was gonna be new territory.
Stefan Zwanzger: You need some capital. Where did it come from?
Rick Hunter: One thing I always like to do, I was kind of a handy guy in terms of house renovations. So my wife and I had renovated a couple of homes. We did have some equity, we were able to sell some houses and buy another one and renovate it. So we actually had some money to put together to try to get started. So we started actually with not very much money.
Stefan Zwanzger: Okay.
Rick Hunter: And I brought in a minority partner who was in the fiberglass business. That really made a difference.
Stefan Zwanzger: So it was the three of you-- you, your wife, and a minority partner.
Rick Hunter: That's right.
Stefan Zwanzger: With a couple of millions, I guess, yeah?
Rick Hunter: It was much less.
Stefan Zwanzger: It was much less, and that was the beginning of ProSlide.
Rick Hunter: That's right (laughs).
Stefan Zwanzger: And there was no bank loan?
Rick Hunter: No bank loan.
Stefan Zwanzger: And how do you get from there to here?
Rick Hunter: Well you know what? One step at a time. It was really almost-- I really call it lucky but I chose the right partner. Hanz Tanzer from Tanzer Yacht. Really boats but "Tenzor yacht". Anything from about a 16-foot or all the way up to 32-feet-- the Tanzer Boat company. They were having some financial trouble. And Hanz came in with me. He had actually known about fiberglass water slides and so we started building tooling for some serpentine body slides right in the garage. Right in his garage.
Stefan Zwanzger: Mm-hmm.
Rick Hunter: And so we were able to do it very cost-effectively because I was the slide guy and he was the fiberglass guy.
Stefan Zwanzger: In his garage right?
Rick Hunter: In his garage.
Stefan Zwanzger: Like online businesses today.
Rick Hunter: It's really like that.
Stefan Zwanzger: ProSlide started out of a garage. Literally.
Rick Hunter: Literally.
Stefan Zwanzger: That's amazing.
Rick Hunter: (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: When was that?
Rick Hunter: It was December 1986 we incorporated. And our first season really was the summer of 1987.
Stefan Zwanzger: Were there hard years for ProSlide in the beginning?
Rick Hunter: It was amazingly not as difficult as you would imagine because I was always integrated into the industry having done it for 5 to 6 years with Alpine. The water park industry was really I would say a very tight industry. World Waterpark Association and it was really the United States where the majority of all activity was happening. Right. So it was a close-knit market/community. And I knew a lot of people. And they knew me to be a design type person. So when I started ProSide obviously with my experience from Alpine. I remember the first-year sales were USD 750,000. I was able to actually make some margin and was able to create a little bit of equity. I think Year 2, and I'm not gonna be perfect on this, but you know, we might've doubled that the 2nd year to a million and a half. And that's the way it happened, you know? It was really interesting because there weren't that many different flumes at the time or styles. So the timing was very unique.
Stefan Zwanzger: Okay.
Rick Hunter: We had, for example, open-body slides. We had kids open-body slides. We had speed slides. Then we, right away in the 2nd year, I did it in the first year and then the second year, when I went straight for the inner-tube slides which was 2-meter wide open flume for 2-person tubes. I also went ahead with a mini kiddie river. So that was Year 2. Year 3, I went right after the tunnel rides. There was a meter and a half tunnel inner-tube ride. Then there was the 32-inch, or less than 1-meter body slide. After that, this is when the paradigm shift came. In Year 3, and it happened fast, I had a great friend in the industry, Ned Stancliffe, who happened to be the president of the industry or chairman of the industry. And he said Rick I've seen this really wide gunite flume out west at Highland Hills, Colorado.
Stefan Zwanzger: What's gunite?
Rick Hunter: Gunite is actually sprayed concrete. People would, in the old days, spray gunite, okay, concrete and make a flume out of it. They had done this at Highland Hills. Anyway, Ned said "I saw this thing. If you ever built this in fiberglass-- you're the slide guy. It would be incredible." So I jumped on the plane the next day and literally flew out to Colorado and I rode that ride. It was very interesting because it was not a nice U-shaped flume in fact it was a flat bottom with square sides profile. What happens when you actually go on that type of ride? Of course it's like pinball, it's quite an impact on each wall. Anyway, I jumped in. The raft, it was no raft. It was a kiddie inflatable pool that you would put on your deck for your young kids. There was no structure to it with a 1-inch foam. Jumped in with five other people and we started pinballing down. And I thought, "Well this is okay so far but we're not going that fast. But we turned a corner, and we started to accelerate." And I thought to myself this is gonna be a problem if something doesn't change with the square walls. They had done the right thing. They in fact had built a nice smooth high-bank corner on this one area that we gained the speed and that was the money shot. That was the money shot. I thought, "That's it." Now it's not if I do it, I'm going to do it. It was fast action. I'm going to build a 14-foot wide flume called the Mammoth's River. I'm gonna have a nice, low profile in the bottom and then I'm going to gradually increase or decrease that radius so I have a nice big wall on both sides. The ProSlide Mammoth's River. I built a prototype within 6 months and I put it into a snow-making pond. I didn't have a place to go. And I invited all my best clients from the States, they were the ones. It was a quick hit. It changed the world of ProSlide and it changed the world of the water park industry. 6 people riding in 1 vehicle.
Stefan Zwanzger: That was in the 80s.
Rick Hunter: It was in the late 80s. The prototype 89. I came out in 1890, I did my first sale.
Stefan Zwanzger: There's one slide in particular that I feel like changed my perception of water parks and it's a Tornado. I think that's also your invention, right?
Rick Hunter: That's my invention back in 2002.
Stefan Zwanzger: You have a patent on funnel slides?
Rick Hunter: I do have a patent in the US on funnel slides. Not necessarily worldwide.
Stefan Zwanzger: Do you regret that it's not worldwide?
Rick Hunter: Very much. (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: You do, right?
Rick Hunter: That was too bad I hadn't done that, because that is the #1 selling water ride in the world.
Stefan Zwanzger: Globally now. You're talking about your Tornado right?
Rick Hunter: Tornado.
Stefan Zwanzger: Because you can buy Tornado water slides now from every water park supplier.
Rick Hunter: You know I guess duplication or copying is the greatest form of flattery. But it's not fun when you see your baby, your rides being copied by so many people.
Stefan Zwanzger: How do you deal with competition like this?
Rick Hunter: I remember in the 1st year I saw, it happened to be a Chinese company. I was over in the WAE, the trade show. I think I was in Singapore that year. There was a booth beside ours, ProSlide booth was right here and right across the hall was another company and it happened to be a Chinese company. And they had photos of our photos, really of our rides. And they were claiming that they were building this ride and in fact, they ended up building that ride. You know what, I was crazy about it. I was really not happy. I told them I was really unhappy about this. That really didn't change anything.
Stefan Zwanzger: So they took a picture of an actual ProSlide Tornado and put it in the back of their trade show.
Rick Hunter: They changed it. I think it was airbrushed, [they] changed the colors. But in fact, you could see it was from a water park we had built.
Stefan Zwanzger: And I believe it was 80% cheaper than yours.
Rick Hunter: It was definitely a lot less expensive. There's no doubt about it.
Stefan Zwanzger: Would people flip over on the walls?
Rick Hunter: They could if you don't know the in-runs and the out-runs of that ride. You could have a big safety problem.
Stefan Zwanzger: Are there funnel slides that cause accidents?
Rick Hunter: I do know that there are some that have caused accidents. Of course they're not ProSlide because we know this design so well. But in fact, that creates a problem. It's not like there are many incidents on them, but if it's not designed right and if it's not pitched right and you don't have the right in-run, it can cause a problem.
Stefan Zwanzger: How old are you now, Rick?
Rick Hunter: I feel 37.
Stefan Zwanzger: Right.
Rick Hunter: I'm 66. (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: Is it your sporty past that gives you that energy because you are a very high-energy person. I mean you're at the retirement age right now, no?
Rick Hunter: (laughs)
Stefan Zwanzger: But you don't look like it at all.
Rick Hunter: You know what, I guess I'm one of those really lucky people. I think it is the sports background, you know? Gymnastics and ski-racing. I don't know, there's a joy of living here and being a creator but [I'm] lucky to be a creative person and create these water rides that you wouldn't expect. I mean, this is really a lot of fun.
Stefan Zwanzger: You have no regrets about your life?
Rick Hunter: Pinch me. I'm so lucky to have ended up where I've ended up in this industry that is so fantastic.
Stefan Zwanzger: Thank you so much, Rick. Thank you for your time. Appreciate it.
Rick Hunter: Thanks, Stef. Thank you.