Roger Vitko Interview: Discussing Tunze's History, The Golden Rule, Product Development, and Trends in the Aquarium Hobby
Tunze's been in business for over 50 years. How does the company manage to stay on top year after year?
Tunze was founded in 1960 by Norbert Tunze. He was a unique man who had no formal training in engineering but was a Mr. Fix It type who owned a general repair shop he founded after WWII. He learned most of his craft from helping American soldiers with repairs of radios and equipment and coincidentally he spoke excellent English.
He invented the first aquarium powerhead, the Turbelle, which was named for Turbine and Libelle which is German for Dragonfly as the air-cooled motor sounded very much like a dragonfly. Additionally, he was one of the first to develop a protein skimmer which was founded on a hobbyist's observation about the foam he noticed collecting at the uplift tubes of his under gravel filter and began collecting it in a cup he attached. He also invented the conductivity meter and the first automatic top off, the now famous Osmolator.
His son Axel took over the company in the 90s and the innovation continued with the Stream pump, the first propeller pump commercially produced and the Wavebox which was largely developed by Claude Hug of Tunze France, as well as the optic sensor based Osmolator.
Now, the third generation Felix Tunze is working as a lead development engineer and he and his classmate Emmanuel are responsible for much of our latest products like the Care Magnet, Smart Controller 7000 and Stream 3. Claude Hug developed the current line of DOC skimmers and is a retired electrical engineer.
I think what makes Tunze unique is we have the in-house capability beginning to end. We can make the molds, we can mold the parts, we can design and 3D print prototypes, we have our own test facilities and we control for example our Stream Pump production down to the winding of the coils. Most of our competition outsource these elements and by doing it all we can improve and innovate faster and try new ideas.
I have been with Tunze since 2001 and, like Norbert, I have no formal training. My degree is in Psychology with a minor in Latin American Studies (very useful, LOL). My original career path was pre-med and later I thought being a diplomat was a possibility. In the end, I turned one of my hobbies into a career and started Tunze USA after several years of owning a LFS in Austin TX. I also do some product development work. I am excited to be back in the Marine end of the hobby and working on a few new products at the moment. Every two years we have an annual brainstorming meeting with all our engineers and key distributors and that is where most of our ideas start. We are all hobbyists at heart.
You've developed a reputation in the reef keeping community for your responsiveness, honesty, and helpful technical support. How many questions from hobbyists would you estimate you answer each week on forums and social media?
In this regard I try to live by the Golden Rule and treat others the way I would want to be treated. You may find this odd but despite my activity I am actually a fairly shy, reserved, unsocial person. I enjoy technical problem solving, in my spare time I am also active on car forums as another of my hobbies is restoring older diesel vehicles.
Part of why I am so prompt is I know how it feels to be on the other side waiting for an answer, hoping for someone to help. I also know it changes the relationship when you are fast and have a personal touch, I want people to love our products, the Tunze family to me is like my own family.
It is challenging at times, I am often stuck between what is right for the customer, for myself and for the company and have to compromise to meet the standards of acceptability to all sides. I view my relationship with the customer as a long term one, so yes, I tend to go toward an honest answer rather than one that will sell a product. I learned from running my LFS that there was more long term profit in making someone successful so they set up a second or third tank than in holding them up and selling them stuff they didn’t need on one tank.
To be fair, I have bad days, I have let myself and the customer down and there are some customers whose business I frankly do not want. With that said, I do always try to do my job with integrity and in a way that I can be comfortable that I have been fair and honest with everyone.
What inspires Tunze to continue innovating and developing new aquarium products after all these years?
There really is not an option, this is a sink or swim business, if you rest on your laurels in a very short time you will be buried by the competition. It is a vicious cycle too, it takes a lot of money to develop a major product and build all of those molds, if you fall behind and lose the revenue stream it is very easy to fail completely.
The hardest part is deciding what new ideas are worth the investment and what are not. You would be amazed how many ideas we have had as a team and were to slow to develop and a competitor introduced first, I am sure the opposite has happened as well. Especially now with the Chinese products entering the market more and more it is not like the past where intellectual property rights were respected and it was a fair fight with mutual respect, it is a very cut throat and intense business to always be first and have the best ideas come to fruition first and to try to make a product that is so advanced and so far ahead the competition is an entire lap behind.
What separates Tunze pumps from others available on the market?
There are many things. I think first and foremost is being a small family owned company, if your name is on the box, that means something that most other companies don’t have. There is personal shame in failure and glory in success. Service and repairability, but I know the world is changing and to many this is quaint, they would rather throw it away and buy a new one, but that is a way I don’t ever see us going. We also innovate and we respect our competitors that innovate, this is really what drives the hobby forward. There are a lot of me too late to the party companies that just make it cheaper.
Tunze has been branching out lately and developing new types of equipment. Are there any other categories Tunze is looking to expand into?
We look at everything in the hobby and always have our options open, what we generally won’t do is make a product just to be on the shelf too, if we can’t make it better, make it unique in some notable way, we generally will not do it. For example our LED lights, at the time there were no waterproof, plastic bodied LED’s, we surely have the capacity to make an LED that could compete in the bigger fixture market, but this is a very saturated market and LED’s are a pain, if you wanted to keep up with the LED race it is like a computer, every 6 months a faster chip is out. We try to stick with what we know and do best, at the end of the day if you were to sum it up, we are a manufacturer of plastic, motors and electronics. If it uses those things, we can do it.
What made Tunze decide to start producing Care Bacter, a biological filtration supplement? Are you planning to continue exploring these types of solutions?
This was a unique situation. I was opposed to this product when I was first briefed on it but as I heard more, I was swayed. Once I tried it, I was convinced it was worthwhile.
Care Bacter was developed and marketed for commercial fisheries. If you are raising shrimp or fish in huge aquaculture vats you have constant problems with water quality and infections. Care Bacter was proven and used for those purposes and the manufacturer approached us about a partnership for the aquarium end of the hobby.
Care Panes also came from this relationship and had a similar development history. We don’t have in-house chemistry or biological production so while we do occasionally have an idea in the realm, we tend to need outside help to make it a reality.
We have had some considerations for new dosing technologies but the hurdles for what we want to do are huge and we often encounter such situations where the technical solution is so costly to explore and develop that we have to wait until a huge company like Siemens, Texas Instruments, GE or Roche has a ready made solution we can implement or for technologies from those companies to trickle down.
With some well-established aquarium controllers already on the market, what made Tunze decide to enter this space with the recent release of the Smartcontroller 7000? How does it set itself apart from the competition? How does the Smartcontroller fit into Tunze's long-term plans? Will most future Tunze products be compatible?
This is a frequent debate within the company. On the one hand we find it laughable at times that our competition will add Wi-Fi to something and hail it as a great new product. Not everything is better with Wi-Fi. Bacon maybe... Wi-Fi, probably not. With that said, we were woefully behind on controllers, our engineering staff are older, I am 42 and one of the younger guys at the company. While the personal computer came out early in my life, I am not computer savvy, I frankly struggle with using Facebook.
The basic idea of the 7000 was ease of use, no programming language, simple menus and all at a fair price. It is a first generation product and will undoubtedly improve and mature in future generations. Long term we plan a very sophisticated ecosystem of networked products, much like Apple’s ecosystem where everything just simply works and is effortless. The 7000 and its future iterations will be the hub of that system.
Emmanuel headed up the development and he is a very gifted electrical engineer. He has a lot of knowledge of automotive computer systems and this will undoubtedly translate into product upgrades and yes, added Wi-Fi, in the near future. One of the issues in developing for this hobby is the true die-hard hobbyists are primarily older and male but at the same time there is a new crop of up-and-coming hobbyists. These are very different markets. The older guys did it all—they started with freshwater, bred guppies, you name it. This is more my type of hobbyist and where I came from. The gadgets in and of themselves do a job and need to be easy. The younger crowd though has been able to work an iPhone practically since birth so tech is easy to them and this has to be something we keep up with.
What new trends in the aquarium hobby excite you? Are there any new products or services you've tried recently that surprised and/or delighted you?
I have kept aquariums since I was 8. I just started a reef tank again after a 10 year hiatus (I had a plant tank during that time). What hasn’t changed? ICP water testing is huge in my opinion. Carbon dosing is huge. To me this was a major breakthrough, in the past I fought Nitrate every day, now I struggle to have enough nutrients.
From a technical standpoint the Stream 3 is my favorite product. While I am not a gadget guy overall, I know what makes this pump tick. I know how it is built and what went into the design. To me this is a game changer, they just run so quiet and need so little maintenance and really do seem like they will last a lifetime. In my work on cars and my dad's work on vintage radios, I have replaced many a capacitor that has failed. My dad has some military radios from WWII that have the same type of Tantalum ceramic caps used in the Stream 3 and nearly 70 years later they still work.
What is Tunze's best-selling product of all time?
That is fairly easy, the Osmolator. On balance skimmers and Stream pumps are also a huge part of our sales, but the Osmolator has been around a long time and is time proven and a very well thought out device.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting up a saltwater aquarium for the first time?
That is a harder question than it seems. I am old school. I have been keeping fish pretty much since birth. Literally, my dad had an aquarium in my nursery and I was doing it myself since I was 8.
The first part is mindset. Go into it as a lover of nature, appreciate the whole experience, relish in seeing how nature works, even if it is algae.
Second, you have to have patience. It has been said several times but nothing good happens fast in this hobby. If you are easily frustrated and lack patience, you are honestly better off putting your wallet back in your pocket and walking away. I know this is likely to be a flame fest but I still believe the best hobbyists start out with freshwater. It hones points 1 and 2. It is not a matter of ability or difficulty but when you have the patience to raise guppies or discus and master water quality, and you have the observational skills of a naturalist, success follows much easier.
When I see the hobbyists that fail, they almost universally lack patience. Train yourself to have patience and not get frustrated, whether that is with freshwater, gardening, raising kids, whatever. Just do that first.