Andy Fromm years ago put some fish tanks in his basement office simply to brighten a windowless space. After two corporate moves, those tanks have grown, literally and figuratively, into the theme around which a Kansas City company’s culture is built.
James Stuckmeyer, an orthopedic surgeon, read years ago in a medical journal that watching fish swim can lower blood pressure by several points. His new Lee’s Summit office now has one of the biggest, soothing tanks one might encounter in a doctor’s office.
Michael Ketchmark led the planning for a saltwater tank to serve as dividing wall when the Ketchmark and McCreight law offices moved into new space in Leawood’s Hallbrook office park, up-sizing from the tank in a previous office.
You might expect fish tanks in restaurants. But you’re increasingly likely to find them offices that have nothing to do with seafood. They’re placed for art and ambience, for conversation and corporate culture.
A wave of marine life retailers and tank-care service companies can testify that fish are big business. Turns out there are a lot of afishionados in the landlocked Kansas City area.
“It’s a passion, and it’s a wow factor,” said Vinton Ebling, with Paradise Aquatics in Overland Park, who services many office and residential tanks.
Fromm’s little basement fish tanks have morphed into three 500-gallon saltwater aquariums on three floors of the Service Management Group building at 18th and McGee streets in the Crossroads Arts District.
SMG’s three-sided glass tanks, each with a different marine ecosystem, were built into the company’s 2009 renovation of a 1920s-era building that originally was a car dealership. The system includes a filtration system in the basement, designed to control salinity and water temperature.
One of the office tanks features the “meat eaters,” beefy blowfish and other large varieties. The other two tanks hold the “vegetarians,” smaller and multi-colored sea life.
“Fish have become a really big part of our culture,” said Kim Klosak, SMG’s vice president of human resources, pointing out the hand-blown glass fish that are given as gifts to decorate the work areas of employees on their five-year anniversaries with the company.
At 10 years, they get stipends to spend on their vacations, with the requirement that they return with a fish picture — with plenty of latitude about where or what is presented.
Jason Gray, an SMG worker who serves as principal fish feeder, said he sees correlations between camaraderie in the workplace and how fish co-exist in the tanks.
“Each tank is a community — as long as the right fish are introduced,” Gray observed, adding that the right tank management is needed. He credited SMG’s provider, Custom Aquariums by Design, with keeping the tanks operating, um, swimmingly.
Across the metro area, in Stuckmeyer’s office, a 650-gallon saltwater tank greets visitors for two primary reasons: “I’ve been into aquariums since I was a little boy,” Stuckmeyer said. “And I decided to create an environment that was relaxing.”
Ever since he read about the blood pressure effects of watching fish swim, Stuckmeyer said, he’s had a tank in his offices.
“I do independent medical evaluations,” the orthopedic expert said, “and the people involved in work injury and work compensation cases have generally had their lives turned upside down. They may be in bad shape financially or physically, and I didn’t want them to see a sterile doctor’s office.”
Stuckmeyer estimates that he spent about $20,000 on the tank, system and fish to set up his office tank, and allocates another $250 or so a month in ongoing care. Blue angel fish, sea anemones and colorful coral populate the tank. His only request to Ebling, his long-time service provider: “Build a stunning aquarium.”
Research published last year in the Environment & Behavior journal found that spending time viewing aquariums can lower heart rates as well as blood pressure and even improve people’s mood.
The research team from the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health, Plymouth University and the National Marine Aquarium monitored people’s physical responses after they spent time watching fish swim in very large aquarium tanks. The controlled environment, they said, allowed them to monitor people, who started relaxing after just five minutes of exposure.
“People relaxed, even watching an empty tank, and the benefits increased as we introduced more fish over the course of about a four-week period,” said Exeter’s co-researcher Matthew White.
At the Ketchmark law office, paralegal Dana Hotchkiss, who said she had no prior affinity for fish, now is the prime caregiver, starting each morning to count them — making sure none expired overnight — and feeding them.
“Clients are drawn to the tank,” Hotchkiss said. “They comment that it’s beautiful. It’s just a nice ‘wall’ to look through from the hallway.”