Entrepreneur couple take a bold turn

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Matt Reale maintains a pond installed by AquaReale on Meetinghouse Road in Jamison, Pa., Oct. 2, 2014. (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

Laura and Matthew Reale don't scare easily. Consider that they married 15 years ago this month with no guaranteed income.

So when life seemed to be unfairly piling on a few years ago, the Jenkintown couple did what entrepreneurs do at times of crisis: They adjusted.

They became business partners, jettisoning what had been the more successful business (hers) to reimagine his.

AquaReale, a Jenkintown-based eco-friendly landscape and water-features company with five employees, has doubled sales in four years and grown its customer base to 75, from just seven two years ago.

Rough challenges forced the regrouping that led to a business rescue: "I had a kid with autism, a mother with Alzheimer's, and no source of income," Laura Reale, 44, recalled recently.

When they married in 1999, Matthew Reale, with an education in landscape design from Temple University and experience working for two landscaping businesses, had just started his own.

Laura Lapinsohn, with a journalism degree from the University of Michigan and a master's in integrated marketing communications from Northwestern University, had just quit her job as a senior account executive at the now-defunct advertising agency Earle Palmer Brown to work for herself in event management.

Her business was doing better than her husband's, then known as Reale Landscaping & Design, which made her the primary breadwinner even after their first child, daughter Rachel, was born in 2002.

In 2010, life would take a terrifying turn. Laura's mother, best friend, and invaluable support, Carol Lapinsohn, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The same year, son Max was born, and soon his parents would notice he wasn't hitting developmental milestones such as crawling and sitting up. The autism diagnosis came in 2011, the same year Laura's business lost its main client, a dairy.

Although she had been the president of Reale Landscaping & Design, that was really just on paper. Laura Reale's focus was her own business. Matthew Reale was strong on service and design, he said, but he couldn't compete with the pricing of contractors using immigrant laborers and paying them poorly.

Nor did he have the time or acumen for networking and otherwise beating the bushes for more work, he said. He was close to folding the business and going to work for somebody else.

Then his wife stepped in with her public-relations and marketing skills, and what a college professor remembered as her "wired energy."

The couple had been talking about switching the focus of the business ever since a representative for Aquascapes of Delaware Valley L.L.C., a wholesaler of landscaping equipment and supplies, invited them in 2009 to Pondemonium, a convention in Chicago for the water-gardening industry.

The Reales came home invigorated. They changed the name of their business to reflect water and added pond installation to the services AquaReale would offer as a certified Aquascape contractor.

They persuaded a local garden center to let them install a display pond there free of charge, for marketing purposes.

Laura Reale was now actively involved in business development, customer service, employee oversight, and marketing. She arranged speaking engagements for her husband on storm-water management.

Pond jobs have gone from one-twentieth of AquaReale's work to one-third, said the Reales, who want the business eventually to focus on water features and storm-water management exclusively.

They would not disclose company financials but said their lowest price for a complete pond installation is $8,500. Cleanings start at $500, as do renovations/restorations.

Laura "really brought things that I don't think half of the people in my business know," said Matthew Reale, 42, who is in charge of seeing that ordered projects get done. "My business would have never grown."

Not surprised by her transformative influence - even in the face of personal strife - is Clarke Caywood, professor of integrated marketing communication at Northwestern, from which Laura Reale graduated in 1993.

"She has a business aptitude that many communicators don't have," Caywood said. That, and the requisite entrepreneurial nerve, he added.

"You have to decide you're able to take a leap of faith in yourself," Caywood said.

In Laura Reale's case, it was a leap of faith in herself and her husband.

 


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