WhiteWater West

When you speak with Geoff Chutter, you know you are speaking with a man who has found his passion. The president and CEO of WhiteWater West is all about his company – and he has much to be excited about. Canadian-based WhiteWater is the world’s largest manufacturer of waterpark installations, with annual revenues of over $100 million a year, 525 employees, and 20 offices around the globe. The company’s main operations are based in Richmond, BC, but WhiteWater’s exports can be found in waterparks as far-flung as Dubai, Tokyo, Guangzhou, and Sun City, South Africa.

Though it may seem a strange path, Chutter came to the waterpark business serendipitously through his job as an accountant. After graduating from UofT, Chutter landed a plum position with KPMG, where he worked for six years – four in the Toronto office, and two in Vancouver. It was on an audit of the BC powerhouse, the Pattison Group, that he encountered his first waterslide park in Kelowna. By 1981, Chutter had jumped into the waterslide park business with two feet – building and opening the WhiteWater waterslide park in Penticton. Not surprisingly, his colleagues were dubious – “I was branded a lunatic,” he says with a quiet chuckle. But the way he saw it, with a solid accounting background, he had a great career to fall back on. “Frankly,” he says, “my basic figuring was that – at the time I was 28, 29 – if everything went upside down, I still have a great profession and do well at it, so I just viewed the risk as pretty minimal. Even with failure there was a fallback position.”

Chutter never had to resort to his contingency plan. While the Penticton park is long gone – it was sold in 1985 so Geoff could focus on the development side of the business – WhiteWater has grown steadily over the last thirty years to dominate the market in waterpark manufacturing and development. Their creations can be seen around the world – from branded theme parks to cruise ships with slides that whirl their riders out over the ocean in transparent tubes. Indeed, WhiteWater likely has much to do with the fostering the international appeal it now profits from. When the company received commissions to develop waterparks in South Africa, Japan, and the Middle East, skeptics asserted that the ventures would fail because, for various reasons, the cultures of those countries weren’t compatible with waterpark amusement (e,g., Africans don’t swim, Japanese women don’t like to be out in the sun, Middle Eastern women can’t bare their skin when men are present). Chutter and his team were unfazed, adapting the culture of their waterpark developments to the culture of the people (providing lifejackets, creating shade for the park installations, ensuring female-only hours). This flexible mindset has allowed WhiteWater to become a leader in international development of waterparks where other companies have failed – a fact that Chutter attributes in part to being Canadian. “Canada’s reputation internationally is pretty stellar; we tend to have a different approach than our cousins in the south,” he says, citing a typical Canadian willingness to put in the time to build relationships that respect local cultures.

Another part of WhiteWater’s success might be its founder’s sense of play, which he used to his advantage when an undergraduate student at UofT. As a commuter student living in Thornhill, he found it difficult to plug into the university life, and, in his words, “was pretty close to bailing.” That all changed when he moved onto campus in his second year and became involved with New College. Because he was in commerce, he was asked by a fellow student to produce a year-end show, which became known as New Faces. Not unlike Geoff’s later colleagues who questioned the sanity of his waterslide park venture, the college’s dean was not optimistic about the show’s chances for success, promising to eat his hat if the show didn’t flop. The inaugural event was a sell-out success unifying the student body and generating a wealth of community spirit, as was the one Geoff produced the following year. “Well,” Chutter recalls wryly, “I clearly had to go out and buy a hat and give it to the dean.”

While the part Geoff’s years at UofT played in his career may be debatable, one thing is clear: the formula of community + fun = success that he brought to New Faces – which continues today as the New Faces Drama Society – works. About the projects he does with WhiteWater, he says “I love the communal aspect. It communicates a bigger picture that it’s a little round globe we live on and there’s lots of things we  can do out there where we can have a meeting of the minds and have a tremendous amount of fun and have all the exact same values – focus on kids, focus on families, etc., etc. That’s what it’s all about. It’s fun.”