It is no secret in higher education that internships are transformational opportunities for college students. There may be no couple for whom this statement is more true than Beau and Holly Dempsey, who met as freshmen at SFA.
They married three years later, and Holly, a hospitality major from Livingston, accepted a summer internship with the catering department at Moody Gardens in Galveston. She had stopped by the corporate offices to complete some paperwork, while Beau, an environmental science major from Abilene, waited in the lobby.
“The aquarium was about to be constructed, and the director just happened to be in the lobby,” Beau recalled. “We struck up a conversation, and I mentioned that I worked in SFA’s soil laboratory and knew how to do the water sampling tests he would be needing. I had intended to wait tables or mow yards all summer, but he hired me pretty much on the spot as a lab tech.”
While this chance meeting seems serendipitous, things had not always flowed so smoothly for the couple, whose first encounter involved a tiff regarding the rightful occupancy of a chair.
“He skipped the first week of class,” Holly immediately asserted.
“Well, I was told there really wasn’t any point in going the first day or two,” Beau defended. “So, when I showed up the next week, I just picked a seat. A few minutes later, Holly walked in and said I was in her chair.”
With the seating issue resolved (Beau moved one seat over), the two became friends with similar interests in the sciences and a matching propensity for hard work.
“We worked so many part-time jobs,” Holly said. “I tutored physics and waited tables. He worked on campus and at a plant nursery in Nacogdoches — whatever we could do to piece together a living.”
As a result of the summer internship in Galveston, Beau learned the basics of closed aquatic systems. He also realized aquariums might provide the only setting where his and Holly’s professional worlds — environmental science and hospitality — would overlap.
When summer ended, the couple returned to SFA, completed their senior year and graduated in 2000. They soon received a call from their former Moody Gardens co-workers with a job offer on their next project, the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.
“It was an 83,000-square-foot aquarium that housed the largest bull sharks in captivity,” Beau said. “We had to construct tanks to transport the sharks safely across the country. It hadn’t been attempted before, and we were able to do it with a 100% survival rate.”
The couple spent the next nine years following similar startup projects across the nation, developing specialized talents that combined construction knowledge with familiarity of the life support equipment required in aquatic environments.
“We moved 15 times during those years, managing building projects,” Holly said. “We quickly realized that we loved the frantic ‘get-it-open’ pace.”
Beau frequently served as lab director and curator of fish for the projects, managing the equipment that supported aquatic life, while Holly directed the startup of visitor services — creating programs that generated revenue, such as memberships, special events and catering.
“It was funny that Holly’s department frequently made more money than the reason the aquarium was there to begin with,” Beau said. “The ticket sales were the least revenue-generating activity. She had a department of three or four people, and I had 30, but her group made much more money.”
Eventually, the nomadic lifestyle lost its allure, and with their daughter about to start school, the Dempseys decided to settle down and establish a company of their own. They wanted the new company name to reflect their Texas roots, hence the name Longhorn Organics. In the past 11 years, the Forney-based operation has expanded to a 25-employee business.
The Dempseys constructed a sea turtle rescue exhibit at Sea World San Antonio — Sea World’s first major exhibit in more than 30 years and the first use of man-made wetlands.
“It is a 100%-enclosed exhibit,” Beau said. “They don’t discharge water, so there’s no environmental footprint. They rehabilitate injured sea turtles and provide a home for turtles that can’t be released because they’ve been injured in some way.”
Longhorn’s largest project is the 120,000-square-foot St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, which recently opened.
“It was the largest building in the world when it was built in 1891, and before this project, it had been empty for a long time,” Beau said. “One wall of the filtration room is the original granite footing of the building — installed more than 100 years ago.”
The company also is working on Elephant Springs, the second phase of a project for the Fort Worth Zoo, which will triple the size of the habitat and involve multiple pools for the elephant herd.
While the core of their business is water filtration and water infrastructure projects for zoos, aquariums and theme parks, Beau has participated in patent research for various products, including an ammonia-removal product sold by major retailers for home-aquarium use. There are only a few dedicated life support system companies in the U.S., and the Dempseys have differentiated Longhorn Organics through their investment in technology.
“We build 100% of our projects in virtual reality before we begin construction,” Holly said. “A company sends us details of what they would like to build, and we create a fabrication model based on what is actually constructible. Once that’s approved, we build as much of the project as possible here in chunks that we call spools. Each spool is individually tagged with GPS coordinates on a three-way axis.”
The portion of the work completed at the plant in Forney reduces the company’s on-site construction time by approximately 50%. At the construction site, there are no large pages of blueprints — the assembly process is completely paperless.
“We can pull up the plans on our cellphones or a tablet at any time, and we use virtual reality goggles so everyone can visualize what we are building,” Beau said. “There’s no more pulling strings or tape measures. We laid 10,000 feet of linear pipe at the St. Louis Aquarium and were accurate within 4 millimeters when we were finished.”
While Beau and Holly enjoy working in the theme-park environment, they hear a higher calling — one they feel is more imperative than the aquatic entertainment opportunities they enjoy making available to their daughter and the public at large.
“The same filtration we use to sustain aquatic life can be used to protect our water resources and safeguard the environment,” Beau said. “We have partnerships with the aquafeed industry, the oil and gas industry, and the food-manufacturing industry. These industry partners have all acknowledged wastewater is a limiting factor in future growth and production. However, current regulation makes paying fines and penalties a cheaper option than upgrading and investing in water treatment technologies. I’m a free-market guy, but in this case, free market is polluting a natural resource. When regulation catches up, we’ll be ready to return that ‘wasted water’ back to them for reuse.”
While freshwater is contaminated by oil and gas production and then reinserted into the ground in disposal wells, the U.S. food industry similarly contaminates water in the natural course of its business but on a much larger scale. It is the Dempseys’ hope that, rather than discarding the contaminated water, business and industry will one day clean and reuse the water in a closed system, similar to the process used in the turtle habitat at Sea World.
“Food production consumes 17 times more water than the oil and gas industry,” Beau explained. “It takes four gallons of water to process one chicken and 500 gallons to process a cow. We have the research to prove that these proteins and lipids can be removed.”
In addition to the basic biological need for water, humans have a visceral response to water, Holly said, pointing to research that shows a reduction in blood pressure and stress when individuals visit bodies of water, such as lakes, pools and aquariums. The Dempseys said they are happy to work toward ensuring the availability of water for either purpose.