Hassocks aquarium business sells 1,000 tanks in one week: owner’s previous clients have included Tom Cruise and Elton John

The owner of a Hassocks-based aquarium company who founded his first business when he was just 16 has recently sold more than 1,000 tanks in a single week.

Ben Francis-Woodward, 37, who lives in Hassocks, is the owner, founder and director of okpet.co.uk, as well as Universal Aquaculture, privaqua.com and fishkeeping.com.

But he said these companies are essentially all part of the same business he began as a teenager, which has gone from strength to strength.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

“Fish sales are up 172 per cent year-on-year since the pandemic,” said Ben, whose business offers aquatic systems for pet retail, universities, public aquariums and cancer research zebrafish hatcheries.

Ben Francis-Woodward owns Universal Aquaculture in Hassocks. Picture: Ben Francis-Woodward.

“Because of the pandemic a lot of people are spending money on aquariums because it’s a hobby they can take up and it’s relaxing,” he said.

Ben said the entire trade has seen an expansion with many businesses reinvesting spare money into their shops.

“I started a side business called okpet.co.uk about six months ago, which is purely sales, business to business, and this is the one that sold over 1,000 aquariums in a week to the aquatics trade,” he said.

Ben explained that his origins are humble, having started his career working in a Hove pet shop called Paraquatics after leaving Downlands School with no GCSEs.

Ben Francis-Woodward owns Universal Aquaculture in Hassocks. Picture: Ben Francis-Woodward.

“I used to keep loads of pets when I was a kid,” he said, adding that he went for the pet shop job because he knew he would be good at it without qualifications.

“The only thing I was good at was keeping animals and fish were my favourite,” he said.

On his days off, Ben went around Sussex cleaning fish tanks, starting in a barbers in Hassocks High Street.

“I never gave him a price increase until the day he retired, just to remind me where I started,” said Ben.

He left the pet shop to work full-time cleaning tanks and built up a client base installing tanks into hotels and other establishments.

Despite not having GCSEs the fact that Ben had a business meant he could go to Sparsholt College in Winchester where he learned about ornamental fish management and studied marine and freshwater biology.

He then got a degree in aquaculture at Aberystwyth University, running his businesses while he completed his education.

“We got bigger and bigger contracts working for multinational companies, ultra high net worth clients and businesses in the aquatics trade,” he said.

Ben said that over the years he has supplied products to Maidenhead Aquatics, The Sea Life Centre, American Express, Sussex University and The NHS.

He said his list of celebrity clients has included the Roman Abramovich estate and the Sultan of Oman’s estate, as well as Elton John and Tom Cruise.

His other notable projects have involved designing a public aquarium in Nigeria and Europe’s largest double bull nosed Jellyfish aquarium.

“We are currently building an Axolotl holding facility for a client so they can breed and hold nearly 500 animals,” said Ben, adding that these creatures have been popularised by the Minecraft videogame.

Ben said his supply chain is ‘heavily British’ and believes this is key to his success as his business is not reliant on shipments from China or the EU.

“We have active plans to build a facility in Mid Sussex to expand our operations, which will hopefully provide jobs for people in the local area,” he said, adding that this will help reduce the aquatics trade’s carbon footprint too.

He also plans to develop a sustainable, naturally-fed ornamental fish farm and rare water lily collection.

On top of this he wants to roll out his fish systems to Europe in May after launching at the Interzoo show in Germany.

Ben said his enthusiasm for fish is down to their diversity.

“I just find them fascinating in terms of their evolutionary adaptations,” he said.

“They make people relaxed, they make people happy when they see them,” he added, saying that aquariums are a ‘window into a world that we can’t ever see’

“And they’re tropical fish we specialise in,” he said.

“You wouldn’t be able to go snorkelling in the Amazon – you wouldn’t see the fish and you’d probably get eaten by something.”