Industry innovators set the standard
By Michelle L. Cramer
Industry leaders are often industry innovators, too. Several pool companies are using cutting-edge strategies and business practices to expand their market reach, grow their business and save on overhead costs.
To make its off-season more profitable, Aqua Quip in the Seattle, Washington, area, started its own electrical division of the company in 2006 to provide more quality care to the customer.
The company does its own electrical work for swimming pools, hot tubs and fireplace installations and to date has acquired three electrical companies. “What happens is, a guy becomes an electrician and suddenly his business is busy,” president Brian Quint says. “His business grows, he hires a another electrician and another — and then the owner becomes an administrator and not an electrician. And we’ve found that they love doing the work, but they really don’t like all the paperwork, the administrative, dealing with employees and insurance, sending out bills. We’ve got an administrative office, we’ve got a purchasing department — we’re already doing all of that. Let them be in the field.”
To grow that portion of the business, Aqua Quip had to train people for the electrical field rather than hire ready-certified electricians. “We’re hiring pool cleaners, hiring service technician trainees and then hopefully giving them a career track where they can also — with our support — get the credentials and develop a career around electrical contracting,” Quint says. As of March, Aqua Quip has one technician in an apprenticeship, working toward his certification as an electrician.
Aqua Quip’s electrical division currently holds 2.4 percent of the company’s overall revenue and has four employees, but growth is a priority. “It represents a more long-term opportunity,” Quint says, “as long as you have the proper people and continue to grow and add to the team. You have to go out there and meet people who are electricians, learn best practices and become a student of it, and then you have to tread in. You don’t just jump in, you tread in.”
Elite Status Through Accountability
The Gib-San Group, owner and operator of Gib-San Pools & Landscape in Toronto, cares about the quality of the products and services delivered to their clients, the health and safety of the employees who deliver these services, and the environmental impact the company leaves for future generations.
To show just how much importance these things carry, Gib-San sought and achieved ISO certification. ISO 9001 (Quality) was obtained in 2005, OHSAS 18001 (Health and Safety) in 2006 and ISO 14001 (Environmental) in 2012, with recurrent audits of these standards through third-party verification each fall.
“ISO is the third-party validation that we do what we say,” explains Ed Gibbs, CEO. “It makes our uniqueness in the marketplace unparalleled to anyone in the world.” To the best of Gibbs’ knowledge, Gib-San is the only pool company to have ISO and one of only a few companies worldwide to acquire all three levels.
“We are in an elite category,” Gibbs says. “Those three levels of ISO have helped brand us. I think it’s what gives us that leg up from an introductory standpoint, for sure.” Its business is referral based — it doesn’t advertise in magazines, or on television, radio or billboards — and Gibbs says that is reflective of the standards put in place, conveying an ongoing commitment to their clients, their employees andthe environment.
“These are the values that bring us to forefront,” Gibbs says.
South Shore Gunite Pools in New England does a lot of remodel work on older pools, bringing back 500 pounds to three tons of demolition debris every day. Taking it to a recycling center was proving to be inconvenient due to limited availability of staff to drop off debris during business hours. The company was left to dump the debris onsite until enough accumulated to rent a loader and have it hauled away.
In 2012, owner and president Robert Guarino decided to recycle the debris for use in the company’s patio construction. Soil in the area is not conductive for pouring concrete onto directly, so patios require about 18 inches of gravel base. Around the same time, the company had purchased a Caterpillar 320 excavator for the construction of commercial pools and was seeking wider use for it.
“I stumbled upon these crusher buckets that go on excavators, scoop up rubble and then crush it,” Guarino says. “So we’re crushing [the concrete], being responsible with the environment by reusing it and selling it to our customers at a discounted rate, and making money off our own rubble.”
The crusher bucket was about $80,000, Guarino says, and it paid for itself in two years. “Last year we sold about $40,000 worth of gravel, so we’re producing a truck load,” he says. It has even contacted some workers who bring them leftovers from granite countertops: “We get paid for letting them dump it, and it helps our aggregate.”
This process may not be economically feasible for some pool builders, however, Guarino says. South Shore Gunite Pools doesn’t use subcontractors, and has three excavators, five 10-wheelers and a place to store all concrete and gravel produced. “A lot of it was just making use of what I have, basically,” he says.
Guarino advises investigating a crusher bucket; his first was called a Crush All, but “After a season, we named it ‘crush almost all’ because it just wasn’t working for us,” he says. “There was a lot of maintenance and downtime involved.” At a demo show in Atlanta, Guarino purchased another crusher bucket from Austrian company Haytal, a manufacturer he recommends highly: “The maintenance is practically nothing — grease it twice a day and it chews through almost everything.”
Spoiling the Staff
Scott Waldo, president and founder of Platinum Pools, located in the Houston area, saw an increased need for construction workers in his company. “All of us [trade businesses] are having problems finding a workforce because of the political climate and a younger generation that doesn’t want to learn a trade or skill,” Waldo says. “I can’t let that slow down my growth.”
In 2015, he looked toward Puerto Rico for a dedicated construction work force. At the time, availability of work was dismal in that U.S. territory, due in part to its poor economy. “They all want to work — great people, American citizens,” Waldo says. “We’ve been bringing crews over from there, putting them in apartments, getting them set up for a couple of months, then bringing their families over.”
As of March, 11 workers have come from Puerto Rico to work for Platinum Pools, the last in June 2017; one now runs its steel and plumbing division. “We offer much more stable and consistent work,” Waldo says.
That changed when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017; currently, Puerto Ricans have more work in their area repairing the storm damage. Waldo and his staff are now going to high schools and working with Child Protective Services to help kids find and learn a trade through a Platinum Pools apprenticeship. “We pay for everything,” he says. “And we pay our crews a bonus if they can get these kids through a six-month apprenticeship cycle and they stay on with the company.”
Platinum Pools also provides breakfast twice a week; lunch once a week; weekly car washes and massages; and sends employees’ kids to summer camp every year.
Waldo also pays his employees’ kids for their grades: As are $40, Bs are $20. “Kids come in and meet with me, and we set goals, and the next time we meet we go over those goals,” Waldo says. “Some are getting ready to go to college, and we talk about all of that. It’s pretty neat. With the millennials, we map out how to get from where they are to where they want to be [in the company]. If you don’t map this out for a millennial, they won’t stay.”
Additionally, the company has $50,000 set aside for continuous education for any employee. “I tell them, ‘If one of you guys wants to learn something different so you can leave us, I’m OK with that,’ ” Waldo says. “ ‘We’re investing in you. If we can get you to a better place, and we’re not the right place because you want to do something else, we’ll help you get there.’ ”
For Waldo, investing in his employees provides the best fiscal benefit for Platinum Pools. “We probably spend more money marketing to the staff than we spend trying to get business because, if we can keep the employees happy, they will keep the clients happy and we’ll get more referrals.”
Fill ’Er Up
When Taylor Hamlin and his cousins took over ownership of Hamlin Pools in Pharr, Texas, in 2013, the fleet of approximately 50 vehicles was using gas cards. Even with checks and balances on the system, the company was seeing lost time and money.
In 2016, Hamlin Pools brought its own gas tank on site. “We have a few warehouse employees that man the gas pump,” says Taylor Hamlin, part of the third generation of Hamlins to own the company. “Construction crews fill up in the afternoon when they come back from work, and service crews fill up in the morning on the way out. We monitor how much gas goes in each truck, and the mileage so we know we’re not getting robbed blind.”
The $20,000 investment for the 6,000-gallon tank has reduced wasted time, lowered costs and is a better checks-and-balances system, paying for itself in less than two years. He recommends checking with local authorities on the requirements and codes to operate a tank on site. One requirement stipulated that the reserve holdtwo to three times the amount of their tank, and the company builtit themselves.
Hamlin also recommends having someone watch the gas markets and purchase gas at the lowest price — and transitioning to the new system slowly. “Maintain your current system as a backup,” Hamlin says, “so that crew members, in a pinch, don’t end up stranded while they get used to the new system.”