Brother and sister continue established pool business
by Sarah Protzman Howlett
photography by Brad Zimmerman
Brian Lee Miller started Hilltop Pools and Spas, Inc., after moving from his native upstate New York. Brian initially only did pool construction in summers as a way to earn supplemental income while not teaching school. He eventually opened pool construction company Hilltop in 1976 in the tiny town of Jonesboro, Georgia — population about 4,700.
His children Matt Miller, 37, and Kelly Erjavec, 34, now run the company, having begun the ownership-transfer process in 2016. Later that year, their father died suddenly: “It was not supposed to happen this fast,” Erjavec says. She remembers her father as an outgoing man, organized and full of wisdom and he loved people. “I listened to what he said and how he handled situations,” she says. “I try and approach situations the same way.”
The siblings were working in the store as soon as we were old enough. Erjavec would help file; Miller worked for Hilltop’s subcontractors in order to learn every aspect of pool construction. Erjavec is now director of operations, and Miller is owner.
Miller later started an in-house pool crew that worked directly for Hilltop. “I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be in this business,” he says; despite heading to college and studying technology, he’s worked full time at Hilltop since 1998. Erjavec earned a public-relations degree and at first worked part-time at Hilltop — but when the pool business needed marketing help, she left her other job around 2007.
Hilltop’s showroom in Jonesboro features tile and Pebble Tec; the company has around 20 employees and last year built 83 pools. “We are strictly a construction company,” Miller says of its niche in the pool business. “We are 100 percent focused on construction of both commercial and residential pools.” Brian Lee Miller especially liked working with general contractors on commercial projects. “He would get involved very early on during the design phase and share his knowledge and experience,” Erjavec remembers.
Erjavec herself lives in Florida and has worked remotely for the company for five years. The siblings agree they work well together. “We have different areas of expertise,” Miller says, “and we don’t interfere with each other’s areas. Kelly’s really good with the finance and the books, and all the Facebook and marketing as well.”
Hilltop is a growing company — up 30 percent in the last two years, Miller says. The company has created several new positions to manage this growth. “We are getting the right people in the right places,” he says, “and getting prepared for further growth: more pools and more construction,” as well as potentially getting into service work. But just because the funds are there doesn’t mean the hiring process has been easy: Erjavec and Miller both say it remains incredibly difficult to find good people who have pool experience.
“Those with some sort of construction background can often pick up on it,” Erjavec says, “versus someone who hasn’t been around that at all. But there is also a big shortage of electricians, plumbers, concrete finishers.”
“Nobody wants to work hard,” Miller says. When pressed, he holds his ground: “Absolutely true. They’ve removed a lot of vocational studies from our schools, and learning a trade is not what it used to be. Learning a trade is not as popular as it used to be.”
In spite of their frustrations, the siblings will keep working to fill new positions and, they hope, mold them into dedicated employees. Staff is encouraged to participate in APSP’s continuing education programs, and “they all have the passion to do it,” Miller says.
Hilltop’s Facebook page alone makes it seem like a fun place to come to work: From team dinners to beach retreats, “we try to do nice things for our employees,” Erjavec says, adding that the company has just wrapped up a weekend in nearby Destin, Florida, a couple of days before this interview.
“We closed the store for two days and all drove down,” she says. “Our employees brought spouses and children as well. We said they didn’t even need to check their email.”