A self-starter since his 20s, Todd Starner has grown his part-time summer job into a respected local pool business
Photography by Rodrigo mendez
In 1994, a 27-year-old Todd Starner and his younger brother Jeff sat across the kitchen table from their father, Richard, asking for money.
Eyeing a motorcycle? A vacation? Debt relief? Hardly. The brothers wanted to become entrepreneurs and needed $10,000 to buy a 50-pool service route from their retiring boss, Donnie Hodson, for whom Todd had worked in various capacities since 1984. After about a week, the young men’s father, who needed “a lot of convincing” before coming around, drew up a contract.
“He just made sure we questioned ourselves, that this was what we wanted to do,” Todd Starner recalls.
In just nine months, the brothers had paid him back (plus interest, of course). By September 1997, Jeff, now 44, had moved on from the newly named Starner Brothers to build pools, but Todd, now 45, stayed on. He now has 125 pools he services every week.
Based in Bradenton, Fla., an oceanside community of about 50,000 between Tampa and Sarasota, Starner’s 80- to 100-hour weeks consist mostly of him and his truck — a shiny 2012 Dodge Ram he had lettered over the holidays. But Starner also employs a handful of subcontractors who do service work, installing salt systems, automation systems and heaters while Starner cleans the pools and interacts with customers. He prefers it this way, likes the simplicity of not having a storefront.
“I’m blessed in that aspect,” Starner says. “I live and do business in an area with a lot of pool-supply houses. I let them store the part until I need it.”
At one point, Starner considered a brick-and-mortar store — but then the big guys like Pinch A Penny and Leslie’s came to town around 2001. Starner decided “to stick to doing one thing, and doing it well.” Sixty percent of his business is residential pools, and despite his “100 percent word-of-mouth” business model, the area brings plenty of competition: Starner says on a given day, he might see eight to 10 other trucks out doing just what he does.
One of the bonuses to being in a warm-weather state like Florida, Starner says, is that a slow season doesn’t really exist. “If I had to pick one, though, I’d say August is the slowest when kids go back to school,” he says. “But then we’re busy again because our up-north friends [people with seasonal second homes] are starting to come back down.”
And because he’s the area director of IPSSA for Florida and Georgia, Starner knows much of his
competition personally — the major plus that counters the sometimes long drives he takes to chapter meetings after a full day of working on pools. (The night before he spoke to PoolPro, he’d driven more than six hours round-trip to Orlando for an IPSSA gathering.) “So that’s my part-time, nonpaying job,” he says, “but the pool business has been very good to my family and me. I’m happy to give back.”
As much as the industry is promoting green products, Starner says that, at least in his Florida community,
energy efficiency hasn’t gone over the way manufacturers have hoped. His customers even have a saying: If it’s “green,” it’s going to cost me more green.
And unfortunately, Starner can’t quibble with that all too much.
“If people who are planning to sell their home in two years learn a variable-speed pump is going to cost $1,500 versus $500 for a standard one,” he says, “most times they’ll still go for the cheap one.”
Further, Starner fears the industry may be overselling some of these products’ benefits. “Eighty dollars a month off your electric bill, really?” he says. “I often think some of the studies may be flawed. They’re based on the idea that you run a pump 12 hours a day, when you really run it about six hours.”
While his customers may not be clamoring for $1,500 pumps, Starner Brothers’ success allows Starner’s wife, Tina, to be a stay-at-home mom to their 14-year-old ballerina daughter, Isabelle. Despite working six days a week at times, Starner’s schedule is flexible enough that he can accompany Isabelle to dance camps and auditions at, among others, New York’s Joffrey Ballet. She hopes to study dance in college.
“I’ve still got about 30 customers I’ve had since 1994,” Starner says. “I take great pride in that. They’ve watched my daughter grow up.”