Indiana pool service company, concrete company team up to optimize customer experience
Over the eight years Rob Thomas worked in pool construction, he was often frustrated with what he saw as subpar customer experiences. His now-wife Sarah recalls that Rob wanted to provide something better to the people of Evansville, Indiana.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you just go do it on your own?’ ” Sarah recalls. “We were young and crazy, and he kind of laughed at me at first.”
Rob and Sarah met while Rob was bagging groceries at Kroger in high school. They began dating in 1997, the year they graduated, and married in 2003. Sarah went on to the University of Southern Indiana, earning an undergraduate degree in graphic design and advertising, followed by an MBA at Baker College of Graduate Studies.
With her marketing background, Sarah was confident the opportunity was there to start a business with her husband. In 2006, the couple bought a service van and started No More Problems Pool Service and Supply, working out of their home.
“It was grassroots getting new customers,” says Sarah, who was working a full-time job during the day and handling billing and ordering for No More Problems at night: “We would drive around and put door hangers on people’s doors. We were literally ordering one bucket of chlorine at a time because that’s all we could afford.”
Later that year, they incorporated as Thomas Companies of Evansville, Inc. Sarah quit her full-time job, and in March 2007 they opened a retail location in a strip mall. Focusing on service and retail, the company outgrew that location by 2016, so the Thomases purchased land and built their own store, which opened in 2017.
Along Came a Concrete Guy
At that point, the Thomases’ company focused solely on pool service. Meanwhile, Jake Thacker was eyeing the pool industry.
Thacker’s father was in the concrete business: “Since I was old enough to start walking, I was cleaning everybody’s tools on the job site on the weekends,” Jake Thacker says. In high school, Thacker started his own concrete side business. He earned a college degree in tool and die machinery, but even with a job in that field, continued to spend 30 to 40 hours a week doing concrete work.
In 2016, around the same time the Thomases broke ground on their new building, Thacker quit his job and registered his concrete business as Thacker Enterprises, LLC. While his concrete business included many types of projects, Thacker added pools to his list, building two to three a year.
“I didn’t think there was a market to do only pools,” Thacker says. “I was going to do a couple a year.” A company he built concrete pool surrounds for had hired Rob and Sarah to provide service for those pools. “They were one of the few companies in Evansville that didn’t have a construction division,” Thacker recalls, “so I reached out and told them I was interested in building pools.”
Through a series of discussions, all three became owners, with Thacker bringing his equipment (still owned by his concrete company) and the Thomases contributing their service reputation. In 2018, Thomas Companies of Evansville, Inc., was renamed once again to AquaVida Pools, and the company’s vinyl pool construction division launched. The shared ownership keeps each of them invested in the outcome, Thacker says: “I thought it was better for everybody to keep the quality — then you don’t want to fail.”
Focus on Quality
AquaVida Pools does little paid advertising; the service business had mostly seen growth through referrals. Rob says customer service is a lost art form: “I tell my techs to perform like it’s your house and you’re paying for it,” he adds. “If you live by that simple rule, we’ve found that business snowballs. It just keeps coming through word of mouth.”
Now that the company also does construction, Rob says it’s important to stand out among competitors, especially when doing everything in-house compared to companies that use subcontractors.
“We take a turnkey approach that includes everything,” Rob explains, “down to the test strips, chemicals, first cleaning. We pull all the permits. We make sure the pool’s up and running — water is trucked in to fill the pool…. We do the final dirt grading so it’s ready for landscaping. So much of our competition now does just parts of it, and then there’s a lot of finger-pointing, or you can’t control the process or timeline.” Providing all of this ensures quality customer service, Rob says. Homeowners are also offered a new pool owner class to protect their investment.
Weekly pool service, retail, pool construction
45-50/week maintenance customers
16-20 vinyl pools/year
Thacker put the growth of his concrete business on hold for the first year of his partnership with the Thomases to manage quality for both Thacker Enterprises and AquaVida. “I’m pretty particular,” he says, “so it’s taken up to now for me to not have to touch everything on my job site. I’m finally getting to the point where we’ve got employees [with the concrete business] that I trust to do other things.”
Thacker says there was a learning curve in going from concrete construction to building vinyl pools, and while he caught on fast, it’s been difficult to find skilled workers. He’s been through several employees. “At first there was a lot of stuff I would have to go back and fix,” he says. “There are not too many talented people who are either willing to leave their job or willing to put their talents to use. I was pretty much a one-man-show all last spring.”
Eventually, Thacker ended up hiring two people who had never been around pool construction. It’s worked out well, he adds, because he’s taught them his methods. With a three-man crew, they still work all day, six to seven days a week, but “we get a lot of stuff done for three people.”
While Thacker has a separate construction crew for AquaVida, he brings his concrete crew in on occasion to finish a pool project. “We do start to finish, but it always seems like there is stuff added,” he says.
Like many pool companies, AquaVida shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, with lead times for new construction into spring 2022. This summer, the company will start a large-scale pool build that is expected to take up to two months.
“Our approach on a project is not a standard pool where you check the boxes on the few things you have a choice on,” Sarah says. “While there are a few limitations, it’s ‘What does the customer want?’ And then we create that custom pool for them. And now we do all of our own concrete [surrounds], so we really get creative.”
Rob says it can be hard to convey to first-time pool owners that their company’s certifications and trainings are worth the extra cost; owners still often go with the lowest bid, he says: “But when I’m bidding for someone who’s buying their second pool, we never lose.”
When looking toward the future, Rob hopes for more quality builders within the industry. He still hears too many stories about horrible customer experiences that ruined yards and blew through budgets. The industry as a whole suffers when people are afraid to start the process, he says: When people hear horror stories from friends, they may buy a lake house or RV instead, “but if everybody had a great experience with their pool build or service, that’s good for everybody.” Thacker eventually wants to get into building gunite pools. “I want to be the only company capable of doing the fancy stuff: the fake rocks around the pools, the grottos, the different shapes,” he says. “I want to build pools with our higher-end clients and keep making people’s dreams come true.”