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House Divided

The Pros and Cons of In-House Plastering

There is no one-size-fits-all business model for  building and installing swimming pools. Many pool builders act more like brokers, subcontracting out the various jobs that require specialized knowledge, and few jobs involving pool building require as much specialized knowledge as the final step — applying the plaster. But that hasn’t stopped some builders from choosing to handle their plastering in-house. Though they are the exception.

“You don’t see the gunite when [the pool] is full of water, so gunite can be wavy or not wavy and may not be the smoothest, you also don’t see the steel — but plaster and decks have got to be top notch, because that’s what the customer sees,” warns Shaun Goldberg, plaster department manager for Burketts Pool Plastering and Remodeling Inc. and current vice-chair for the National Plasterers Council. “It’s hard work, but it’s also artistic.”

Goldberg’s Ripon, California-based company serves as a subcontractor, so he admits to having a bias when it comes to the question of whether or not pool builders should begin doing their plaster in-house, but he says his bias is from seeing what can happen when a company bites off more than it can chew.

“It’s a very specialized trade,” Goldberg says. “You can’t just have people that maybe do tile one day and prep pools the next day.” In most cases, Goldberg says, a worker cannot easily switch from one specialty to another on a whim.

Goldberg believes that the additional cost of equipment, material and storage space would be too large an investment for a company that isn’t specializing in plaster. 

Chip Unnerstall, co-owner of Oasis Pools in St. Louis, is a recent in-house plastering convert, after his company made the switch roughly two years ago. According to Unnerstall, Oasis Pools invested close to $300,000 into creating an in-house plastering unit to save the only thing as important to a business’ success as money: Time.

“Getting the project done on time ultimately impacts our overhead,” Unnerstall says. “… when COVID came, everybody knows the industry went bonkers and the demand was high. We’d have projects waiting for plaster for two, three, four, five and six weeks. We’ve had projects wait two months for plaster with the whole project otherwise done. But we were married to the mercy of these subcontractors.”

Besides saving time Unnerstall believes that using a subcontractor gave him less quality control versus using a crew that works directly under him. “You can have six, five killer guys, but you have that one bad apple who doesn’t care and he’s stepping on your tiles with his spikey shoes and he’s breaking your tile,” Unnerstall says.

Unlike other big cities, Unnerstall points out that St. Louis has very few plaster subcontractors and the lack of competition meant that the subcontractor one chooses “owns you.”

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“He can charge you whatever he wants and you’re at his mercy,” Unnerstall says. “My competitors are in their 60s and have been working for 30 to 40 years I come in, a new builder, and I didn’t feel like I was being treated the same way.”

A lack of available subcontractors was also the reason why Ron Yates chose to handle plastering in-house some 40 years ago when he opened his business, Aquatic Pools Inc., in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

“We’re headquartered in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the union, and we don’t have a subcontractor base, or we have a weak one. Even today,” Yates explains. “There were really no options.”

Upon starting his business Yates immediately recognized that with so few plasterers available, he too would be at the mercy of whatever prices or schedule a subcontractor might demand, noting that, “They can kinda hold some people hostage,” and so he focused instead on hiring the right people from the start. 

“When I started the company, I brought some guys that I worked with that had experience in excavation, plumbing, plastering, tiling and decks,” Yates says. “So it just became the accepted norm for us to do all of those phases. And then as the years went by, as I saw the different guys that started with me develop in certain areas, we trained them specifically in certain task functions.”

Before the recession Yates had a crew of 84 men, which then shrank to just 35. According to Yates, the smaller crew has meant that everyone must pull together for different jobs, “We might have 10 guys on a job plastering.”

Both Yates and Unnerstall agree that the decision to go in-house was both more cost efficient and has made installations move faster, with Unnerstall concluding that the switch has been “the best decision we could have ever made. We’re financially profiting significantly, we have the quality control and the timing control.” However, they also recognize that such a model would be more difficult for builders in larger markets.

“We’re not a ginormous builder,” Unnerstall says. “We run a $10 million company, and so we build anywhere from 30 to 50 pools a year. There’s builders out there that do these cookie cutter pools and they build 200 plus pools a year.”

Goldberg doesn’t seem worried that there will be any perceptible decline in the demand for specialists like himself. “If you have any imperfections or anything that’s noticeable, you’ll have to go back to fix it, or re-plaster it,” Goldberg says. “I think for a lot of companies, they would rather sub that. Leave it to people that do it day-in and day-out, who can warranty it, who can handle things if there is an issue.”

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