Eliminating subcontractors, updating systems and diversifying foster rapid growth for South Shore Gunite Pools & Spas
By Michelle L. Cramer
Photography by Javaughn Henry and SSG
Bridges, factories and performance halls aren’t exactly the structures that come to mind when considering a pool company’s construction portfolio, but they are every bit a part of what South Shore Gunite Pools & Spas has grown into over more than 40 years in business.
Headquartered in Billerica, Massachusetts, Robert Guarino acquired the name and brand for SSG (as it’s referenced by the staff) in 1975, implementing a cohesive flow with Guarino’s Swimming Pool Service, which he established two years before. During the first 20 years of business, Guarino built and serviced a multitude of pools in the Northeast. But in 1998, he made a bold move that changed the trajectory of the business.
“The biggest turning point for SSG was when we decided to go in-house with construction,” Guarino says, adding that a lack of qualified subcontractors is what led him to the decision. “The pool builders in our area are just so happy that someone shows up. The pool subcontractors’ lack of actual pool construction experience allows an anything-goes way of doing business. I know better. When you know better, it’s impossible to accept [anything less]. Get good or get gone.”
Guarino says the process to go in-house was difficult and expensive. He purchased used equipment when he could and new equipment when he had to. He and his brother, Gary, trained the staff.
“To this day, [most pool pros] in our area were either trained by me, my brother or by someone we trained,” Guarino says. “I also continued to learn and evolve.” Guarino was in the first American Shotcrete certification class more than 23 years ago, and then made it a priority to get SSG staff certified.
Following this move to being 100% in-house for all projects, the company launched the Partnership in Excellence Pool Warranty program, providing a five-year extended warranty on plumbing systems, steel structure, electrical work, tile, coping/brick, interior finish and most equipment.
“As a company, we truly stand behind our work,” says Vincent Campo, general operations manager for SSG, who adds that the extended warranty program was another great turning point for the company. “If something happens and we are responsible, then we take care of it.”
The SSG legacy began with Guarino’s Swimming Pool Service in 1973, and that branch of the business continues to thrive, with more than 760 pools on the weekly service route, equating to about 20,000 services a year.
Service manager Dave Williams came out of retirement to join the company in 2004 at Guarino’s request. At the time, he says, Guarino’s Swimming Pool Service was bringing in approximately $1 million a year. Now, that arm of the organization sees roughly $10 million in annual revenue, he says, due in part to changes he implemented.
“If things aren’t going the way you want in a small organization, there is a tendency for blame to be placed on the people,” Williams says. “I have a tendency to believe it’s a process issue, not necessarily a people issue. My goal has always been to make the process easier, better, more efficient. Then you can look at your team to see if they’re the right fit.”
That’s why Williams implemented a new routing software, Service Mastero from Integration Information Group, Inc., upon his arrival. Some customization of the software has been necessary over time to accommodate the company’s needs. “When you’re running 31 trucks and roughly 40 technicians, that scheduling and routing software is instrumental to what we do,” Williams says.
Each day, the technician’s entire route is preplanned, rather than finishing one location before finding out the next. The hiccups come, Williams says, when any of the company’s 760 customers has a problem and, because Guarino’s Pool Service promises to address concerns within 24 hours, technicians either work late or someone gets bumped to Saturday service. But Williams says all their customers are aware of and understanding about this process.
Happy customers also mean a lot of referrals. The service side rarely advertises beyond the company website and wrapped trucks, Williams says.
Service trucks are parked nightly at the headquarters in Billerica, Massachusetts, but during the day, technicians are driving to Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont and Boston South. (SSG also has a showroom in Amherst, New Hampshire, that opened in 2010.) The Cape Cod route grew so much that, in 2012, the company added a Cape Cod storage facility. Several trucks are kept there to serve customers in that area without adding ferry rides to the day.
With more than 50 years in the pool industry, Williams says what keeps him coming back each day is his crew. “My average technician has been with us for nine years, so we hang on to people,” he says. “We’ve got a few guys in their 50s and early 60s. And we have a bunch of young guys who came on board and worked out really well with us. We’ve got quite a mix of technicians.”
Being in the Northeast, much of what SSG and Guarino’s Pool Service do is seasonal, with pools closed (and often the ground frozen) from at least December to April. In summer, both companies have approximately 200 employees combined. Come January, over half of them are laid off — both service and construction crew members — due to slow business.
Mason Guarino, vice president of SSG, was determined to find something to generate more revenue during the slower months. As Robert Guarino’s son, Mason grew up in the company and started working for SSG part time at age 14. After graduating college in 2009, Mason became his dad’s full-time assistant. Guarino started sending Mason to American Shotcrete Association events, and Mason began to see the versatility of shotcrete beyond pool applications.
“People said, ‘Hey, I need gunite and you do gunite pools, can you do this [non-pool project]?’ ” Mason says. “I started to put myself out there…and I started to get referrals.”
These referrals resulted in projects that brought in $20,000 to $50,000, such as foundation repair. It dawned on Mason that he had something for SSG to do in the dead of winter. He started getting larger projects by offering turnkey shotcrete services. He was promoted to vice president of SSG in 2012 and, in 2013, Guarino purchased a wet mix shotcrete pump and volumetric concrete truck for Mason’s side projects.
“He was like, ‘Here, figure out how this works,’ which was a challenge but the American Shotcrete Association helped me get through that,” Mason says. “And today I’m sitting in front of an 85-foot-tall building where we’re installing about 85 tons of rebar right now, and it’s going to get 2,500 yards of shotcrete in it soon.”
SSG shotcrete foreman Tyler Provost says Mason’s vision has been the catalyst for the significant growth he’s seen in this portion of the company over the nearly three years he’s been there.
“He comes with a lot of ideas and excitement for those ideas and where he wants to go with the company — this shotcrete division of the company specifically,” Provost says. “He’s pretty creative and it seems the more jobs we take on outside the pool realm, the more it grows. It’s a combination of him pursuing new avenues and us following through with a quality product.”
South Shore Gunite Pools & Spas and its sister company, Guarino’s Swimming Pool Service, are on a sustained trajectory of growth. Mason intends to keep exploring new income-generating opportunities.
“I continue to strive not to be the best, but to do it correctly,” Robert Guarino says. “The best results naturally follow. I have done it all, so I acquired people I knew were good and trained the rest. We still do this today.”
$$ For Seasonal Workers
Massachusetts has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, Mason says, and therefore pays up to $800 a week to seasonal employees when they’re laid off during the winter months. “When we look for people in different parts of the country to work for us, that’s one of the things we can offer,” he says. “You can come out here and work for us for eight months a year and go back to where you’re from and still get an $800 a week check from Massachusetts.”