A look back at the life of the Leslie’s Swimming Pool Supplies founder
The year was 1963. Working in a small, rented building in the Hollywood Hills with $900 to his name, Philip Lloyd Leslie Sr. followed his passion for entrepreneurship and founded Leslie’s, a swimming pool supplies retail enterprise, which would sell chlorine and other pool chemicals directly to customers. This pioneering entry into the pool care industry led to a company that still dominates its market nearly 60 years later.
Born in 1934, Leslie Sr. was 7 years old when his family moved to North Hollywood, where his father became a writer for popular radio and television shows. At age 14, he contracted polio, which he would later overcome.
After growing up in Southern California, Leslie Sr. attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for a year before volunteering in 1954 for military service. When he returned home from Fort Lewis, Washington, a friend tipped him off to the growing popularity of swimming pools. Sensing an untapped market, Leslie Sr. pursued the pool supply business, delivering chlorine.
At one point Leslie Sr. opened — and then closed — his own store. “It didn’t go well,” says Andy Leslie, the second of three sons Leslie Sr. had with wife, Lila Leslie. “When he first went into business for himself, he wasn’t looking at the big picture.”
However, the experience did sharpen Leslie Sr.’s business acumen and give him a head start on another venture. “He needed to regroup, and he decided to try again,” Andy Leslie says.
In 1963, he opened the first Leslie’s store in North Hollywood, California, which is still in operation today. The formula he envisioned was successful, and a second store quickly followed. “He believed in being honest, not selling customers anything they didn’t need,” Andy Leslie says. “Giving customers low prices and good quality.”
He believed in being honest, not selling customers anything they didn’t need. Giving customers low prices and good quality.
Andy Leslie, son of Philip Lloyd Leslie, Sr.
Within a few years, the business grew into a small chain of pool supply stores throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Seeking to grow the business, Leslie Sr. expanded its geographic boundaries beyond California to include Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, Florida and other states. In a little more than two decades, the company was the biggest retailer of pool supplies in the world, with 63 locations and generating nearly $65 million in annual sales. Andy Leslie says his father was the first to operate a chain of this size in the industry.
Leslie Sr. may have possessed a strong work ethic and a knack for leadership, but “The No. 1 reason for his success was that he sold chlorine at slightly lower prices than his competitors,” Andy Leslie says. “Chlorine was a loss leader for him.”
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The low cost of chlorine would attract customers who, upon walking in the door, would be exposed to Leslie’s other pool supplies and equipment.
“My dad made his company the same as it is when you go into Lowe’s or Walmart today and know their price is [probably] the best price in town,” Andy Leslie says. “You knew that when you walked into one of his stores, they were highly competitive.”
True to his entrepreneurial spirit, Leslie Sr. also continued to forge ahead in other areas of the business, launching a highly successful mail-order business (pre-internet) that penetrated the national market.
According to Andy Leslie, during these years his father’s fairness and honesty inspired both loyalty and affection in those who worked for him: “His employees, and he had 600, loved him; it was like a big family. They viewed him as head of a family. Many employees are still friends with my family today.”
By the mid-1980s, Leslie’s may have been one of the fastest-growing small businesses in the country. According to Andy Leslie, the success was partially due to the business having “almost zero debt” and being privately owned. Another possible reason was that over time, Leslie Sr. had also figured out that owning most of his own real estate was the way to go. He was like Ray Kroc of McDonalds, Andy Leslie muses, who determined early on that “he was in the real estate business, not the hamburger business.”
In 1988, however, Leslie Sr. was forced to sell the company by court order when he and his partner couldn’t agree on the company’s path forward. He then stayed in the industry for a brief time but ultimately retired. In the years that followed, he would enjoy spending time with Alexa Leslie, his granddaughter, and daughter to Andy Leslie. Together, she says, the two fished, hiked, played checkers and generally had fun.
“My grandfather was so sweet — and admirable. He was amazing,” says Alexa Leslie, a tribute that reflects the esteem also held by the greater Leslie family.
Ironically, Andy Leslie adds, the founder of what’s now a billion-dollar corporation dedicated to the sale of swimming pool supplies couldn’t swim. “He’d get into the shallow end of a pool and hang out, but he didn’t know how to swim,” Andy Leslie says. “He didn’t grow up with a pool, but [his kids] did.” Leslie Sr. died April 5, at age 87, leaving a lasting legacy as a pioneer and catalyst in the industry he loved and helped create.