There’s a lot of disagreement these days over how to talk about women succeeding at work. Certainly, whip-smart female entrepreneurs are nothing new or surprising — but in industries where most all the workers are men, like pools, it may take a bit more moxie to make your mark as a woman. With various paths to leadership and ownership, these seven women have stamped out a place in the pool industry, with many turning heads by running their own one-pole companies. Here, they discuss the changing times, the trouble with flying solo, the pains of hiring — and why more women should seek careers in this industry.
International Education Consultant
In the mid-1970s, Connie Centrella applied for a job in pool sales and was rejected. “We can’t have a woman on the road,” the hiring manager told her. Most women in the industry then were working in retail stores, she recalls, and “[the men] didn’t want us in and out of hotels, in a car by ourselves late at night.”
“But I did it later on,” she adds, “and I loved it.”
After decades of working in nearly every aspect of the pool industry — including running Team Horner, a Florida manufacturing and exporting company, and overseeing 80 employees — Centrella insists she’s never focused much on the fact that she’s a woman; she’s simply a hard worker who loves the industry.
“It wasn’t about me being a woman,” she says, “it was about what needed to be done. If people didn’t like it, they could go somewhere else.”
Centrella’s father started a pool company in Tennessee after World War II; Centrella loved riding along with him. She remembers the big, cavernous filters, and how her dad would lift her up with a flashlight so she could see into them. “He was such a good inspiration overall, and I’m always proud to have been his daughter,” she says.
Nowadays, the Nashville native is an independent consultant who provides educational training for the public health division of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, teaching the Certified Pool Operator course as well as the regulations and guidelines of the Vessel Sanitation Program. Over the past 10 years, she has been on 112 ships and trained over 1,800 crew members, officers and engineers.
I looked through over 1,000 photos and realized I did not have many of me teaching. Just a bunch of classrooms full of handsome men.”
Her last training was in February 2020 before the COVID shutdown, but she is now scheduling 2022 cruise trainings. She has remained active with the PHTA / NSPF for 38 years and says teaching is her life’s greatest passion.
“If I can touch one person and the lightbulb will come on in a class, it makes my day,” she says. “Our industry requires education. We have hydraulics, chemistry, math — all these things incorporate into our profession, and being able to talk professionally is the key to being successful in our industry.”
Centrella remembers women sitting on boards and pushing for greater educational opportunities for pool professionals going back decades. One of Centrella’s first board positions, on the Southeastern Pool Association (Region X NSPI), was in 1975.
“Now, we are seeing more women out in the field, primarily in service,” she says. “I’m proud they are doing that. The whole key is that we need to look at ourselves as individuals, not women.”
Owner, Guyco Pool Services
For a newly minted 30-year-old with a vision to grow her one-woman pool company, 1.6 million TikTok views is a good start.
On the April day last year that Lori Bryant’s pool-painting post went viral, she was in a CPO class. “When I found out I went viral, I was ecstatic,” she says. “It was such an honor for people to recognize my work.” The video, she says, has led to more business and a larger following.
Having a foundational knowledge thanks to her father, Guy, who died in March 2020 and had run a pool company, Bryant now helms two-year-old Guyco Pool Services, which grew out of frustration with not being able to find a pool company who serviced her area.
To launch Guyco, Bryant earned her CPO certification and took cues from a willing mentor, posting her offerings on social media and quickly finding several takers.
She has 20 pool clients and aims to keep adding to that roster until it’s a full-time job. “I would love to have a lot more,” she says, “and have a team servicing different areas.” The seemingly endless kinds of pumps perplex her and vacuuming soothes her; she also offers leaf blowing, pressure washing, draining and of course pool painting.
When I found out [my video] went viral, I was ecstatic. It was such an honor for people to recognize my work.”
For now, pools provide just one of Bryant’s three income streams: She has a remote-friendly 9-to-5 with Emery Health Care, which can sometimes be done via her phone between pool calls, and she also runs a seasonal Halloween business, which she started in middle school because she so loves the holiday.
She hasn’t met many other women in Atlanta who are cleaning pools, especially African-Americans like herself, she says. But the few she has encountered say the sentiment is simple: The gals can do anything the men can do when it comes to pools. In the next couple years, she wants to move away from doing the manual labor herself, then open stores that offer replacement parts, chemicals, pool toys and more in Georgia and elsewhere.
For Bryant, staying in shape is essential to keep up with the demands of the job; she’s at the gym by 7 a.m. about three days a week. “The pools can be so demanding,” she says, “and you never know what may happen.”
Strategic vendor partnerships manager, United Aqua Group
Shaina Wan would prefer to be hiking in the mountains near her Las Vegas home. But spend just a few minutes talking to her, and you’ll learn that being a leader at work provides Wan feelings of accomplishment akin to cresting a desert peak.
Wan is strategic vendor partnerships manager of United Aqua Group, one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated to the professional pool building and retail industry. She’s been at the company for five years, and is especially keen on rooting out inefficiency and collaborating with fellow pool enthusiasts. Wan came from the hotel and restaurant industry, so aquatics was not a far leap. Throughout the pandemic, she says, she has been quickly embracing new technologies to get work done.
“Technology fascinates me,” she says. “I love being part of a team and spearheading change. I am not afraid of a challenge, and on the whole, I can’t think of any other industry I’ve been in that allows this level of collaboration and fellowship.” Wan leads a team of four who wear “a lot of hats,” she says, and recalls a handful of people who encouraged her to carve out this change-making role where she feels her strong ideas are highly valued.
I can’t think of any other industry I’ve been in that allows this level of collaboration and fellowship.”
Wan is aware, however, that as a “small, Asian woman,” some vendors are surprised to see someone like her calling the shots. She’s often the only woman in a conference room. There have been a handful of times when a situation escalates and she’s felt dressed down during a difficult conversation — not by her colleagues, she is careful to add, but by outside vendors.
“I’ll say something,” she says, “and it’s not heard — or action isn’t taken — until the same thing is said by a male counterpart.” She adds after a long pause, “That doesn’t feel great.” But Wan emphasizes these instances are rare, and that she feels there’s magic in the pool industry unlike any other.
“It is built on small dealers, and people having fun in their backyards,” she says, “so there’s a passion and commitment to fun that we’re starting with. I’m very grateful to continue to have the power to make a lot of positive changes here.”
Owner, Legacy Pool Service
Like so many others, Kelli Clancy’s introduction to the pool business came via her parents, but the layers of knowledge she’s added since then would make any pro blush. She started her company, Legacy Pool Service, in December 2017, having left an inflexible job at a school district. Her son Max, 5, has speech therapy needs, and time off to take him to appointments was imperative. The familiarity of pools was a comfort, she says, and when her dad gifted her several pieces of dusty equipment he had in his garage, it was time to give it a go.
As Clancy brushed up her knowledge in a CPO course, she was surprised how much she retained from her younger years. While Clancy’s wheelhouse was already vast — pool maintenance, hot tub cleaning, one-time green-to-clean services, acid washing and chlorine washing — she now also does startups; programming orientations for new builds; and repairs, which she says are particularly great money.
And, since seizing an opportunity to do Hayward warranty work, Clancy has connected with several other industry folks and has boosted her income. One of her advisors, Nick Johnson of Hayward Pool Products, has taught her about installations, electrical work and plumbing.
“My confidence has really grown,” she says, “even in the last six months. I’m now working on full equipment sets for new builds and full equipment upgrades on existing pools, all of which is the direction I want to go.” Her career goal is to be a builder, and for now she is a one-woman show, but she’d love to hire someone she can depend on. Juggling 35 weekly residential maintenance accounts, plus one commercial pool and three spas, is a lot for just her.
“I have to hire someone,” she says, “but it gives me so much anxiety.”
I am one of the girly girls. My nails are done, my hair is done.”
Clancy says training opportunities remain key to bringing more female pool professionals into the fold. In addition to being president of Sacramento City IPSSA Chapter and serving on the IPSSA Membership Committee, in early 2020 Clancy also helped put together women-only offseason pool training classes — think variable-speed pumps, controllers and UV systems, with presentations by various manufacturers — and an accompanying private Facebook group of about 110 women (OK, and a few select men). As the story goes, Clancy’s friend Janet Reed relayed that she’d been in a training in Reno, Nevada, where a male attendee literally took tools out of Reed’s hands. Referring to her fellow women in the industry, Clancy says “all of us” have had experiences like Reed’s.
“Most men don’t look at women in our industry very highly,” she says. “Some are great supporters, but they think girls are good at cleaning the pool, not working on the equipment.”
Owner, Oregon Pool Plastering
Patty Cone has set her expectation. She’s short on materials, and the demands on her time are overwhelming. Please be patient. But she doesn’t expect you to read her mind; she changed her outgoing voicemail message last May to say exactly this.
Cone entered the industry in 1977 by answering an ad, handwritten on an index card, that was posted at Portland Community College. A Seattle pool distributor was looking for a bookkeeper. Since then, Cone has tried to leave the industry a couple times, “but it didn’t take,” she says.
She has dipped into almost every aspect of the pool industry, including retail, distribution and construction, and in 2014 started Oregon Pool Plastering, which employs four finishers — two of whom have been with her since the start.
Starting a new business at 56, my friends were really proud of me. It was a man’s industry back in the day.”
“Starting a new business at 56,” she says, “my friends were really proud of me. It was a man’s industry back in the day.” Her employees are all male, and these days health issues keep Cone from pitching in, which she otherwise enjoyed but can no longer do safely. Cone is looking toward retirement in a couple years and may try to sell the business. She likes to garden and read, and recently swam with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.
Support from other women was important for Cone from the beginning, many of whom were instrumental in helping their husbands run pool businesses. When Cone was 19, two such women would come with her to NSPI meetings. “You wouldn’t see many women unless they were wives,” she says. “At the Plasterers Council, there were even fewer.”
And after all these years, some customers still call and say, “I wanna talk to one of the guys.”
One of her former bosses, Cone recalls, would tell such callers he’d connect them to the most capable employee right away — then transfer them back to Cone.
“I can remember one man saying he guessed my boss was right,” she adds.
The aforementioned ongoing material shortages have added stress of late, and she’d like to hire more workers but has been unable to find help. “I feel sorry for some of these guys waiting six months to get a pool heater,” she says. “On the positive, everyone has rediscovered their backyards and swimming again with nothing else to do.”
Owner, Excalibur Leak Detection
Christine Pearson has been around pools since she could walk. Her dad worked for pool companies and started his own company when Christine was in high school. At first, Christine’s plan was law school; she attended for a while but soon realized office life wasn’t a fit.
“I called my dad one day and said I was taking over the business,” she says. “As an only child, it was me or no one.”
Leak detection quickly emerged as the money maker, leading Pearson to drop her other pool services. “$250 an hour is a lot more than you can charge for repairs,” she says, adding that she loves the industry because it lets her solve problems and teach people. “I like to explain everything to my customers,” she says.
Pearson, who employs one person, is 10 years into running her own company full time. She values imparting what she can to others in the industry, speaking at leak-detection seminars at trade shows. She’ll be on a panel at the Atlantic City show in January to talk about women in the industry.
Pearson says customers are often shocked to see her in the field and ask how she got into the business. “I hear all the time, ‘I’ve never seen a woman come to do pool work,’ ” she says, adding that she still hears stories about mistreatment of women in the industry, but not as frequently. “It used to be bad with pool guys. We’d go to the warehouse to pick up supplies, and the guys would come over and make comments. Just because I’m the only female in this place doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want to me.”
Just because I’m the only female in this place doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want to me.”
When Pearson isn’t working, she’s sleeping. She had COVID in December 2020 and says a lingering brain fog has meant her memory still doesn’t work as well as it used to. “I had trouble forming sentences and couldn’t read for very long,” she says. “It’s the stuff you don’t hear as much about.”
Despite these struggles, Pearson remains dedicated to her industry knowledge, and takes classes on everything from building codes to repairing structural cracks to how to set a vinyl liner — even though she doesn’t offer these services. “I feel having a more well-rounded knowledge always teaches me something,” she says. “I want an understanding of everything.”
To care for herself, she prioritizes staying hydrated and keeps an entire cooler full of water bottles in her truck. She packs a lunch when she has time, but otherwise relies on granola bars. The day prior to this interview, Pearson estimated she was in the field for 14 hours. In the busy season, she is booked out as far as six weeks.
Pearson, who is expecting her first grandchild this winter, is looking forward to more women coming into the industry and being their own bosses. “A lot of women are going from the retail storefront out into the field,” she says. “Back in the day, dads may not have thought to include their daughters.”
Owner, The Pool Medic
Deborah Martin’s dad, Mike Tellegen, was a pool pro in the Portland, Oregon, area, who taught Martin and her brother to use cleaning tools as teenagers after Mike lost an employee.
At age 18, Martin got married and moved to California, and in 2002 briefly took over a small pool and spa route that had belonged to her late uncle. The following year, she changed the company name to The Pool Medic and grew the business to the 143 pools she has today, a mix of chemicals services only and full service.
“I love my job,” Martin says. “I love what I do.”
She is a mom of three kids, ages 17, 15 and 9, and they have all gone out into the field with her. After a second divorce around 2015, Martin was in the weeds and wasn’t sure the pool industry was for her. Her happy customers, however, encouraged her to persevere. They told her they loved her and didn’t want to have to find another pool pro.
Martin has just one employee, a senior in high school who cleans filters at 20 pools for her a week. “I’m not struggling,” she says. “I can’t take on any more work.” Martin, 36, has also recently partnered with a manufacturer. “Everyone here in Fresno knows I’m a Jandy person,” she says.
This job keeps you in really good shape. I get asked all the time if I run, lift weights and do CrossFit. My secret is 30 pools a day.”
She wants to hire more people, but taking a pay cut — and the stress of having to count on someone else — doesn’t feel right at the moment. At times she calls her dad with questions, and an industry friend has taught her a lot about electrical work and automation. “I knew chemistry and the ways pools and filters worked,” she says, “but it was in iOT and automation that I needed to take classes. Once I had that groundwork, I took what I learned into the field and put it into play.”
Education is always on Martin’s schedule: She goes to every trade show and class she can to keep up with ever-changing codes and requirements, and the constant stream of new equipment coming to market.
“My dad does this, too,” she says, “and he’s been in the industry almost 40 years. You will always walk away learning something. Even if it’s not something the teacher told you, it will be something another pool guy or pool gal will say that you’ll want to keep in the back of your head.” Other women looking to launch pool businesses should know that it’s OK not to know something, she adds: “When I first went into hands-on classes, I was intimidated. It takes a lot of grind to get the respect out of just a couple of the guys. The fact that they realize I can do it, it’s a confidence boost. You only need one or two people to go to for help. You don’t need 25.”