Alan Smith Pools in Southern California began focusing on commercial growth during the 2008 recession. During an economic crisis, not as many residential customers can afford pool installation and upkeep, but that’s not typically the case with commercial pools. For many in the industry, a mix of both residential and commercial clients can aid financial stability.
“Since commercial projects are not tied to the economic state as much as residential, we felt that a strong commercial presence will keep us more consistent even in an unstable economic environment,” says Kevin Kostka, commercial division manager for Alan Smith Pools, of expanding into this market, which now brings in $6 million in annual revenue for the company.
Commercial clients can also provide financial stability because many commercial projects require year-round upkeep. “Our reason for intentionally marketing commercial business was to potentially grow our overall business, but also to even out our workload throughout the year,” Kostka says. “We noticed that commercial work would flatten our monthly sales by filling up the months that were historically light with our residential projects.”
If you’re looking to add more commercial work, Daniel Brodersen advises against going after any property that uses a third-party lifeguard provider. Brodersen, commercial service manager of Millennium Pool Service in Maryland, says those companies will usually also service the pools.
“In an effort to strengthen our apartment business, we joined a couple of apartment associations,” Kostka says. But doing so didn’t help grow the commercial division of the company as they expected: “The challenge there was that the associations covered too large an area, and so many of the contacts [only] owned one or two apartment buildings, and the nature of pool renovation is that they only need renovation every 10 to 25 years,” which he says didn’t end up being worthwhile.
For pool professionals to grow a commercial client base, relationships and subsequent referrals appear to be critical. Brodersen says Millennium Pool Service has mostly drawn business from word-of-mouth among its privately run commercial clients such as hotels, swim clubs and country clubs, but “government contracts and professional relationships have really helped us out the most,” he says. “Impressing one property manager can make a huge difference when they are asked for a recommendation by an associate who manages a hotel network comprised of 15 local hotels, all with a swimming pool.”
Kostka says cornering your referral base is crucial. His plan to market to property managers began with joining their association, the Community Associations Institute. He visited all the property management companies in the area that were also members of CAI and even brought cookies for the office. “I started making relationships with the actual managers during the trade shows and at the monthly CAI luncheons,” Kostka says. “Since then, board meetings, lunches and CAI events have been used to grow those relationships.”
Kostka adds that assisting during pool projects also helps keep those relationships with community association managers strong, since board members hold managers accountable for those projects.
Taylor White, president of Langley & Taylor, LLC, a subsidiary of American Pool Enterprises in Nashville, started in the commercial pool service business in 1995. After expanding his understanding of that industry segment through education and training, he too joined a number of associations to help build a customer base, including the Apartment Association, the local CAI chapter, the World Water Park Association and the Hospitality Association.
“I attended their monthly meetings and got involved,” White says. “My name started to become recognized and people started using my company to service their pools.”
For companies beginning to build a commercial clientele, Brodersen suggests starting small. “Start with local hotels or swim schools,” he says. “Don’t be scared off when they say no. A lot of these places are pretty locked in with their current service companies.” If this is the case, Brodersen recommends building relationships with management: When contracts end, they may consider your company.
Brodersen says being available outside of normal business hours is also important: “You need to have a plan for quick service response. It’s easy to lose a customer if you aren’t fast or responsive enough. To most commercial clients, everything is time sensitive.”
White says he added strong technicians to improve response times. He hires people who either have some experience or seem trainable due to their backgrounds in plumbing, electrical, masonry or chemistry. “Twenty-four years later,” he says, “we continue to deliver the best possible service to our clients.”
Kostka offers one final piece of advice to companies that want to grow their commercial client base. “Make sure you have the structure to be able to handle commercial projects,” he says. “As I tell my operations division and project managers, our No. 1 job is to make the property manager’s job easier and to make them look like heroes to their board members.”