Texas pool business pushes past hiring fears to build booming company
By Michelle L. Cramer
Photography by Thao Nguyen
Patriot Pool & Spa in Austin, Texas, services nearly 800 pools a week and has more than 35 employees — but owner Hal Denbar still remembers how hard it was to hire the first one.
“Everything about that, mentally and emotionally, was much harder than anything else I’ve encountered [with this business],” he says. “I struggled with the idea that Patriot was me and I was Patriot. Attaching somebody else’s identity to that, I didn’t handle it well.”
In 2005, Denbar was a senior and history major at Texas A&M, wondering what he’d do after graduation. His trajectory changed when he read an article about the construction boom in the Austin area. “A throwaway line in the article said there happened to be more swimming pools built in central Texas that year than in the whole state of California,” he says. “I saw that and had a light bulb moment. It sounded fun. And obviously, there’s going to be a market for servicing those pools once they’re in the ground.”
A determined Denbar transferred to Austin Community College to finish electives for his degree, put on a business suit and started showing up at local pool service companies looking for a job. He was forthright about his intentions: To be the best employee they’d ever had for six to 12 months, then leave to start his own service company. Most responded by pointing him to the door, “but there was one guy who said, ‘That sounds amazing,’ ” Denbar says. “ ‘It’s hard to find help. Come on — let’s get started.’ And I started the next week.” From December 2005 to June 2006, Denbar learned the basics of cleaning pools. That June he graduated and left with one service account to his name, officially registering Patriot Pool & Spa.
By the end of Patriot’s first year, Denbar had a handful of accounts and revenues of about $3,000. He spent the next three years building up to about 30 accounts, putting everything he made back into the company while his wife, Laura, supported their family on her teacher salary.
“It still wasn’t a fully sustainable business in my mind,” Denbar says. “It was year four or five that I finally got up over the 40-pool hump, which to me was the milestone I needed to be a legitimate one-man company.”
That’s when things became more difficult: Denbar knew he needed to hire someone to help and did so in 2011. It took his wife confronting him, however, to make a change.
He had to figure out where he needed to delegate, and how to make strides toward the growth he envisioned for the company. Not doing that, Laura told him, was making him unhappy. “I would like to be able to tell you that we found balance right away — that, as soon as Hal had to add the seventh full day to his workweek, we both looked up and said, ‘It’s time to hire someone,’ ” she says. “But that was not the case. We existed in a state of overwhelm for many months before the decision was made to hire our first employee. I urged him to consider the idea that in order to achieve his dream of owning a large company with many customers and employees, he would have to allow others to represent and ‘be’ Patriot from that point forward. Every day.”
“It took her pointing that out to flip the switch and trust that, inherently, you can’t grow without [hiring someone],” Denbar says. “And also realizing the world works because people do good work, and that they shouldn’t be excluded from your own company.”
Denbar hired a second employee in 2012; in 2014, he rebranded and invested all his savings into a new logo, website and brand upgrade. “I went to the design company and said, ‘We’re a three-person company, but I want to look like we’re the biggest, most legitimate company in town,’ ” Denbar says. “And I feel like they achieved that.” He adds that 2014 is the year “where it felt like it went from zero to 100,” because it’s also when someone from a local pool retail store came in looking for a job.
Denbar hired him, then later that week scooped up a Craigslist applicant with 15 years industry experience; their personalities clicked instantly. Denbar only planned on hiring one person, but “They were both all-stars,” Denbar says. “The new brand combined with their talent and the chemistry at the time as a company started taking things to the next level.” Patriot added six technicians that year.
“It was a ton of work,” says Nathan White, former Craigslist applicant and now repair manager for Patriot, of the hiring frenzy that occurred over the next couple of years. “Constant changes. That being said, it was really fun. We had an idea of the type of work and culture we wanted, and worked every day to do it. Early on it felt like a small tribe, and it was kind of easy to spread the mindset as we grew, catching any issues before they became problems. Most of the people we brought in the first few years were a great fit.”
Then Denbar hit his mental limit: He’d stopped working in the field and was managing the office full time as the company’s only support staff. “I started losing my sanity a little that year because I’d be on the phone, and six other calls would beep in during that one phone call,” he says. “It was just constant, nonstop and I didn’t know how to handle it.”
By the end of 2014, Denbar brought a technician from the field to help in the office, but he was still overwhelmed. The implications brought on a new struggle: justifying nonrevenue producing support staff.
At the time, Denbar said he wouldn’t hire a new technician until he was working seven days a week. But he still couldn’t bring himself to hire office staff. It wasn’t until he joined a CEO networking group that Denbar realized the cycle he was in.
“I had all these other business owners looking at me and saying, ‘You’re insane, man. You need to hire somebody,’ ” Denbar says. “It took that peer pressure to bring on the first nonrevenue-producing employee. Those are still the hardest ones to justify.”
There’s huge value in finding peer groups that can give the right perspective, Denbar says. In the early days, he found comradery on the technical side with other pool pros through organizations like The Independent Pool and Spa Service Association and the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance (formerly APSP).
Since the company’s 2014 business boom, Patriot Pool & Spa averages five to 10 new employees each year. A couple of years ago, Denbar bought a small house to operate the company out of but outgrew it faster than anticipated. Patriot moved into a newly renovated commercial building in February, though staff mostly works remotely.
“Everybody takes their work vehicle home, and we route them around where they live,” he says. “It’s a model of efficiency not just in expense and operations, but also from a morale standpoint for our people. It seems pointless to have them driving into the office every day. We are constantly in contact through technology. I trust they’re doing their job and representing us well.”
“When you service and repair pools, the truck is your office and it’s obviously mobile,” White says. “It’s a no brainer to let the team take them home. That increases quality of life by reducing most commutes, and we cover 100% of gas so they save money as well.”
White adds that ‘work from home Thursdays’ — a concept he helped make possible for Patriot by getting all the company’s software available for telecommuting — provides a nice refresher for office staff to have freedom of location. “Plus it’s just cool to hang back at the house and open up the laptop sometimes instead of getting dressed, driving in and driving home at the end of the day,” White says. “Depending on how far we live that can be one to two hours of our daily lives back.”
Five years from now, Denbar expects Patriot to have 50 to 75 employees as it continues to expand into the greater Austin area. Additionally, Denbar wants to start providing pest care, with intentions to beta test the launch of Patriot Pest Service by the end of this year.
“It has been one of my greatest joys watching Patriot grow and succeed,” Laura Denbar says. “I know what it has taken to make it happen — the commitment, the risk, the vision, the sacrifice. To see it thriving and growing validates the ‘crazy’ dream of a 22-year-old with zero technical know-how but lots of passion to build something meaningful. That same passion still exists at Patriot, and now it is shared by many. It is a common thread throughout the work that they do daily. And I am so proud and grateful to continue to witness the journey.” And soon Hal Denbar hopes to be servicing more than 1,000 pools a week — “Mind-blowing for sure,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate [to] live in a growing market. Beyond that, we found the right people and cultivated an atmosphere that’s fun and continues to attract the right people.”