Back In Business

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Sixty-three-year -old Allen Cooper gets up at 5:30 every morning to run his business, Pintado Pools in Santa Ynez, Calif. His days are long and busy. He's been known to answer the phone himself.

Cooper says he plans on doing this far past the normal retirement age β€” at least another 10 years. Social Security's future is in doubt; health-care costs are foreboding; projections for the cost of living comfortably in old age are ominous.

All true, except those aren't factors here. Necessity isn't what pushes Cooper and his wife, Virginia, out of bed every morning. It's enthusiasm.

Pintado Pools isn't a huge, nationally known operation. The company's employees consist of Cooper and his wife; everything is subcontracted. Pintado doesn't even have a Web site. But Allen Cooper has an advantage most pool builders don't, one that many envy: "They have to do this for a living, and I don't."

Cooper has the unusual twin perks of financial security and the perspective gained from his second time around in the business. He operated El Camino Pools and Solar Systems from 1971 until 1983, when a brutal U.S. economy β€” lowlighted by 20 percent interest rates β€” forced him to close up shop.

He went to work for Verizon for the next couple of decades. By 2003 he was a mid-range executive, and was offered a retirement package that promised financial security β€” along with the freedom to have some control over his future.  "I knew I had to get back into the pool business," Cooper says. "Even when I was out of the business, I read trade magazines, kept some contacts. I knew that with this chance, I had to do something I loved."

So on Nov. 10, 2003, Cooper retired from Verizon and enjoyed the holidays with Virginia. The following January, he went to the AQUA Show to get reacquainted with the business.

"We wanted to stay for two days but ended up staying for five," he says. "We took every seminar we could get into. The AQUA Show is so refreshing in that it's different every year."

The Coopers were encouraged by people they talked to at the AQUA Show, but they were under no illusions. They remembered the financial hassles and the drains on their time, and were braced for the increasingly sophisticated competition, dizzying technological advances, new laws and more.

"I introduced myself to (Genesis 3 co-founder) David Tisherman at the show," Cooper recalls. "I told him, 'I'm coming back to the business.'

"He said, 'What the hell for?'"

FUN IS GOOD FOR YOU

Fun is as good a reason as any β€” and when every decision isn't tied to your financial survival, any endeavor is going to be more enjoyable.

"I can't stress enough the fun I'm having," Cooper says. "I've lost 17 pounds, my cholesterol has been cut in half, and my blood pressure is down 20 points. I don't sit well, and if I'm going to be doing something, it has to be something I want to do."

And now, he gets to do it on his terms: higher-end projects with clients he can connect with. "I serve the customers I want to serve, or I don't do the job," he says. So his relationship with the client becomes even more important, and has the potential to be something special if it's the right one.

Unlike most builders, Cooper doesn't have to worry about making do with an uneasy relationship or an unreasonable customer as the price of doing business. And as an industry veteran, he knows pretty quickly whether he can look forward to a good rapport with a client.

"The first thing is, in the initial meeting our personalities must match," he says. "We must click in some way.

"I've been in sales since I was 19, so I can read people pretty quickly. I can tell where I'm headed, whether it's a bad situation or whether I'm the only one they talk to. But I have an obligation to be fair with them whether I'm the only bidder or not."

His second criterion is the client's budget. How much are they willing to spend. If the amount isn't realistic in terms of achieving what they want, Cooper tries to guide them somewhere else.

"I remember visiting with a retired sheriff," he says. "They told us they had $50,000 to spend, but I told them for what they wanted it wasn't within the realm of possibility for our company; that it'd be more like $75,000. (Pintado's usual price range is $75,000 to $165,000, though it has had bids out for $200,000 pools.)

"So I sent them to a fiberglass pool company, San Juan Pools out of Florida, which had a franchise here. They were very happy with what they got. It's all part of the mentality of trying to build that relationship, that we're all in this together."

Third, Cooper looks for a longterm partnership with a client. "I want to be able to work well with that person for the next two to four months," he says. "I tell people it's your pool, but my project. I let everyone know that I don't need to build pools, but I want to."

He's wanted to for most of his life. Allen Cooper began building pools in 1968, when a home swimming pool or spa was considered a luxury item. Even as late as '83 β€” when his first pool business closed β€” many builders hadn't advanced much beyond the concept of a rectangular cement hole.

Without Cooper's innovation, his first business may have closed sooner. "What kept us in the business was the solar systems we put in because of the tax credits that went with them," he says. "We left the business almost exclusively because of high interest rates. When interest rates went out of sight, home prices either stabilized or went down, so you couldn't use a home to refinance."

Of course now, buying the backyard oasis is easier and more commonplace, while the business has grown more complicated. The muchmore-intense competition and sophisticated technology could have been intimidating for someone who'd been away for 20 years and was entering his golden years, but Cooper was undeterred.

After all, he had much going for him: His enthusiasm and love of people hadn't waned; he had a base of knowledge that would transcend changes in the industry; and his wife, a professional artist with a design background, would be more involved in the business this time.

Virginia Cooper, Allen's wife of 42 years, has taken design classes at the University of Santa Barbara and attended the Genesis 3 design schools. Her family has a construction background, and she has experience as a bookkeeper.

The first time around, she had small kids to care for. But now that they're grown, she's more involved because she has time to be. "I keep the books; I do the rendering of designs; I'm a part of the practical and creative process."

She says the main differences in the last 20 years are that "the economy has improved, and 9/11 caused people to travel less and use money to remodel homes and get their entertainment closer to home."

Her husband was pleasantly surprised by some of the changes when he re-entered the industry.

"The AQUA Show in January '04 was my first inkling as to what I needed to learn," he says. "I'd say the biggest differences in the last 20 years have been advancements in extravagant electronics and displays of water. It's amazing the amount of money people are willing to spend on these features."

There were things to learn, but Cooper was quick to find people willing to get him up to speed. "Steve Gutai, the product manager for pumps, filters, valves and water features at Jandy, was a big help," he says. "My very first pool when I got back in business last year was a vanishing edge, so I called Skip Phillips [principle of Questar Pools in Escondido, Calif., and co-founder of Genesis 3]. He not only called right back, he came up from San Diego and within an hour had me set on the right course. Ron Soto of Jandy was a tremendous help in educating me about the Jandy controls."

Such was the best surprise in the Coopers' return: "People are nicer in the industry than they were 20-30 years ago," he says. "They're more knowledgeable and more professional. It's a better climate overall.

"Really, I'm surprised I didn't miss more, with all the time I was gone. I realized what I didn't know. I knew what I knew and what I didn't know."

He must have known enough. Cooper says the company made money in his first year back, when he built eight pools β€” all referrals. People obviously don't forget good work: "We're starting a pool now for the grandson of someone for whom we built a pool 30 years ago," he says.

The Coopers' goal is to build 20 pools by the end of this year, and he says they're on target. And they haven't shied away from the more challenging, high-tech projects: Almost every one of their pools includes a spa, and about 25 percent have water features and electronic controls.

So being a smaller company doesn't mean it's small on quality and imagination. "Pintado means painted and colorful," he says. "That's why I picked the name, because I intend to do exotic pools."

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