Time Well Spent

Scott Webb Headshot

We grew up with crayons. We used a pencil to connect dots and make a picture. The first time we saw a computer, someone was using it to play Ping-Pong without a paddle. We just shrugged, went down in the basement and played the game for real.

But as we got older, and slower, the computer got faster, and smarter. And now we find ourselves unfamiliar with the major driver of business productivity.

Those words describe the computer experience for many in the pool-building industry. At the management and construction supervisory level, most are over 40 years of age and too old to have been raised to enthusiastically embrace each new software development.

In recent years, however, computers have become an impressive tool for pool design. Software companies now make specific packages for the pool industry that can dramatically enhance the sales and design process. Drawings executed using computers are extremely precise and easy to change. And computer renderings of a backyard pool project give customers a much clearer picture of what the final product will look like, which creates excitement and aids decision-making.

Still, by many estimates, two-thirds of the pool builders in America work through the sales and pre-build process by hand, with colored pencils, paper and a calculator. They've been doing it that way for decades. And business is good. Why should they change?

AQUA spoke with six seasoned, successful pool builders, ranging in tenure from 10 to 46 years, about their motivations to learn computer-aided design and their subsequent experiences. Each made the move to CAD after years of working with pencil and paper. The reasons behind their decisions to invest their time and money into CAD, and the ways they've blended it into their businesses, may surprise you.

Credit My Competitor

Oddly enough, it was a sales competitor that provided the motivation for Orlando, Fla.'s Gene Latham, vice president of Blue Haven Pools of Central Florida, to spend nearly five months, off and on, learning PoolDraw. The layout program, from Constructive Software Solutions, produces scale drawings for proposed construction.

"It does take a while to learn if you're an old pool builder like myself," admits Latham, 65. He'd been designing pools with paper and colored pencils for more than 40 years when he got locked up in a sales battle with a familiar rival β€” a contest he fully expected to win.

"I'd done five drawings for this project," he says. "I knew who my competition was, and I was positive I was going to get the work."

Instead, he lost it.

Somewhat nettled, he checked on the building permit and discovered his competitor was building the pool. He felt he had sufficient rapport with the customer to ask why.

Her response irked him. "I drove out to [my customer's] house, and looked at my competitor's computer drawing, and like her, I said, 'Wow.' Here's a guy, where I know that I'm a better salesman than him, and I know that I'm a better designer than him, but he did a very professional computer presentation and got the sale."

Youthful Inspiration

On the other hand, Phil McEwan of Phil McEwan Pools and Spas in Dallas, had a computer, but all he ever used it for was typing up proposals. He'd been designing pools by hand for more than 20 years, and since he'd been selling them quite proficiently, saw little reason to change.

Had it not been for a young employee in need of design aid, he might not have.

"I had a young guy working for me in the field," he says, "and he had aspirations to be a salesman. So he started playing around with drawings. It turned out he had some pretty good ideas for pool design, but his problem was he couldn't draw, and he couldn't spell and he couldn't print. His drawings looked like crap. You couldn't take them to a homeowner."

For the sake of his employee and business, McEwan decided to take the plunge β€” he went out and bought a new computer and a pool CAD package.

"Of course, he still needed to be taught how to use it," McEwan points out. "So for about a month I played around with it." Some time during that month, McEwan discovered that the program might be as much help to him as his employee.

That was a couple of years ago, he says, "and to be honest, I haven't touched a pencil since."

The reason being, among other things, accuracy. "You have to understand, I wasn't a bad draftsman to begin with. I was pretty picky and pretty accurate doing it in pencil, but with this thing I can zoom in 1,000 percent and get it right down to the gnat's ass."

Limit The Choices

Gnat's asses notwithstanding, everyone uses CAD a little bit differently, based on two factors β€” the specific program and the company's business model. It's up to the builder to blend CAD's capabilities into a company's workflow and use it to achieve his or her particular goals.

Kayne Marzetti, for instance, has never liked to give customers too many choices. The director of sales and marketing for Southern Pool Designs in Longwood, Fla., thinks it makes the process harder and slower for everyone, both the customer and the builder.

So he has six darn-good-looking pools β€” just six β€” along with a variety of poolside features loaded up on his salesmen's laptop computers. At a single click, the pools and accessories appear on-screen in full-color, 3-D animation. With price sheets for each pool and feature on hand, the complete backyard concept is built before the customer's eyes in a single visit.

"We sit down and say, 'Which of these pools do you want?' And we go through each of the six virtual reality presentations. And the wife might say, 'Yeah, I like that one, how much is that?'

"Well, perhaps its $34,000. Add a spa [which is instantly added to the on-screen presentation] and it's this much, and so forth."

By making changes instantaneously, Marzetti says, "it quickens the whole process. You don't have to design it up over and over. They can see what they're getting on the spot, and swim in their pool before they buy it."

Six pools. Does that limitation bother the customer?

"No," he says, "because they look so nice. I mean, if I sat down with a pool salesman, even after being in the business for as long as I have, and he showed me these six pools, I would pick one."

The six pools are indeed breathtaking. Marzetti's company uses Liquid Concepts, a program from Structure Studios, Las Vegas. This program creates, on-screen, a virtual reality environment similar to the customer's backyard. It allows the customer the visual equivalent of a lifelike, post-construction walk-through.

"The customers get to see the proposed construction from all angles," he says. "You're walking around the pool, you're looking at it, you're swimming in it, and it looks good. Why go any further? Very few people are going to say, 'What can you draw me from scratch?' "Customers are just flabbergasted by these [virtual reality] presentations. It's what they want to see."

Wow The Customer

That's the sales approach in a nutshell for Paul Ryan, owner of Texas Pools, The Woodlands, Texas β€” give customers a sizzling visual presentation. His Texas Pools outfit is a little bit different than some pool companies in that it tries hard to draw the homeowner into its showroom for sales presentations, instead of meeting at the customer's residence.

"I try to insist on them coming here," he says. "That's what the showroom is for." Ryan relies on a dazzling virtual pool environment to provide a good portion of his showroom wow factor.

"We have it on DVD, running in a continuous loop on a big showroom monitor," he adds. "When people come in we turn the monitor on, and it has the sound of the water and it's doing its little virtual tour of the house and around various pools, and it's quite a deal.

"If nothing else, people are very impressed that we have gone to that expense for that kind of technology. It gives us an 'upmanship' right away. They know we're not just a bunch of guys working out of the back of a truck."

The process of change is not easy, by any means, and it takes time.

Beyond the showroom, Texas Pools is still integrating software into the business, and the company still does its drawings by hand.

"It's taking us some time to make that adjustment," Ryan says. "We are going to set up presentations on our laptops, so if we have to go to the home, we can take our virtual tours with us, but we're not as geared up for that as a lot of companies are."

Will It Fit?

Fifteen hundred miles north, up in the Twin Cities, Rob Anderson is more concerned with saving time, eliminating layout mistakes and controlling the sales process. His CAD program has helped his St. Paul-area company, All Poolside Services, with all three.

With just a few hours of training, he says, his employees can do some basic pool layout with drafting software from Design Imaging Group, part of a package that includes imaging and cost-estimating programs.

"Layout, that's mostly what we do," Anderson says. "We want to find out, especially in tight situations with set-backs and easements and so forth, what we can fit into a given area.

"And we've squeezed pools in given spaces by inches, but an inch is an inch. And you'll never do that confidently with a tape measure and string lines. It's just so much harder and takes so much time to do out on the site."

While Anderson likes to save time, a little back and forth with the homeowner is good for sales β€” his Minnesota customers frequently need a little time to digest the purchase price. Therefore, he avoids the approach used by som e c ompanies where the customer and salesperson sit down together and build the pool using CAD on a laptop.

"I always like reasons to get back to people because it's a big-ticket item," he says, "and they're not going to buy on our first visit. So if you can meet with them and then leave and say, 'I'm going to work on the best price I can give you and see what will fit in,' that gives you a good opportunity to get back to them."

It also gives Anderson a chance to get his special assistant working on the drawing. See, Anderson's still not completely comfortable with CAD. "When I've got a pool sale I take it home to my fiancee β€” she's really good with CAD. She and I sit down and design it, and then I just bring the drawing into work and say, 'See what I did?'"

Go Digital

For Ken Lewis of KL Enterprises, the issues are a little bit different. His customers can be capricious. And driving back and forth to their homes can be a quagmire. The owner of this Modesto, Calif., company uses CAD to help him stay ahead of their whims and off the roads as much as possible.

What takes time, according to Lewis, is redoing drawings and then somehow transporting them to the customer or the construction crew. Go digital, he says, and you've got a big, strong leg up.

He describes a common problem for pool salesmen: "Pool owners feel that they are experts β€” and they will tell their neighbors who are buying a pool, 'Oh, you should put this here, you should change this there.'"

Before he learned CAD, Lewis's problem as a pool salesman was that when he went back to a customer with a drawing that reflected the ideas of their last meeting, they had since had discussions with another pool owner β€” and developed new ideas about what they wanted.

"They'd say something like, 'Oh, can you move the spa to the other side. I want to see how that looks.'

"So I'd go back to my office, and four hours later I'd have the new drawing I'd made from scratch. Because when you do a drawing by hand, you do it in ink. There's no erasing."

Lewis says that using CAD software has eliminated that stress, as once a drawing is done, it can be altered almost instantly. But for him, it's the fact that his drawings can be sent over the phone lines that really streamlines his operation.

"I'm in California," he says. "We have a lot of people commuting on a daily basis. Most people here are better able to communicate by computer than they are in person. In other words, they can send and receive personal e-mail during working hours. So instead of trying to meet them back at their homes at a certain time, I can send them drawings by e-mail β€” during the day, late at night or whenever. And they can open them when they want and send back their response. Or I can fax the drawing from my computer. That way, when we're speaking again, usually by phone, we're both looking at the same picture."

Digital communication is easier all down the pool-building line, he adds. Lewis can execute and e-mail drawing changes to the construction crew just as quickly β€” and here computer accuracy helps, too.

"When you're dealing with subcontractors," Lewis points out, "accuracy is critical. For example, you hire your concrete guy to come in and do a 500square-foot free-form deck around the pool. And he comes back and says, 'Well, I poured 640 square feet of concrete.' How do I prove otherwise?"

Lewis says he can't very well go out to the pool with a tape measure, particularly with a freeform pool wall. But with his CAD software, it's a matter of point and click.

"So when I send a plan to a subcontractor, and it says to pour 472 square feet of concrete, that's what they're going to pour. And if they send me a bill for 572 square feet, they're going to eat that extra hundred square feet, because the computer doesn't have an emotional attachment to the drawing or anyone."

Getting Over The Hump

It's interesting to note that not one of the builders thought learning poolCAD was particularly easy. Certainly, some programs are easier and some much harder to operate. In any case, it takes a strong commitment, not just of time and money, but of the will β€” especially for middle-aged builders.

"You take a 20 year old," McEwan says. "They've grown up with computers, and it's easy for them to pick it up."

Among well-established builders with long track records of success β€” such as the six interviewed for this story β€” old habits die hard.

"A lot of people are just afraid to touch the computer," says Marzetti. "They've been drawing for so many years with pencil and graph paper. I've got a friend that is just phenomenal with pencil and graph paper, and I tried to teach him to use [a CAD program] and he finally gave up. I think it comes down to patience."

For many builders, business is good enough that the motivation to learn is simply not present. Although for Latham, that is not a valid reason to postpone computerizing design. In fact, he has made learning CAD mandatory for all new salesmen.

"They have to learn PoolDraw," he says. "I don't care how good a salesman they are. Because it makes such a difference in presentations to the customer. Our customers are entitled to see a nice computerized drawing β€” simply because they're available." 

What's Out There?

While there's a wealth of drawing and design software on the market β€” architects and engineers have been drawing with computers for years β€” there are relatively few programs designed specifically for pool building. But that's changing.

Design Imaging Group (design imaginggroup.com) and Constructive Software Solutions, (poolspaworld.com) sell DesignWare and PoolDraw, respectively. These products are tailored to the business of pool building as a whole. They offer computer-generated images of the pool concept, which can be easily altered to follow a customer's whim.

Structure Studios' (structure studios.com) product aims more directly at the sales process, with stunning visuals that show what a customer would see in three dimensions. These renderings can also be quickly changed to reflect add-ons such as rockwork and spas.

ShastaCAD (shastacad.com) is a program that works on top of AutoCAD, the gold standard in the CAD world. In fact, it's licensed through AutoCad. Besides being tailored to pool building, it's also a bit easier to use than AutoCAD.

CADdetails.com is an Internet-based CAD library that has over 15,000 detailed drawings provided by manufacturers for everything from a retaining wall to a tennis court. Developed primarily for the landscape architecture industry, it's a great resource for pool builders, too. The service is free to use.

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