Fiberglass Pool Makers Adding Features To Better Compete With Vinyl

photo of fiberglass pool
(photo courtesy LoneStar Fiberglass Pools)

Asked to assess the difficulties facing fiberglass pool manufacturers and dealers, Curt Prystupa, president and founder of Sun Fiberglass Products, relates a story that's familiar to anyone who deals with both backyards and bankers.

A couple of Snowbirds from Michigan wanted a small pool for their seasonal Florida home, which they owned outright. The woman had an arthritic condition and needed the pool for therapy, so Sun worked up a proposal for a small pool with an enclosure, modestly priced at $25,000. The couple's credit was stellar, and the requested loan was at 25 percent loan to value.

"It should have been a slam dunk," Prystupa says. "But they wouldn't lend to them because it wasn't their primary residence. I was like, 'If I can't get that customer...'"

If a tight-fisted banking industry were the only challenge backyard businesses like Sun Fiberglass face, things wouldn't be so bad, but high unemployment, low housing values and general economic anxiety have all conspired to hamper sales. What's worse, costs have increased.

But Sun and other fiberglass pool manufacturers aren't sitting back and waiting for economic conditions to improve; they're facing the challenges head-on by increasing distribution efficiency and adding features they feel will help them win a bigger piece of the smaller pie from competing pool types, including vinyl but especially gunite.

Increasingly Custom

Fiberglass enjoys some built-in advantages over other pool types, including quick installation, a smooth surface that's easy on the feet and, according to manufacturers, reduced chemical and maintenance costs. The primary disadvantage is that, unlike pools built on site in customers' backyards, shoppers are limited to the shapes and sizes available. It's an Achilles heel gunite builders are adept at exploiting. What you see is what you get, they'll say. If you want custom, you've got to go with us.

To combat that perception, some fiberglass manufacturers have retooled a bit to offer their pools with vanishing edges. Sun's done a handful of them, but Prystupa says he prefers to customize his pools with spill spas, tile, lights and the like. A manufacturer in Texas, though, is jumping into the negative-edge business with both feet.

"We're looking at thinking outside the box and doing things differently," says Chris Owens owner of LoneStar Fiberglass Components and its retail wing, LoneStar Fiberglass Pools. "We're especially focused on helping our dealers win in competition vs. gunite pools, so we're now offering infinity edges.

"What's happened is that gunite pools have always had an advantage on us, but now we can cut away the edge and do an infinity on any of the free-form or Roman pools we have — over 25 models.

"In doing so, I can do a 40-foot infinity-edge pool, installed with a 25-foot edge on it, and a catch basin, in less than a month."

Vanishing edges are also appearing in models made by Viking Pools. Tom Straub, president of the Jane Lew, W.Va., manufacturer, says Viking has offered vanishing edges and other value-added features for many years, and with increasing success.

"Vanishing edges are definitely catching on with consumers," he says. "We have engineered a procedure to put a vanishing edge on any of our pools. The percentage of Viking Pools being sold with a vanishing edge has increased every year since we introduced the service."

The company has also worked at lowering the cost of the product and the procedure to make it affordable to a bigger segment of the pool-buying public.

"All of this has allowed Viking the opportunity to differentiate itself from many gunite, vinyl and even other fiberglass competitors," Straub says. "As the pool industry changed over the past several years with the limited availability of financing, the demographic for swimming pool purchasers has changed dramatically."

In short, he says today's pool buyers skew more than before toward the upper income brackets, and they expect (and are willing to pay for) more than a simple shell filled with water. Straub says Viking was well positioned to take advantage of these changes in the marketplace.

"We were already offering a large array of products and services that met the needs of the demographic," he says. "Viking continues to push ahead with new innovations every year."

Another of Viking's innovations is a finish it calls the Diamond Series, which Straub says is designed to create the appearance of depth in the surface of the fiberglass. This not only gives shoppers more options, it also confronts another one of the old knocks against fiberglass pools: the limited choice of colors.

Color Palette

There was a time when blue and white represented the entire scope of options, but that time has passed. Viking has the Diamond Series, and Sun Fiberglass has a similarly named option for its pools.

"The three-dimensional depth reflects the sun off the pool, making the water a more-brilliant color than flat finishes like aggregates," Straub says. "When you look closely at the Diamond Series you can actually see into the finish."

Sun's Diamond Colors series differs significantly — it's engineered to match the look that Diamond Brite brings to concrete pools.

"We wanted a shell that would mimic that look you find in gunite pools," Prystupa says. "We've seen that as a very important trend. The Cool Blue Diamond Brite color is the most popular aggregate surface on the planet, and we wanted to have a look like that. It's taken us a few years to get there, but this will be the first composite pool that will mimic a plaster pool."

So far, sales of the new finish have been relatively soft, Prystupa says, mostly because of the added cost associated with the material.

"Price is still king," he explains, "and this is a premium material. It's an upgrade, and we're seeing a lot of people forgoing the options and keeping it basic lately." Interest is growing, though, and the new material has caught the attention of some previously-hard-to-reach gunite builders.

"It has opened up some new doors for my Florida rep," he says. "As a matter of fact, she's calling on some dealers this week that wouldn't have even talked to us if we didn't have this."

The Cost Of Doing Business

All the changes to the product can only go so far in increasing the pools' market share. These added features increase the cost to the consumer at a time when rising resin and fuel prices are putting the pinch on fiberglass pool manufacturers.

"The price of raw materials has risen substantially this year due to a number of factors," says Straub. "Viking has worked diligently with our suppliers to find ways to work together to minimize the impact of the increases."

These increases have prompted Prystupa to move Sun Fiberglass to a just-in-time production schedule, where the company will fabricate a pool only after it's been sold, then stage it and ready it for shipping. That way the company isn't stockpiling unsold pools hoping to sell them in the spring and early summer months.

It's one way of cutting costs, but doesn't do much to address the rising cost of transportation, which has become a major bugaboo for the industry. Further industry changes are afoot as it tries to tackle that problem, according to Prystupa.

"In the future I see dealers dealing with more-regional companies to cut down on the transportation cost in order to keep it more competitive," he says. "So I think dealers are going to look for suppliers that are a lot closer in proximity.

"You can't be competitive shipping a pool 1,000 miles with the cost of diesel fuel averaging $0.75 a mile, the cost of permitting and the pilot cars and all the other things that go into doing a fiberglass pool. You just won't be able to competitive with freight numbers going the way they are."

That would do nicely for Viking, which has five manufacturing facilities in the United States and would be well positioned for a trend toward localization. Straub thinks good old-fashioned efficiency and tight planning are more important factors, though.

"It's just a function of how a manufacturer manages the business," he says. "Some offset freight with distribution yards, others inventory pool at dealers locations, and others will do a combination of distribution yards, dealers yards and their own manufacturing yards."

Also, the more pools you stack on the back of a truck, the lower the cost per pool.

"There are a number of different scenarios to accomplish freight reduction strategies and compete with the 'local' manufacturer," Straub says.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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