Q&A With Ron Robertson

photo of Ron RobertsonRon RobertsonOwnerRobertson PoolsCoppell, Texas

A family-owned business in North Texas since 1985, Robertson Pools has expanded to four locations, and has earned more than 50 awards for design and construction from the APSP, including Best in Show in 2004.

It appears the economy is very gradually improving. Did you experience any growth from 2009 to 2010?

We showed a 5 to 6 percent uptick from 2009 to 2010, and now we're seeing a more substantial growth pattern for 2011. Our calls for new pools, our leads, are up close to 30 percent this year over last year already through February. This is positive movement, and the renovation side of the business is doing very well. We did 220 remodel jobs in 2010. We're one of the larger renovators in North Texas.

Have other pool builders in your market been doing many more renovations, too?

They started turning to it when things really started turning down, but in our market, there's so many service companies and so many pool companies that it was hard for them to get a foothold. I'm in a unique situation because I have my own crews. I have my own stone masons and my own plaster department, so I'm more competitive on renovation work.

How has your business evolved to stay competitive during the recession?

It's been rough. We've had to lay off a lot of people. We've gone down to skeleton crews. We've had to do a lot of things to adjust. We've started focusing on different areas of the market, and we actually have grown. In February we opened another location because we needed to be in this other area where there was a much stronger market, and this new location in Frisco is already starting to pay dividends.

Are your clients able to find financing?

We have banks that are financing. They're not as strong as they used to be, and they're not as lenient as they used to be, but there is still available money. The banks just want to see more equity in the home and a little better credit rating. They're just looking for more security.

So your clients are able to get home-equity loans?

Some, not all, but some. We've lost 40 percent of our market to no financing, and those people don't even call anymore because they know they don't have equity.

What percentage of your clients are getting financing vs. paying with cash?

It's about 50/50. And we are not seeing any unsecured financing.

Has consumer confidence affected your business?

Sure, we're just like any other luxury item, whether it's a boat or a car or an RV. When people don't have confidence in the economy, they're not buying. Yet, there are still people that have money and are spending their money. They're not afraid. People that have to finance are not as active, but people that have cash are spending it. The recession hasn't slowed them down a bit.

Have competitors willing to work at low margins affected your business?

Competition has driven prices into the dirt. Everybody is doing stuff for nothing to get the deals and get deals off the street and take them away from their competitors and hopefully put their competitor out of business. I'm guilty and all my competitors are guilty. If they tell you their not guilty, they're lying to you. We're all guilty of it to some point. We have driven prices into the dirt. We're building pools for stupid profit margins and giving stupid warranties and doing stuff we shouldn't do because of the way things have gone. Right now, it's a buyer's market. Especially in 2009 and 2010, the homeowner had the advantage. And the more competitive the market area, the worse it was.

How has the Internet influenced your business?

We use it a lot, and we try to stay at the top of the rankings for every major search engine. We're constantly updating and upgrading so we can stay on top. We do pay-per-click advertising and other things to stay on the front end of Internet advertising. There is a bad side to the Internet, though. If a homeowner doesn't like something you did or they feel something is wrong, the next thing you know, there's a Rip Off Report on you, and you can't do anything about it. To tell your side of the story, you have to pay to join the Rip Off Report website. So if we don't pay to join, everybody sees the complaint, but doesn't understand the other side because we can't defend ourselves.

Tell me more about how you use your site as a marketing tool.

When we have retail specials, we post about it on Facebook and Twitter and do e-mail blasts to let everyone know about them. We use it a lot for that. We've learned over the years that you can advertise until your heart is content, and it doesn't change [gross revenues] at the end of the year. I've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and I've spent tens of thousands of dollars on advertising, and fortunately, we rely very much on referral and word of mouth and location, location, location.

If a client refers another client who buys a pool, they get a couple hundred dollars, and that's pretty significant. I can do a mailer and spend $25,000 or $30,000 and mail to 50,000 homes, and when it's all said and done, I'm going to get 10 phone calls and I'm going to sell two pools, so it's just not worth it. We're investing in the Internet and just being visible. When I'm in a town, you know I'm in a town because all my trucks have big logos on them. We've been here for 30 years, so it's recognized. They just know that big "R" on the side of a truck.

Will the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Pool Design have an impact on your business?

I think it will increase the renovation side of our commercial work. There are tons of pools out there that aren't up to code. The hotels and apartments get motivated to update when they get inspected. Texas is way behind, but they do get around to the inspections, so this will have a positive affect on our renovation division.

What is your biggest concern for 2011?

Fuel prices concern me a lot because I burn $1,000 worth of fuel a day in my company. If I burn $1,000 worth of fuel a day when gas is at $2.50 a gallon, when it goes to $3.50 or $4.50, my fuel bill goes up 30 percent. My fuel bill is close to $350,000 a year at the lower value, so now if my fuel bill goes up to $400,000 to $425,000 a year, this concerns me because I can't go back to my customer and recoup that money. And everybody is starting to put fuel surcharges on things now, so all at once you get a letter saying we're up 3 to 5 percent for fuel surcharge. Well, I've already got $1 million worth of work in the pipe that I can't go back to, so I have to absorb those things, and that concerns me.

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