Master Plan

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Foundations can be shaky in Southern California β€” in more ways than one. The region has more than its fair share of pools builders, but not all of them are as stable as they ought to be. Steve Hanousek, vice president of construction for Master Pools & Spas in Palm Desert, Calif., explains: "We have over 80 swimming pool contractors within the 50-square-mile Coachella Valley and less than a dozen of them have a storefront."

Contractors operating out of their homes, or even post office boxes, don't exactly create the kind of environment that's conducive to continuity or long-term relationships. But Hanousek is happy to be on the other end of the extreme β€” and it's not just because Master Pools has had a storefront for several decades. It's because the business he operates is summed up in a word: family.

He and his brother, Bill, are second-generation operators in a long-running family business that's a charter member of an even broader fraternity. Their parents, store owners Bill Sr. and Glady, started Master Pools in 1958 β€” and Bill Sr. is the last surviving original member of a respected pool-builders' association that's celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The nonprofit collaborative, now known as the Master Pools Guild, is an extended family of builders with more than 90 members in the United States and abroad.

"Oh, there are other organizations out there," Steve Hanousek says, "but they're buying groups. We're more like a fraternity. We share information, processes, building techniques; we bring in experts to discuss problems and trends. It's very much a sharing environment."

Steve Hanousek β€” now running the business with Bill as their parents ease into retirement β€” notes that the guild offers companies solidarity while encouraging independence; it's not a franchise. Rather, all the companies involved are independently owned and operated, licensed and insured. They're selectively recruited to ensure that they are builders who will uphold the best standards in the industry.

Guild members get together a few times a year β€” in March, October and January, normally in the city where one of the guild businesses is located. "The businesses in the guild represent all kinds of conditions and cultures," says Hanousek, a board member. "For example, people in Florida build on a high-water-table area. I build in a desert area. In Northern California, you have a freeze-and-thaw region.

"We have builders in Australia, Aruba, Spain, England and elsewhere, looking to branch out. We have at least eight builders in Canada, and are represented in almost every state in the U.S. It's the epitome of family. If you take an industry β€” any industry β€” I don't think you'll find the kind of continuity this guild has." Hanousek says that virtually the entire guild is made up of family-run businesses, some third- and fourth-generation. That's a big part of the guild members' common bond.

"I think you expect more from family members, so there's more at stake there," he says. "Disagreements happen. There are frustrations." However, that familiarity can also be a plus. "With a sibling, you have a better sense of trust for that individual. My brother Bill, who runs the repair division, and I kind of complement each other. We have our backs together and it would take a very hard wedge to separate us.

"We don't always agree with each other, but we try to work together on that. If there happens to be a problem, I know my brother will take care of it."

His brother β€” whose 20 years' experience in the business is five more than Steve's β€” continues: "Plus, our being in the business benefits the family as a whole," he says. "The job can be very rewarding in terms of improving the property and quality of life for other families, and our folks are keeping active as well."


It's 6:30 a.m., and Bill Hanousek is already at the store β€” and not just to beat Southern California's notorious rush hour. He's taking calls and messages until the phone operator gets in at 7.

"This is a high-demand area, and we have to get an early start every day," he says. "We're not an especially big company, so these are the kinds of things you have to do to keep up, to ensure that customers' needs are met."

The second-generation Hanouseks learned long ago from their parents how customers respond to a hands-on approach, and they run the business accordingly. There aren't any shortcuts; there are plenty of sacrifices and additional responsibility.

Bill's main responsibility is overseeing the repair division. He not only oversees the service technicians, he also schedules and manages people out in the field. He'll often head out at 7 a.m. and be at a site for most, or all, of a 12-hour day.

Steve Hanousek oversees the sales and construction of the company's commercial and residential pools, spas and water features. He, too, wears many hats.

"Right now I'm the only salesperson in our organization," he says. "I've had three commission salespeople work for me; one retired, another had financial problems, and the other didn't work out.

"We normally have one or two salespeople but for the last year, we haven't had one. I made that decision. I didn't have the time to sit down and train a new salesperson the way I wanted them to be trained."

Such a work ethic can be a blessing and a strain, especially in a family business where siblings and parents see each other daily and depend on one another for their well-being.

"Any business is work," says Bill Hanousek Sr., who still maintains an office and is kept busy with correspondence. "Sometimes in this family business that is so close, you see everybody every day. That's not comfortable.

"But I would much prefer that if we have a problem, the family stands back to back and absorbs the responsibility equally. When we've had severe problems financially during slow times, everybody got behind the wheel and pushed. Having a family entity, the glue tightens everything up. Sacrifices are made, whether it's taking a cut in wages or whatever it takes."

That kind of teamwork has helped through the down times and made the good times even better.


Although the family has worked through some challenging times, the business has some grand accomplishments and these days, the family is enjoying the benefits of a well-earned reputation. Steve Hanousek says the company does $3 to 3.5 million in sales annually with an ever-growing customer base. Master Pools & Spas has won many design awards. Its pools and water features at the Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Desert Villas include the largest decklevel pool in California. It also completed the only pool in California with a waterfall and white sand beach leading into the pool, at the Renaissance Esmeralda. It recently finished a pool at Marriott's Rancho Las Palmas resort with a 100-foot slide, spa, pool and an interactive water feature.

As elaborate as these showcase projects are, the company is careful to focus on its prime area of expertise. "We build, repair, remodel and have a retail store where we sell toys, chemicals and equipment," Steve Hanousek says. "We do not have a service for cleaning. We specialize in one thing, and that benefits our customers.

"When I sell a pool, this is part of my sales presentation: a 45-year-old business that is family run and does one thing only. We offer a three-year parts and labor warranty, but I tell my customers that chances are they won't need us for the first seven to 10 years."

Master Pools & Spas also takes a step beyond to ensure that customers are secure about their purchase: "Every pool we sell, we have a two-hour orientation with the customer to show them how to maintain it. We supply all the necessary cleaning equipment, show them manuals, teach them about water chemistry, things like that. We're selling security and continuity."

The unstable, get-rich-quick mentality in the region β€” facilitated, Bill Hanousek says, by a lack of policing by the state β€” makes it even more important to stand firm to standards that benefit the customer. "Pool repair is such a huge service industry," he says. "But in this region, 90 percent of them are not licensed contractors.

"So these 'contractors' buy at wholesale and then go out and do the work. Some customers will tell us, 'Why should I go to you for repairs when my pool man will do it for half as much.' But that guy doesn't have to pay the fees that a licensed contractor does, and chances are he won't be around to stand behind his work β€” assuming it's good work in the first place."

The senior Hanouseks have trained their kids well and know they're leaving the business in good hands. "It's such a wonderful thing to have three boys with integrity who want to be involved with making the community a better place," says Glady Hanousek. (The middle son has his own pool business but is not a competitor.) "In a lot of families, you don't find that."

Now Glady and Bill Sr. can retire with no worries about the business. Master Pools & Spas and the one-of-a-kind Master Pool Guild combine for a foundation that's pretty much unshakable.

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