Builder Voice 2013: Carvin DiGiovanni

Eric Herman Headshot

For the builder segment of our State of the Industry issue, we spoke we three industry leaders to serve as our “builder voices.” In these profiles, they share how their businesses fared last year, their strategies for success and their vision for the future. For 2013, we spoke with Carvin DiGiovanni, Scott Cohen and Brian Van Bower.

Carvin DiGiovanniCarvin DiGiovanni Senior Director, technical and standards, APSP Washington D.C.

Carvin DiGiovanni has worked with the association for 23 years. In his role developing APSP’s educational programs and technical standards, DiGiovanni has a reputation for his laidback approach and ability to work through challenging situations to achieve positive results. AQUA Senior Editor Eric Herman recently spoke with DiGiovanni about his experience, assessment of the current conditions and where he sees the industry heading.

What would you say about the current state of the industry?

These days when I ask that question at trade shows and other places, I do get optimistic feedback that all the signs are looking good; building permits are up and business prospects are expanding.

I believe the companies that are worth their salt were able to make adjustments and find ways to stay in business during the recession. Simply put: they got creative in order to adapt. How they managed that is probably a different story depending on who you ask, but in general the builders in business today are those who made adjustments to survive, whether it was downsizing, branching into different activities or different types of marketing — probably a combination of things.

Now as we see the economy improving and nudging consumers back toward pools and spas, those folks that survived are now positioned to pick up a lot of work. We’re hearing the same thing from manufacturers: sales are way up. So the signs are there that things are improving, which is fantastic compared to those days when everything was so far down in the doldrums.

Obviously, our industry has come through an incredibly tough time, which is still very fresh in everyone’s mind, so we do still hear the term “cautiously optimistic” all the time. Now as we see things improve, our industry needs to harness this new creativity, assess future prospects and focus on how to maximize opportunities. APSP is currently positioning itself to lead the way to make this happen. These are still challenging times, not only for our industry, but also across the board.

How would characterize the major changes you’ve seen within NSPI/APSP during your tenure?

I know this trade association and industry and know what makes them tick. When I started with NSPI back in 1990, the association was structured around supporting the vast network of regions and chapters, which made sense back then because changes impacting businesses were mostly occurring on the local level. In the late ’90s, the association went through a reorganization where it changed its business model to move away from funding local chapters and regions. We’ve never stopped supporting or creating new chapters, but now we go about it much differently than we did 20 years ago.

Initially, that shift to a more national focus had a chilling effect on membership, but ultimately it was a necessary adjustment because the business environment was moving in a direction where the vast majority of issues affecting our industry were happening on a national level. We had to respond or risk becoming obsolete.

In recent years, we’ve also seen the older generation of company owners handing the reins to a new generation, or attempts to do so. In many cases, their children have had no interest in the business or if they did take over, there was a shift in direction, sometimes for the better, others not. All of that put pressure on the association to respond to a very different type of market and industry. The days of “business as usual” were gone forever. Whether we like it or not, the reality is the industry culture and marketplace has shifted.

Those shifts happened alongside the advent of the digital age, which really took hold in our industry in the early 2000s. Builders were late to the game, but once they started websites and began gaining a presence online, they became more self-directed in terms of what they were doing within their own markets because they have instant access to information and expanded marketing opportunities.

From an association standpoint, the accumulation and dissemination of information has become far more global. That changed the role of the association, again shifting away from involvement with local chapters to a more centralized national focus. For example, when a change in policy comes down from the federal government or agency, we’re able to distribute information instantly and get members involved almost in real time.

In practical terms, you don’t need a chapter meeting every month; members are now connected to our various platforms on a much more constant basis. That’s created a much more national culture within the association. When we put out a message of some kind, it gets on everybody’s radar immediately, which has made the work of the association far more effective.

The downside is that even now with all this information available, a lot of people just don’t take the time to read it. It’s the old horse-to-water adage: No matter what we do on a local or national level, it’s still up to individuals to become involved and take advantage of the information available. In that sense, the association is still very much what people do with it and make out of it.

Throughout our history, helping our members grow their business has always been priority one for the association. Everything we do, from our product offerings to how we present ourselves online, is about giving members the tools they need to be more successful.

That never changes.

How have the big government issues, specifically ADA and VGB, impacted your work at the association level over the past few years?

Those, of course, are two of the biggest issues to come along in recent years. They’ve certainly kept our Government Relations Director, Jennifer Hatfield, extremely busy, and they both continue to have a significant impact on our work keeping our members informed and representing their interests whenever and wherever we can.

These issues are perfect examples of how APSP helps our members do collectively what they could not do as individual companies. I am proud and pleased to say that we are, and remain, the only entity with the collective clout to advocate for reasonable and manageable legislation. We have worked long and hard for this stature and respect.

ADA requirements, for example, were voluntary for years. Now within the past year, they’ve become mandatory, which potentially impacts every commercial pool in the country. That comes in the wake of VGB, which has already changed hydraulic requirements for commercial pools. We’ve worked hard to try to keep the industry up to speed or even a step ahead where those requirements are concerned.

Moving forward, we’re now seeing the Department of Energy getting involved in looking at swimming pools as a place where we can conserve potentially tremendous amounts of energy. That’s another federal situation where we might see widespread impact on our industry. It has been, and will continue to be, APSP’s job to stay on top of those issues and make sure our members and the industry at large are ahead of the curve, and that we influence the way those issues play out in terms of new guidelines, legislation, standards and code requirements.

Through your efforts developing APSP/ANSI standards, has the association been able to stay ahead of those kinds of issues?

Absolutely. With VBG, for example, we saw it coming years before it became a national issue. Back in 2002 we pulled a number of people together from inside and outside the industry, including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and held three symposiums on the issue of suction entrapment. At that time, we decided to develop the APSP/ANSI standard on suction entrapment, which was completed in early 2004 and after a grueling period of review and revision, was finally published in 2006.

Right after that, the bill for Virginia Graeme Baker was introduced. We aggressively petitioned the CPSC as well as legislators sponsoring the bill led by Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, saying we don’t need this law; all you have to do is adopt our standard.

Unfortunately, there were certain, shall we say, “antagonists” with particular manufacturing interests involved, and the legislation eventually became the law of the land. The good news was that we were at the table in drafting the VBG language and it wound up following most of the tenants of the APSP/ANSI 7 Suction Entrapment Standard, which is actually more stringent than the language in VGB.

Now our standard is part of the new 2012 International Pool and Spa Code, which is in turn falling into local codes. What’s going happen next is that as states start adopting the 2012 IPSC, the standard will start covering residential pools, which up to now has been voluntary.

Earlier you mentioned turnover in the industry as the “old guard” retires. Where are you seeing the next generation developing?

It’s an amalgam. At APSP we’re seeing a new wave of people from other industries, such as landscape architects, architects and general contractors among others. It’s a huge trend where these professionals are looking to pools and spas as a way to diversify what they do. On the manufacturing side, we’re seeing companies being bought and sold, which has resulted in a new wave of managers coming into the picture, many who have come from outside the industry.

It’s a different breed compared to the managers who have been in the industry for years and years or even through their entire careers. It’s hard to read sometimes, the impact that new breed of management is going to have. I’m optimistic this new generation of business leaders will bring new ideas into the fold that will be helpful improving products and services, and hopefully the way we promote our industry to consumers. Time will tell.

Do you see the trend toward more integrated aquatic environments that include elements such as outdoor kitchens, landscape lighting, fire features etc. having a major impact on the industry?

Yes I do, in a big way! And I applaud those builders who have expanded their work to encompass the entire outdoor experience. It enables people in our industry to provide a much stronger and broader set of options to prospective pool owners because it’s expanding the scope of what we do for our consumers. It’s not just about the pool, but instead about the entire backyard setting.

All of that speaks to the fact that people in our industry are learning to diversify and improve what they do. Earlier when I mentioned the companies that made it through the recession; a lot of that staying power has to do with approaching the overall concept of what we’re selling from a broader perspective.

Those are the people who are going to lead our industry in the future because they’re broadening the concept of the pool and spa environment. They’re taking that concept of the basic backyard pool that we all grew up with and putting a whole new spin on it. Of course, that presents a whole new set of challenges to our industry, but ultimately that’s extremely healthy because it forces everyone in the industry to rethink the way they do things and improve to meet this new set of consumer expectations.

You’ve been personally in the thick of things for 23 years. how would you characterize your experience so far?

It’s been quite a ride and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of developing education and advancing standards that support the industry. Sure, it’s been a constant battle because there are always people trying to influence the process for their own self-interest. That’s to be expected and while many of the battles have been frustrating in the moment, in the end, we’ve been able to use the pressure of the process to forge programs and standards that will stand the test of time, while evolving with changing market conditions.

So now that we’ve come through this terrible recession and have met a number of challenging issues head on, and now that we’re seeing new blood coming into the business with new ideas and an expansion of what we’re providing consumers, it’s extremely exciting to think about what’s just up the road.

For me personally, it’s been extremely satisfying because I love this industry, the people in it, the fantastic products we provide and how what we do has such a positive impact on so many people’s lives. This is what has driven my passion over my tenure to accomplish what I have done. I am delighted that my accomplishments have helped position the association to advance to the next level.

My vision for the industry is that, with a new generation coming in from existing family businesses and new people from other industries, it will set the stage for a much needed paradigm shift in order for the association and industry to thrive and prosper. It’s clear that all factions of the aquatic community need to work together and get on board if we are to accomplish this mission. No one group has the dollars to accomplish it alone. It’s all about selling more pools and hot tubs by emphasizing the health and fun benefits they bring.

No matter where you are in the aquatic community, it all begins with providing a vessel of water. I doubt very seriously if anyone could argue that point. We know people like how our products make them feel. We just need to get creative and capture that feeling again and then promote it. APSP has advanced to the level where it is uniquely positioned to do just that and in doing so, become the voice of the customer. We must pursue that emotional connection more vigorously than ever to make the consumer believe it and give our products another look. Our future depends on it.

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

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