What does it mean to be successful? Is it sipping drinks on a sandy beach, or climbing the ladders of business achievement, or simply leading a fulfilling life? The answer is different for everyone.
In my work covering the pool and spa industry, I talk with people who design, engineer and build bodies of water, mostly swimming pools of one kind or another, as well as fountains, splash pads, ponds, streams and other aquatic structures. When I talk with them about success, it's fascinating to consider how they define it for themselves.
Creating pools and other bodies of water can be brutally hard and stressful work; it’s a multi-faceted undertaking requiring diverse technical and managerial skills. It’s a gig that combines the stamina and strength of a ditch digger with the heady contemplations of an architect and the crunchy mathematics of an engineer. People who rise to the top of the field have to become good at a lot of different things. Every project is different, and every client is unique — one of the hallmarks of pool builders is adaptability.
In terms of what it means to be a successful builder, there are many ways to plumb that question.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Of course, the almighty dollar stands out as the first and most obvious measure of success. Thriving financially is the goal of any business, and pool builders are no different. Yes, creating pools can be grindingly difficult, but with the required effort and skill can also come significant financial rewards.
But running a financial juggernaut doesn’t only come down to the black ink on the bottom line, it’s also how you get to that level of achievement that defines true financial health. How builders manage cash flow, equipment and material purchases, cost estimating, marketing and sales, smart hiring decisions, training, managing staff, operational efficiency, and according to many builders, working with the right clients — all of those business facets, and many others, directly and indirectly impact not only how much money you make, but how much you keep and can reinvest in your company.
Still, while running a profitable and financially healthy operation will always be a primary marker of success, the bottom line is far from the only one.
There’s something intrinsically virtuous and gratifying about simply being good at what you do. Every builder, deep down, knows whether he or she is a really good builder. Some would say that alone is success.
Unfortunately, the pool- construction business has a wide divide when it comes to overall professional competency. On one hand, there are scores of extraordinary professionals who devote themselves to constantly elevating their skill sets across the spectrum of disciplines required to correctly build a pool or spa. They treat their customers with integrity, facilitate success in their staff and many become industry and community leaders.
On the other side of the chasm, there are builders who are not quality-minded operators, cutting corners, misrepresenting their work and experience, and ultimately delivering a substandard product. Without belaboring that point, it’s fair to say that this lack of professional competence is bad for everyone involved in the project and in the industry. In the worst-case scenarios, embittered and costly litigation is the result, stabbing at the industry’s credibility and making life miserable for the consumer.
Because pools commonly cost upwards of six figures, owning one often represents the second largest investment homeowners make next to their home itself. Maintaining a standard of competence and best practices is essential for ensuring value for the client.
Trade and education organizations within the industry have helped on this front, developing educational tracks and certifications aimed at increasing the reservoir of trained talent within the industry’s ranks, working to ensure verifiable workmanship standards. And I can think of a couple trade publications that have helped along the way, as well.
Many builders take that warm feeling of simply being good at their life’s work, and having given their all to it, to bed every night, and it helps them sleep.
A STERLING REPUTATION
Right alongside competence is the issue of professional reputation. A solid reputation is built on a number of factors, including sound business practices, leadership and above all, integrity, and many builders frame, finish and care for their reputation as part of their drive for success.
With so much at stake with pools, which also includes safety and performance right along with the value of the investment, they know reputation is crucial. A reputable builder’s word is the currency of trust, and in a line of work where you go into someone’s home and rip the landscape apart, having the client’s confidence is essential.
Establishing realistic expectations based on clear and consistent communication is indispensable in developing a solid professional rep. Unhappy customers share negative experiences with numerous others, while satisfied customers give referrals, which are the lifeblood for many pool construction businesses and essential for success.
Builders who enjoy solid reputations earn it the hard way over years of applied personal values and professional standards, and they often serve as leaders and strong examples for others in the business. They attract favorable clients and employees who themselves want to grow professionally.
Pools were once not nearly as attractive as they are now. A simple survey of design awards from the ‘80s or ‘90s compared to pools built today quickly reveals a flourishing of the pool builder’s art — a renaissance, if you will, over the last 20 to 30 years, and an ever-expanding creative palette. The use of inventive shapes, color, materials and the plethora of design features (vanishing edges, perimeter overflow, beach entries, shallow lounging areas, LED lights and many more) have opened up ever more creative possibilities.
Working fluidly within different architectural styles, from contemporary to classic to tropical and everything in between, has become a hallmark of top builders, as has understanding the relationship between the pool and the architecture of the home and landscape. Top designers and builders take pride in their use of views within and outside the property, orchestrating the aesthetic experience. They incorporate works of art in the form of tile mosaics and statuary, and they pay close attention to the sound the water makes.
These days, at its best, pool design is considered by many an architectural discipline and an artistic medium. With the advent of the digital world, builders have more opportunities than ever before to show off their finest works on their websites, social media, email campaigns and in design competitions.
The creation of beautiful things has meant success to human beings for millenia, from Homer to Michaelangelo, and that same feeling is shared by today’s best pool designers and builders.
Depending how you look at all of this, one could argue the greatest measure of success is personal happiness. I’ve often been struck by the fact that builders work in an industry that by its very nature exists to make people happy. Yet, because it is such a challenging way to make a living — such a grind at times — I’ve known many who are often as frustrated as they are inspired. But I suppose there are some aspects of our humanity we can’t escape.
Perhaps that feeling of success can be yours if you can keep your focus on what brings you the greatest satisfaction, whether it’s creative achievement, a rock- solid reputation, the assurance of competence — or big numbers at the bottom of a financial statement. I’m certain for many, it’s a combination of all those things.
Eric Herman is editor of WaterShapes Magazine and vice president of communications for Watershape University. He is a former senior editor with AQUA Magazine, a position he held for nine years, and a long-time member of the pool, spa and aquatics industry dating back to 1989, when he started as an associate editor with Pool & Spa News.