Fifty Years At 100%

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For most people, having a business that is still going strong after 50 years is probably not in the cards. While we don't know whether Leif Zars is a card shark or not, we do know this: You don't become one of just a handful of privately owned swimming pool companies in the United States to celebrate a golden anniversary unless your leader is proficient at anticipating the next move.

"It's a constant poker game," Zars, the owner of San Antonio-based Gary Pools, says of his business. "You have to watch the hand you're dealt, while also watching what the consumer's doing."

And in 50 years, Zars, 80, has been dealt his share of bad hands. Most pool companies would call the economy of the last few years a crisis situation, but very few of them had to figure out a way to prosper through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most pool companies wondered whether they could survive the stock market tumble following 9/11, but a lot of them weren't around during the 1987 crash that was the worst since the Great Depression. Most pool companies experience shortages of materials from time to time, but many came along after a steel shortage 22 years ago that threatened the industry.

Looking ahead has enabled Zars to put those types of challenges behind him. "You try to keep sensitive to what's going on so you can see the trend before it's a tidal wave," Zars says. "Then you shift your energies into that area.

"For example, frequently the residential market goes through a shrinking period, but at the same time the public sector will get funding so there will be work there. You have to remain reasonably flexible so you can follow the market."

In extreme cases, a company has to be more than just .flxible to survive. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, many Americans were more preoccupied with surviving what was seen as an imminent nuclear attack by the Soviet Union than with buying pools. "It was a terrible time for our country and a terrible time for our business," Zars says. "Business just dried up."

But a new demand sprang up for fallout shelters. "So we started to build those for people for a while," Zars says. "It was a way to keep business going, and there was a market for it. Plus, we already were doing excavation anyway from the pool work, so it wasn't a far reach from that."

Forty-two years and some 18,000 pools later, Gary Pools — named after Zars' youngest son — is still standing as central Texas's largest privately owned pool design and construction company.

The fallout shelters may be an extreme case, but it's indicative of the foresight and creativity that have kept the business going during tough times. Zars says he has watched 300 to 400 pool companies come and go in the San Antonio area since he's been in business.

"Tough economic cycles present challenges, of course," Zars says. "They also provide a kind of shakeout period when a lot of companies disappear. If you're not on top of what's happening in the market, you're not going to make it through those times."

Foremost, there has to be a quality product that keeps customers coming back. This starts with design innovation that's traced to Zars, who has a Bachelor's degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and who completed the advanced management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Business. Zars claims Gary Pools has won more national design awards than any pool builder in Texas; some of its commercial works of art include pools at the Westin La Cantera Resort, Hyatt Hill Country Resort, and the Moody Gardens Resort in Galveston. It has also built residential pools for celebrities including George Strait and Tom Landry.

"Design is where the company stands out," says Lee Brandt, Gary Pools' advertising and marketing manager, who has worked for the company in various capacities since 1958. "I'm still involved in it, and it's the fun part of my job. We take great pride in being leaders in this area."

Gary Pools uses the latest CAD programs and has been doing so for 12 years, making it one of the first to utilize the best in computer design. Preliminary designs for commercial and residential pools are sketched by hand and designers use a computer for the rest of the project.

The design expertise at Gary Pools is on display at high-visibility creations at resorts, but it's also present in structural innovation that emphasizes durability and ease of maintenance. Texas's expansive soil causes frequent shifting that results in constant maintenance and warranty work on long-completed projects. In the early 1960s, Gary Pools pioneered a monolithic, wall-to-wall cantilever structure to combat those problems.

The structure includes advanced hydraulic systems and specially rolled reinforcing steel, which was manufactured and tested exclusively for use by Gary Pools. Gary has also focused on energy conservation, preserving resources and demonstrating savings for customers.

"It's just a wonderful product," Brandt says. "I don't mind showing people pools we built that are 30 years old. It's just about the best kind of advertising there is." That's next to referrals from happy clients, a staple of Gary Pools' success.

"You can do all the advertising you want, but it comes down to word of mouth," Brandt says. "And that doesn't happen unless you've provided quality for the customer. When someone's getting ready to buy a pool, they talk to other people — and if your name doesn't come up, chances are you won't get that business."


Brandt's 46-year tenure at Gary Pools stands out, but among its 160 employees there are others who've been with the company for 30 years — even construction workers who have been there well over 20. He attributes this unusual loyalty to a good work environment and belief in the product.

The company also stands out with its employee benefits package. Gary Pools began offering paid vacations to construction workers way back in the '50s — a revolutionary perk at the time — and has participated in family health insurance plans. It also established an employee loan fund for emergencies. "Before I started this company, I was with a large corporation that was half owned by DuPont and half owned by General Motors and I borrowed some of their ideas," Zars says.

Zars was a sales representative with the Ethyl Corporation — a maker of ethanol, a gasoline additive — for almost 10 years after he finished college. "I learned a lot about the selling aspect of the business and was being transferred every 18 months to a new city," he says. "That was great and exciting, and I learned a lot from it — but it wasn't good for family life.

"When I landed in San Antonio, I liked the area right away. I'd been to California, which was already shaping up as the pool capital, but I felt like I'd rather live on this side of the pond. Plus, I looked and saw that the pool explosion that had hit California hadn't made it here yet, and I felt it was a matter of time due to the weather and other factors. I saw a great potential for creativity, and here I still am."

Like a lot of other established companies, Gary Pools' business peaked in the high-flying early 1980s, when it was building 800 pools a year. Zars says that number is now at a steady 300 pools a year, and that the last few soft years for the economy "haven't been a problem at all."

Zars always has high hopes but realistic expectations. "We try to look at a 7 percent return every year," he says. "That's our goal, maybe 10 percent if you can get it. And we've been able to, generally speaking.

"But it can't be just about the profits. My main anchor is honesty and integrity. If you have that, people know what you're about and that what you're doing is good. You just don't cut corners when it comes to that. If you do, it comes back to bite you."


Despite all the challenges Zars has met, more are always ahead. One issue he's very attuned to is suction entrapment, notably companies' responsibilities in this area and the changing standards that Zars says will "redirect the entire aspect of the industry. I foresee a retrofit program in the next five years, a redirection of suction fittings.

"The Consumer Product Safety Commission made us aware of this issue. You take an 8-inch drain, and you stand or sit on a suction outlet that sucks so hard, you're stuck on it. It's dangerous.

Incidents aren't that frequent, but the bad ones are devastating. Even on the kiddie pools, these are potential problems."

Zars cited a $104 million award last year to a North Miami, Fla., family whose 14-year-old son was held underwater for several minutes, suffering irreversible brain damage. "Look for major improvements and changes in product and installation techniques," Zars says. "Hopefully, in the next five years we will see this issue behind us."

Always on top of the latest consumer trends, Zars also sees a growing interest in animated water and the need for his company to respond. "Just a stagnant pond of water isn't enough anymore," he says. "People are turning to water they can listen to and see in action — waterfalls, sprays, jets, etc. If you follow the development of civilization, we all started around springs, rivers and creeks. Subconsciously, we migrate back to that."

Zars is celebrating Gary Pools' 50th with satisfaction, but don't mistake that for complacency. "I'm basically satisfied with where I am, but I'm always looking to do more," he says. "It's a good business, and I have several family members who are in it in different phases. I've always welcomed them in the business but never presented it as something they had to do.

"At this point I don't have any, 'Wow, here's what I'm going to do next' plans because time is playing its role. I'll leave the rest to my children and my children's children," says Zars, who has five kids.

That doesn't mean there's a rocking chair in his immediate future. Zars still works nine or 10 hours a day at age 80, and is on several committees for standards and other issues. Brandt, 75, notes that he recently had a work meeting with Zars at 8:15 a.m. "I'm not going to retire until he does," he says with a laugh.

He may be in for a long wait, but that's OK. From where they sit in this fabulously long-running poker game, both of them are holding good hands.

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