Pooling Their Resources

"I can't do anything," Merry Wise says with a laugh about her contribution to The Woodlands, Texas-based Wise Pool Company, which she owns with her husband, Charles. "But I can tell people about it."

All right, she admits: "One thing I can do is write. I publicize things our company does by writing articles for the local press. That does more good than a paid ad. Anyone can pay for an ad, but if people see a story with your picture in it, people notice."

Before long, the tell-people-about-it half of the business is telling us more. About marketing. About demographics. About customer satisfaction. About construction. About competition. About the pool care book she just finished writing.

Now we get it. That claim of helplessness was just a Wise crack.

Helpless, eh? Do tell — and Charles does. He remembers the early 1970s, when Merry would skim the pools while he vacuumed. He remembers how once she went to get a 100-pound barrel of granular chlorine "and she didn't even weigh 100 pounds herself. So she rigged a ramp out of some 2by-4s to get it into the back of the car."

So don't be fooled: This is a smart pooling of resources. The most successful businesses involve talents that complement one another. Many a business — pool and otherwise — has sunk without this simple but vital formula. At Wise Pool Company, Merry is the water in the pool and Charles serves as the walls. Without both, there's nothing.

"We, in a sense, are opposites," Charles says. "I'm a doer; she's a thinker, a verbal person." On a typical day, Charles is at sites — building, selling, designing. Merry is at the office, planning and marketing. But some of those differences are inherently similar: Both Merry's verbal skills and Charles' building and design talent re.ect creativity that is a hallmark of the company's success.

So is a shared integrity that's conducive to unfailing customer service and value. They're the foundations of a business that's in its fourth decade, foundations strong enough to weather the oil embargo and the 20 percent interest rates of the 1970s, the Houston oil bust of the 1980s, and the general economic malaise of the last few years. Wise Pool Company's strategies may fluctuate with the health of the economy, but ethics and quality don't budge. They can't.

"Texas is a market with a built-in good business climate," Merry says. "There are no licensing or bonding requirements, no regulation. People who get run out of business in other states come here. A lot of times their prices are lower, because they realize that's a big draw.

"But just as often they don't care about quality and warranteeing their products. So they don't get referrals and they don't get established. To stay in this for the long run, you have to do ethical business."

Charles adds: "We don't try to compete strictly on a dollar basis. What we offer is value. The customer's going to get every dollar of value, and in the end that's what keeps them coming back. It also is great word-of-mouth business. Most of our business comes from referrals."

LOCATION, LOCATION

Wise Pool Company has a warehouse in its original location in Conroe, Texas, its hub for sales, maintenance and repair, along with its executive offices and design center. It serves the greater Houston area. Store locations are in Conroe and The Woodlands, the latter a planned newtown development area. Merry knows the importance of understanding the characteristics of those areas and the optimum way to reach the audiences.

"Our area is unique in how it's fragmented," she says. "Conroe is mainly made up of local people. The Woodlands has a lot of transients. Houston is almost exclusively reputation work. You have the Yuppies, the traditional, the super rich, and there's no common media for these areas. That's why it's important for me to be involved with the media in all of these areas, and where writing and communication skills are important."

She has combined those abilities and her knowledge of the business to create another marketing opportunity: her first book. Cruising Through Pool Care the Wise Way is a calm, sometimes funny guide that's meant to be understandable and applicable for all.

"I've seen so many pool manuals that were just so blah, so technical," she says. "There's no love story, no plot, nothing interesting to read. They're terrible. Where's the fun in that?

"I wanted to offer something that's colloquial, down to earth, hands-on. This isn't a do-it-yourself repair guide — I still recommend that you utilize a pool store for technical advise — but it identifies problems and tells consumers what they need to do and look out for."

Merry Wise is happy to pass along what she has learned, and she has learned from the best. Charles' expertise and reputation are the byproducts of decades of experience and a gift for innovation. Just like the couple that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary — naturally, they met in 1972 at a pool party — Charles and pools were a marriage of destiny.

He started out by selling swimming pool supplies to Conroe pool owners for his parents' paper and chemical company in the late 1960s. Charles couldn't help noticing that "there were so many things that could have been done better" in the pools he saw. Before long, he was performing minor repairs on pools in the area. This led to his providing retail sales, maintenance and service for Conroe pool owners, and he built his first pool in 1970.

Standards and technology have come a long way since then — and Charles has always been a lap ahead. The pictures of commercial and residential pools, vanishing-edge pools, spas and fountains on the company's Web site are breathtaking examples of paradise found. They reflect the consummate melding of craftsmanship and creativity, of elegance and functionality.

WISE INVENTIONS

Flashy is great; practical innovation is just as important. Wise Pool Company touts its custom-made plumbing system, and there are other examples of pioneering that have set the pace in the industry.

"Almost since I started, I've been doing overflows on residential pools," Charles says. "For a long time, that was only done on commercial pools. Now a lot of people have come around to doing it on all their pools." This feature is particularly relevant in the Houston area, which averages 50 to 60 inches of rain a year. The over.ow allows water to run out when there's too much rain, keeping the water level constant and allowing the skimmers to work.

Charles shares Merry's hunger for learning, a reason he has stayed ahead of trends for so many years. He's constantly going to trade shows and conferences to learn about new products and techniques. "You have to be committed," he says. "It helps you grow and it helps you survive. There were many times when business was slow that if we didn't have the commitment, we would have given up."

As far as slow times, their biggest challenge was the glacial business pace of the 1970s. "It was horrible," Merry says. "All of the economics professors said you can't have high interest rates and high inflation at the same time, but that's just what happened. People couldn't raise their prices fast enough to cover the high interest."

But the Wises learned lessons from that period that remain with them today. "First, watch your expenses," Merry says. "The economy is cyclical, so you always have to be ready to cut back and maximize what you have. For example, I deliberately keep my retail space small; we're renting, and it's very expensive. So it's important to maximize that square-foot space.

"Second, run with a smaller staff, within reason. Third, look for better buying opportunities and don't over-expand, which is such a temptation when the economy is good."

Computers are an important element in maximizing resources. Charles wasn't blown up by the technology explosion, he even embraced it early. He has worked on a computer since 1974 and became one of the first in the industry to computerize. As early as 1989, the company added advanced imaging hardware and software that would simulate what a pool would look like in an owner's backyard — one of the first swimming pool designers in the country to do so.

Understanding and utilizing the best technology leads to quality that is uncompromised. As Merry notes, most of Wise's pools incorporate top-of-the-line custom gunite construction. Some of the pools have attached spas featuring the same devotion to quality.

And when quality stands out, people notice. Wise Pool Company has won numerous national and local awards for construction and design. It has become a community fixture with its involvement in local charity and service projects.

The Wises also believe in enjoying the results of their hard work. It keeps them fresh. Merry is a member of the PT Cruiser Club, having fallen in love all over again when she saw one at a Houston car show. In her silver 2001 model with pinstriping, a spoiler and Team Dynamic sport wheels, she's traveled all over the United States for Cruiser Club events. One time she drove to Kansas City and entered a drag race. "That was really fun for me because I had never even seen a real race before," she says.

"I used to be an adult, but I gave that up when I got my Cruiser," Merry says. "They look so cool, and they carry a lot of stuff."

So what's left to accomplish? Charles admits: "In many ways, I feel like we've reached our goals." But lest that be mistaken for complacency, he and Merry are constantly driven by evolving challenges and their rewards. "Each thing seems like it leads to something else that's even grander."

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