Here Comes The Judge

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Each year the newest winners of the AQUA 100 award make their appearances on the pages of AQUA Magazine. But did you ever wonder how the honorees are chosen. A panel of judges examines and scores the piles of entries received each year, but what makes the judges special is that they are peers; businesspeople who have achieved a high level of success in the spa and pool industry.

Next month, you'll meet the winners of this year's honors. This month, we thought you'd like to know a little more about one of the judges. —Ed.

When members of a small community north of Houston introduced bachelor Charles to the recently divorced Merry, little did they know they were setting into motion a romantic partnership that would also be the foundation of an innovative company that would thrive for years to come.

"[Charles] married me and two toddlers and I married his brand-new pool business," says Merry Wise, who was working as a public relations assistant at a bank at the time. "Let me tell you, that wasn't easy, either one of those scenarios. But we've made it work."

The Woodlands, Texas-based company grew out of Charles Wise's family's paper and chemical company in the '60s. Charles began selling swimming pool supplies to pool owners in the area. This evolved into maintenance service and in 1970, Charles built his very first pool.

Today Merry and Charles Wise build about 40 custom gunite pools a year and run two retail stores. Merry has published her own pool-care book, Cruising Through Pool Care the Wise Way , which is helpful for both homeowners and employees new to the pool business. She also writes on the pool business, occasionally for AQUA Magazine. The company entered the AQUA 100 Hall of Fame in 2002 and Wise Pools was recently honored with the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals Chairman's Award. Merry attributes the company's success to the strong work ethic of those who run it.

"I wouldn't call us the most successful financially in the industry, but when it comes to quality of work and integrity, I don't think you'll find anybody more successful," she says.

Charles doesn't measure the company's success by financial gains, either. "I have found the most satisfaction in trying to do the challenging jobs, even though quite often they're not the most money-making," Charles says. "But you always can gain, even when you don't make anything. You still gain by taking that next step."

Wise Pools runs particularly smoothly, given the fact that it is a family pool company, which comes with its own set of challenges. Customer Dudley Jones says Merry and Charles have struck the appropriate balance — Merry mostly handles finances and talking to people, while Charles sticks to pool building. "It's a great working relationship between husband and wife," Jones says.

The Wises have also recently begun to involve their son, Brock, in designing pools. "Probably the toughest part of the business is working with family members and finding your own balance," Merry says. "It helps if you have separate responsibilities for different areas of the business."

For company owners looking to bring in family members, in addition to creating clear divisions in tasks, Charles suggests establishing a professional relationship. "There's a certain amount of informality with family that you need to be aware of so you can keep things on a professional business level," he says.

The family dynamic is only one element that keeps customers coming back. Charles bases his work on a Chinese saying he once heard about never owing anyone anything.

"I don't want to owe a customer because we've done a bad job," he says. "So I'll always go above and beyond the expectations. If we don't do a good job, I haven't done my job."

According to Charles, who has a strong engineering background, the first step in doing a good job is to hear what the customer is looking for in a pool and then to find creative ways to push the limit while not straying from the clients' desires. Charles also incorporated computers and technology into his work early in the company's history.

When Jones was planning to build a pool in his yard 11 years ago, he compared bids from numerous pool companies. While Wise's bid wasn't the lowest, Jones says he was impressed that Charles made some suggestions of his own to improve Jones's original vision. This included a round pool, a love seat and a fiberoptic lighting system. Today, Jones and his wife are still enjoying the romantic ambience. "I'll always go above and beyond the expectations. If we don't do a good job, I haven't done my job."

In terms of running a pool business in general, Merry emphasizes being able to adapt constantly to changes in the marketplace. "Doing things the same old, same old is going to, at some point, come back to bite you," she says. "You have to be able to see what's going on and change and grow with it."

Both Charles and Merry stress the importance of education. They attend conventions, seminars and read a variety of books about the industry and work. Then they transfer this knowledge to both their customers and their employees. Charles will also go to hardware stores and look at different products to see if he can use them in a new or creative way for his clients.

Above all else, the Wises attribute their success to the fact that they try to run their company with the utmost integrity. "Don't ever lie to your customers," Merry says. "If you make a mistake, admit it, fix it the best way you can, but don't lie to them." As part of this, she recommends providing a good, long-term warranty service.

This integrity not only appeals to customers, but to employees also. Herman Weindel, a retired chemist, began working part-time nine years ago at one of the retail stores after Merry talked him into it. Despite his best efforts to quit and enjoy his retirement, he just can't leave. He tests customers' water and has developed innovative ways to rid pools of algae and to clean filters.

"I would not work for anybody who, in my opinion, wasn't honest with their customers and about what they're doing," he says.

In the years to come, Merry would like to see the company evolve to more high-end specialty pools and to get more involved in computer-based marketing for indoors. And despite how well the company is doing, Charles is continually seeking the next challenge to refine his skills.

"Every time I think I've had the best job I've ever had, there's another one that comes up," he says. "If anything, the jobs keep getting better, more challenging, bigger, more elaborate."

FOR YEARS MERRY WISE HAS PERSONALLY helped customers find the right products to maintain their pools. She has written a book to help pool owners all over the country have fun while keeping their pools clean. She has helped her husband, Charles, run an award-winning business.

And for three years she has offered her extensive expertise as a judge for the AQUA 100. Wise, however, says the experience is as rewarding for her as the spa and pool dealers who compete.

"My favorite thing about being a judge is I get to see all of the best ideas from pool companies around the country," Wise says. "I learn as much from judging as the people who enter."

Each year, a panel of judges selects spa and pool dealers to be featured in AQUA Magazine because of their overall professionalism in customer service, store design, product knowledge, craftsmanship and advertising/promotion.

The competition encourages a sense of celebration and cooperation within the industry.

"The most outstanding companies receive recognition in a way they can't get anywhere else," Wise says. The companies that win receive publicity that Wise says is even more effective than an ad. And even the companies that don't win in the end gain valuable experience, she says.

"It forces you to do a lot of evaluating of your company, to really look at what you're doing and how you're doing it," Wise says. "Self-evaluation is always good."

For dealers interested in submitting the comprehensive entry packet, Wise suggests that they make sure to answer the questions in the same order they are asked and to include extra information that will help illustrate their points.

Wise looks forward to seeing how the entries change each year. "They just seem to get better and better," she says. "They're all so good."

—L.R.M

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