Quietly, the industry is going through a shift change. Every month, every year, more veterans are stepping away from the job, and a new generation is clocking in. You see it clearly at trade shows, hear it in discussions, and notice it as you visit pool and spa companies — this industry is managed by a well-seasoned group of professionals who, while working in the greatest industry on the planet, are making plans for the inevitable slowdown and graceful exit from full-time pool and spa management.
And there are good reasons why this industry developed its large, successful old guard. When today’s retirees were young entrepreneurs, there was a rapid expansion in the pool and spa market. A lot of people started businesses as the country discovered its love of pools and spas.
Some of the businesses they started are 40 or 50 years old, some with the original entrepreneur still at the helm. At the same time, there has been no great consolidation movement that you see in other industries. Our industry remains a collection of many discrete proprietary companies.
Another big factor has been the sheer pleasure of working in the pool and spa business. It’s an industry where people just tend to stick around because it’s kind of fun. There’s something about it that makes people look around one day and proudly realize they’ve made a career of making people happy through the act of giving them water.
Meanwhile, a younger generation is settling in and taking the wheel, hoping to steer this industry towards a future even brighter than the one bequeathed by the senior leaders, who are now putting down their tools and stepping away.
We sat down with three successful newcomers who have risen quickly to positions of authority in building, retail and service to get their take on their industry inheritance, and the direction we might take things in the coming years. They are among the new captains who will lead the industry into mid-century.
Meet the Panelists...
Maggie Wood’s father started Hansen’s — a retail, construction and service business serving Northern Illinois and Southeastern Wisconsin — in 1982. She began working at a young age in the business, where she’s now general operations manager and transitioning into ownership.
“I’ve stocked shelves; I’ve delivered product; I’ve helped build pools… I’ve basically done a little bit of everything.”
Michael Krause worked for years in his stepdad’s pool service business before he started his own pool company, First Response Pool Service, north of Los Angeles. He had to overcome a bad break (two, actually) at the start, but that’s all behind him now.
“The weekend I started my business I broke both my legs. Suddenly, my ownership dream seemed to be out the window. But after a year of surgeries and sitting on the couch trying to recover, I just decided, screw it. If I can do well enough to walk, I’ll figure out a way to go service pools all day. And here we are today, going strong. Business couldn’t be better.”
Chase Decker started working summers for a pool company when he was 18. It wasn’t long before his twin brother, Shane, joined him, learning the job from the bottom up; however, the brothers always dreamed of owning their own business. Three years ago, they started Tennessee Valley Pool & Spas, offering retail, service and fiberglass installation.
“I started out putting in pool decks. I kind of liked it though because it was addicting. There’s so many different ways to go about putting in a pool deck. Now, working with my brother, I’m doing more day-to-day operations, and he’s on the installation and service side of things.”
ON THE GREATEST GENERATION OF POOL AND SPA PROFESSIONALS:
The people that built the industry in the last century are leaving it. Some are already gone. This was a generation of entrepreneurs and self-reliant problem solvers. They didn’t have a lot of the educational tools or learning opportunities we have today, but they solved a lot of pool-building challenges, some of them brilliantly. Some years they flourished, whereas other years — 1981, 1991 and 2008 — they just had to hang in there, fighting to survive.
MAGGIE: “What that generation showed us was a lot of grit. I saw it through my dad [Dave Sturino, Maggie’s dad, was the company founder]. He had to push through a lot of things both personally and professionally. They saw a major economic downturn. I was just out of high school when that happened. I was young and naive, and quite honestly, I didn’t really notice it that much because he just pushed forward. He kept everything afloat so that we didn’t feel the negatives of life too much. I have so much respect for all the changes that generation has seen, all the ups and downs. There’s a lot there, a lot of knowledge, a lot of grit that they’ve shown for the last 40 years.”
MICHAEL: “I think it’s amazing to see what they built without the benefit of the technology we have nowadays. We have internet training and access to education — all those things that are out there for us — that they never had. I mean, I can get instant information from my phone. And a lot of the standards just hadn’t been developed when they were starting in the industry. You had to learn from a mentor or another pool guy that said, “Hey, check this out, try this on your pools.’”
CHASE: “They showed us — the younger ones coming into the industry — this is the way it’s supposed to be done. (And it can be challenging to get that across, depending on the generation that you’re talking to.) I think that’s what I respect most. “As part of the younger generation, you think you know. You think you’ve got it figured out, but you haven’t really seen everything they’ve seen. “But yeah, when you’re talking about the older generation, I think it comes down to grit. That was a good word Maggie used. Grit is the best word to describe their work ethic.”
ON COMPETITORS BECOMING COLLABORATING RIVALS:
For much of its history, most companies in the industry have been in bitter competition for customers, and dominated by the idea that what’s good for the pool and spa business next door is bad for me, and vice versa. Companies jealously protected their product and business knowledge so these tools wouldn’t be turned around and used against them. But alongside the changing of the guard, that thought pattern is also changing.
“A rising tide lifts all boats” and “the bigger the pie, the bigger each slice” are two new paradigms that one hears echoing in the words of the younger generation. Of course, competition remains a central driver in business, it always will, but the benefits of collaboration are not lost on the next generation.
MICHAEL: “On the service side, at least out here in Southern California, maybe eight years ago, there were often bad feelings between pool service guys at different companies. Their goal was always quantity over quality. It seemed like it only mattered how many accounts in service you had rather than what your profit numbers were. I remember when I first started going to the Western Pool & Spa Show, it seemed to me like the pool guys didn’t talk as much to each other, they’d just walk right past each other.
“I think that’s changing. You’re seeing a lot more people collectively talking and mingling and laughing. And sometimes, they’re even trying to come up with new ideas together. I really think that’s been good for our industry — working collectively. No matter what side you’re on, whether it’s building, installing or servicing, if we all work together, we’re going to be able to grow this for everyone.
“If another pool guy asks me, ‘Hey, how’d you do this?’ or, ‘What are you adding to the pools to get that perfect touch to it?’ I’ll tell them right away because maybe they’ll find a solution that’s a little bit better than mine, and then tell me about it. I’m here for the long run, and I’m confident in what I’m doing, so I’m not worried about losing something in helping other people — we’re just going to keep growing our industry, which will in turn grow ourselves.”
CHASE: “When I first started, you heard a lot of: ‘We do it the best, so we don’t need to do it in a different way.’ The industry was more cutthroat.
“But there’s always someone better than you. Befriending those guys you looked at as your enemies and seeing what they do can really make you better. I know buying groups do a great job of that — that’s where I’ve learned a lot. I learned from places like Gohlke Pools, where there are people who are really good at this.
“And that was when I knew for a fact: We are not even close to what they’re doing. And it kind of opens up your mind when you see it for the first time.”
MAGGIE: “That is such an important thing, to drop that armor and drop the ego and say, “Okay, I think I’m good at this, but what am I missing?’ But, it can be such a difficult thing to do.
“I’ve cultivated a lot of great relationships with people in the same business all over the country. I think one thing that keeps us coming back for more in this industry is the relationships we build with pool and spa people. There’s nothing like our industry. There really isn’t. I mean, one of the greatest things about the job is I get to do a little bit of everything, right? No day is exactly the same as the one before it, or the one after it, which is really exciting. Nobody really understands what this is like except other people who are doing it, too.
“And having those tighter relationships will help move us toward a common goal. If those of us that really care about the industry stick together and send the right message to the customer, that we’re here to support them, the game will be changed for all of us. Building these relationships with other like-minded professionals is sort of like the product we all make — it’s life-enhancing.”
ON THE NEW WORK-LIFE BALANCE
The generation that is retiring from the pool and spa industry began working before the turn of the century, at a much different time in the country’s history. Work was something you did for money. More work was often considered a good thing, because it meant more money. With both eyes on the paycheck, the unpleasant parts of work were generally tolerated.
At the same time, employee management interpersonal relationships were different. Managers were less aware of workers’ personal lives. It wasn’t really part of the equation. The workplace dynamic is changing rapidly now, led by the next generation.
MAGGIE: “This change is something that has been a frequent topic of conversation between some of my older staff and some of my younger staff and, in particular, between me and my dad. He was born in the sixties, and back then, it was just like show up, shut up, and get to work. That was how they did things, and it took them really far. But we don’t live like that anymore. I’m not seeing that from my generation. We want something more than that.
“I worked seven days a week in the summer for 10-plus years. I have two little kids and a husband that works a nine-to-five during the week. And when COVID hit, it was the first time we were ever regularly together as a family. I took that opportunity to really think about what all this means for us as a business and for my employees. “I made the decision to close on Sundays, which was a really big deal for us. And one that wasn’t met with support right away, but now, it’s met with a lot of understanding. I think my dad sees it, too. I’ve had employees stick with me for much longer because of it.”
“None of this was easy. My dad and I spent a lot of time over the last five years really digging into it. And I kind of pushed him a little bit. He definitely didn’t like it at times, but I really pushed him to try and back out of that management role with employees because I knew what the upcoming generations really needed from their employer. And I’m super thankful my dad is such a smart guy and really an amazing mentor who knows when to take a step back, without taking offense. He finally said, ‘Okay, here, you have it. You take the reins, and I’m going to back out of it as far as managing people goes.’”
ON THE FUTURE OF THE POOL INDUSTRY — WINNING RESPECT
Due to a combination of factors, a profession that requires a combined understanding of chemistry, plumbing, electricity, materials and structural engineering commands relatively little respect among the general public. Job one for the next generation is to dispel consumer ignorance, and grow the respect that is due to the sophisticated endeavor of providing clear, clean, safe recreational water, every single day.
MICHAEL: “I’d like to see this industry go where plumbing, electrical, HVAC have gone. Those industries are respected by customers. The pool industry doesn’t quite have that level of respect yet.
“Right now, where I am, we’re kind of on the same level as landscaping, and when a customer calls for something, they don’t think they should have to pay X amount of dollars for it. Whereas, when the plumber gives them a price, it’s, ‘Oh, I guess that’s what we’ll pay.’”
MAGGIE: “You’re right, Michael, this is something that we’ve been dealing with forever — people asking, ‘Why can’t you just diagnose it over the phone?’ or whatever it may be.
“We get customers that call when my retail staff is super busy in the store, and they want us to sit on the phone and tell them why they’ve got water coming out of their backwash port. We spend so much time and effort in training that we have to look at ourselves more like lawyers. You’re not going to just call up a lawyer and say, ‘Hey, can I get some advice on this?’
“We’re not really respected for the knowledge that we have, so people ask us to give it away for free. One thing we have to do is start positioning what we do as a valuable career. It’s not just a temporary summer job."
“PHTA has an apprenticeship program for service, that’s a step in the right direction. I think it’s about getting things set up for us retailers and service professionals so that we can go into something like a high school career fair and have the materials ready to say to a young person, ‘Hey, there are options in our industry that can give you a lifelong career. Come be an apprentice with us and become a pool service professional — not a pool guy/gal, but a pool service professional.’”
The conversation continues at the AQUA Live Leadership Retreat in December!
Maggie, Michael and Chase will join the AQUA Live Leadership Retreat in December for “Observations From the Next Generation” — a live panel discussion of the transition that’s occurring in our industry, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 13.