It’s been a whirlwind for Lennie Rhoades as he looks back on his first 100 days in office.
After taking the helm of president of Fluidra North America, the new player in the pool arena seems to have already got a handle on the game. Although he’s still relatively new to the industry, his experience is not without some previous pool time.
“A little-known secret,” shared Rhoades, “when I was in high school, I worked for a pool company.” While he may have gotten his humble start in swimming pools by pushing around wheelbarrows full of dirt and concrete and epoxying the bottom of pools, he’s the first to admit that there’s still a lot to learn.
“You have guys that have been doing this for 30 years; the amount of expertise and knowledge they possess is phenomenal. I had some idea of what was involved, but there’s actually a lot more going on with regards to technology.”
What he does bring to the industry is a unique perspective and valuable insight from the home and industrial goods sector, which is somewhat similar, yet distinctly different.
“I think we’re all trying to navigate the internet space.”
He’s talking about online retailers, like Amazon, which have posed a potential threat to the typical sales channels most common in the trade. The question of whether to engage in e-commerce is something the industry has been struggling to answer for some time. Fluidra boldly declared that it was, “Quitting the Internet,” back in 2019 and has since barred all Jandy equipment from being sold online. Other brands followed suit in some fashion, but the challenge still exists.
"The challenge of e-commerce is to find a balance between supporting pool pros while also making sure pool owners can find the products they're looking for. The future of the pool industry is rooted in both protecting the retail business of pool professionals, as only they can provide their customers with the necessary guidance, while embracing the convenience of e-commerce.”
As commerce-focused as that may sound, surprisingly, Rhoades believes the industry is anything but.
“There’s a significant amount of customer loyalty out there; I appreciate that about the industry. Pool pros aren’t chasing a short-term deal; they want quality products and service as well as a commitment to be a better business partner — I think that’s where Fluidra does a particularly good job.”
In his view, the relationship between manufacturer and customers is much “stickier.” It’s not necessarily about the best price — customer loyalty is earned through action and accountability. “You have to work for it, and then you have to work hard to retain it. If you take good care of them, and you deliver a good value proposition, they stick by you, even in very difficult times.”
Challenging and uncertain times are certainly something the industry has experienced over the last few years. The industry continues to navigate challenges stemming from the pandemic-related windfall that propelled a meteoric rise and created supply chain complications leading to product shortages.
“One of the things I kept hearing as I spoke with builders and servicers and retail owners is that we were very honest and transparent during that time; they were paying attention and they remember that, despite the challenges we were up front and transparent with them, it matters.”
Dealing with the aftermath hasn’t been easy either he admits, “Right now, the inventory correction is the giant 800-pound gorilla in the room for all of us.”
The pandemic changed how the industry itself functioned. With demand higher than it’s ever been and product at scarce levels, “dealers’ purchasing habits went from ‘as needed’ to cultivating inventories of their own. Distributors began holding on to stock. Suppliers, wanting to provide sufficient resources, ramped up capacity.”
When demand began to slow, “we found ourselves in this industry-wide inventory overload bubble. But as we figure out what the go-forward looks like, we’ll be back on a nice growth trajectory.”
According to Lennie, the flip side was that as manufacturers were waiting on parts, they were also able to allocate time and resources to developing what’s next.
“We’re all trying to grapple with how technology is going to evolve within our space.”
The pool industry isn’t the only industry asking this question. Technology, in general, is getting smarter, and we’re all trying to figure out how to harness that intelligence and use it to our advantage. Lennie considers pools a fantastic use-case for smart tech because it can deliver real benefits not only to the pool owner, but to pros as well.
Pool owners are already accustomed to being able to turn lights on/off and adjust the temperature without lifting a finger, “but I think we can we add another degree of convenience by leveraging emerging technologies to support pool owners in bringing more of a ‘wow’ factor to owning and enjoying a pool. It's all about helping owners maximize the enjoyment of their pool while making it easier for pros to manage their pools.”
He predicts a significant amount of growth as far as intuitiveness and capability are concerned. “There’s tremendous value still to be unlocked. The pool could be more than just a source of enjoyment, it has the potential to be a more sustainable, cost-effective asset.”
As federal mandates and state regulations are starting to call for increased sustainability, his theory aligns with the current climate of improved efficiency and decarbonization. “We look at places like California that are already implementing stricter guidelines and Florida, where natural gas isn’t widely available — there’s a growing market for a more sustainable pool.”
Traditionally, the backyard pool has been viewed as a ‘nice-to-have,’ but didn’t necessarily add resale value to a home since it wasn’t cost-effective. However, “the pandemic changed that, it’s a lifestyle feature. Now, people want pools — they’re an asset — and as we begin to develop more environmentally friendly pool systems, they will add value.”
Sure enough, as people continue to migrate more to the suburbs, a backyard pool is on their ‘must-have’ list.
“Pool builders are building more interesting and beautiful pools at every price point; you’re not just burying money in your backyard — it’s the centerpiece of a backyard — you want to spend time around it even if you’re not going in it.”
When all is said and done, from Lennie’s perspective — there’s a lot to look forward to. He anticipates a healthy future for the industry.
“We sell enjoyment. People want a swimming pool. I used to be in the lawn and garden business, and people say they like cutting their grass; they all lie. No one likes to cut their grass — it's hot, they have allergies, it's messy. People like their pools. It's a tremendous business.”