A Rich History, A Bright Future

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The team at National Pools, 1980.The team at National Pools, 1980.The state of Virginia is synonymous with the word "history," for it is said to be the birthplace of our nation. And much like its home state, National Pools of Roanoke (Roanoke, Va.), has a rich history with over 40 years of serving its surrounding community.

The family-owned business specializes in building fine inground gunite swimming pools, renovation, service and retail. More recently, the company gained national recognition as "Retailer of the Year" by the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.

We sat down with husband and wife duo Jason Vaughan (vice president) and Ginnie Vaughan (general manager) to discuss everything from National Pools' beginning to merchandising strategy, customer service, staffing secrets and more.

DEEP FAMILY ROOTS

Founded in 1977 by Gloria "Winky" Vaughan and her husband, James Vaughan, National Pools of Roanoke began in a 3,000 sq. ft. building with six employees on the payroll. Gloria's parents, Gordon and Helena Rudd, joined their daughter shortly thereafter to help with the business.

Rudd was a registered engineer with 20 years of swimming pool construction experience. During the 1960s and 70s, Rudd was building pools in the Alexandria, Va., area, a hub for political figures. "Our claim to fame is that my grandfather built the White House pool for President Gerald Ford," says Jason.

The business continued to grow to 40 people on the payroll, and it started to branch out into the commercial market. "We specialized in municipalities, YMCAs and commercial 25- and 50-meter pools," the company's history reads. "The demand kept our 15 crews out of town every night and plastering on the weekends."

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The success influenced a move to National Pools' current (and only) location, just up the road from its original outlet. At 29,000 sq. ft., not only did it fit the growing business, it helped to solidify a retail sector. "Currently, 10,000 sq. ft. of that space is dedicated to a showroom stage," says Ginnie, who oversees daily retail operations.

Today, National Pools is proudly on its third-generation, led by Jason, Lee and Austin Vaughan, along with spouses Ginnie and Mea, and around 50 employees (both full- and part-time). The company continues to see steady growth and builds on its long-term viability.

LET'S TALK SHOP

Three hours from the nearest distributor, National Pools of Roanoke feels a responsibility to be a one-stop shop. "We take pride in having what customers need at the time they need it," says Ginnie, "not only to ensure we are not competing with them shopping online, but being far from distribution, they rely on us to have a large inventory and things in stock."

"We even see business from other pool professionals in the area," adds Jason, "who know that, because we have to carry more inventory than other companies, we will likely have what they need."

National Pools partners with Hydropool Industries, a hot tub manufacturer originated in 1970 with over 250+ retailers around the world. Being that Roanoke is a seasonal area (it averages 15 inches of snow per year), it was important to choose a hot tub that was energy-efficient, or as the company says, "keeps the heat in and the cold out."

As for its store design, National Pools leans on its manufacturers and training provided by United AQUA Group. "I attend Sigura's Aquanology event, which places an emphasis on retail presentation and design," says Ginnie. "And as a UAG member, I also attend the organization's annual conference, which has a great deal of education and roundtable discussions where companies share what is working for them and what isn't."

Its showroom is all about cohesion. "The store is very uniform," says Ginnie. "We try to keep everything, shelving and displays, very similar in color, design, et cetera." The company is fortunate to have enough space for three point-of-sale computers and two water lab computers.

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A great deal of space is also dedicated to outdoor furniture, which has a huge market in Roanoke. National Pools has the largest selection of outdoor furniture and accessories in South West Virginia, from dining sets, seating groups, chaise lounges, umbrellas, hammocks and more.

National Pools is now on its third-generation, led by Jason, Lee and Austin Vaughan along with spouses Ginne and Mea, pictured here with Founder Gloria 'Winky' Vaughan.National Pools is now on its third-generation, led by Jason, Lee and Austin Vaughan along with spouses Ginne and Mea, pictured here with Founder Gloria "Winky" Vaughan.

 

CUSTOMERS AND STAFF

Most pool and spa dealers admit that finding and retaining staff can be difficult, but the Vaughans seem to have solved that puzzle. "We are a familybased business and that extends to our customers and staff," says Jason.

The company, which retains several long-term employees — on average, employees have been with National Pools for 10 years, with some over 30 years — and seasonal help that returns year after year, has a wonderful staff culture, largely based on spending time with one another.

"We have special events throughout the year to keep staff morale up," says Ginnie. "Every third Wednesday of the month, for example, we provide lunch for the entire team to celebrate birthdays for that month.

"We have an annual holiday party, which is a big to-do — a nice dinner with spouses, entertainment, a band, perhaps a casino night and a photo booth. We also do an annual Labor Day pig roast where employees can bring their families to the owner's home, and everyone brings a dish. [The company] also attends minor league baseball games together, where we rent out a pavilion and enjoy a meal."

"This year, we also did a fishing rodeo in a pond at my brother's house," adds Jason.

These relationship-building activities pay off during business hours, as the company has a lot of department overlap. Retail staff has become the "backbone of the business," oftentimes doing a lot of work for other departments. "We are different from other companies because our retail staff is multifaceted. In between customers, they are cleaning the warehouse, ordering things for construction, helping to receive inventory...a lot of different tasks for all departments."

It's not just retail that sees overlap: Each employee knows the overall aspect of everything the company does. "We train all employees to have a general knowledge about all the services we offer, be it retail, service, new construction or renovation," says Ginnie. "And then, of course, in-depth training for their specialty."

"I am a CPO instructor, so each member of our retail staff typically takes the CPO course, too," says Jason.

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But, as any pool and spa professional knows, the industry is always advancing, which is why, during its offseason, National Pools invites its manufacturers to come in and do hands-on training with its staff. "This is always an opportunity for staff to stay up-to-date with new technologies, changes, codes, chemicals, equipment," says Ginnie. "And, for our new staff, it's a chance to physically practice day-to-day tasks they would do in front of customers, like a water test or a pool treatment explanation.

"New employees, which are often seasonal, also job-shadow our experienced staff members until they are ready to be on their own."

The thorough training has paid off for National Pools, as it has developed a very loyal customer base, which depends on the company's "customer-first" mentality and transparency. "We contact people back quickly, and we are very transparent," says Ginnie. "Our customers trust our knowledge, which we don't take lightly."

Customers stop in often, if even just to say hello. "We have some customers who stop in throughout the year to give us cookies or cakes," says Justin. "They don't even need anything, but just like to come by."

After being in business for so long, along with a very successful Customer Appreciation sale, National Pools does a lot to show its thanks. It retains partnerships with Angels of Assisi (Roanoke's local animal shelter), Feeding America Food Drive and Toys for Tots. The business, which still maintains a large commercial side (25% of its retail sales), also does YMCA sponsorships. "We have done the Y Splash program, where elementary students are brought into the YMCA to learn water safety and an introduction to swimming," says Jason. "We also sponsor our local swim team."

In 1987, National Pools moved into its current location at 3112 Melrose Ave., a 29,000-sq.-ft. building.In 1987, National Pools moved into its current location at 3112 Melrose Ave., a 29,000-sq.-ft. building.

 

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PLANNING FOR NEXT SEASON

Like many pool and spa retailers, National Pools of Roanoke was not immune to supply problems brought on by the global pandemic. In fact, as of this interview, the company does not have any hot tubs in stock. "The biggest challenge going into the 2021 season will be not getting materials when you want them," says Jason. "We are accustomed to getting things within a few days or a week. Now, you're looking at a month, two months, three months, and most of the hot tubs are a year out.

"We have had to be very proactive with orders — we went ahead and ordered most things last year. Now, if you haven't placed orders for the upcoming season, you will get caught without inventory."

Ginnie is in the process of growing the company's digital footprint for next season, as she saw a need to move online during COVID. "I am trying to learn from this pandemic," she says, "so I am in the process of exploring an online store. With this past year, customers got into the habit of online, so the industry is going to have to keep up." National Pools will continue to offer curbside pickup and might also implement a delivery service within a certain radius around the store. "The goal is to adapt to these changes without chaos and confusion to our customers."

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Last year, the company saw the loss of commercial customers, so it's hoping to regain those accounts this season. "Our commercial accounts did not open for the season, so they weren't buying their large quantities of chlorine or other chemicals," says Jason, "so our numbers were slightly down, which we account to that commercial loss. We are hoping that in 2021, those accounts will open again."

But even with the uncertainties ahead, the Vaughans remain optimistic and grateful. "Our day-to-day is definitely a little different, but it seems normal now," says Ginnie. "The important thing, and this will never change, is that each time a customer walks into our store, we provide them with a positive and happy experience. The pool and spa industry sells fun. What's better than that?"


This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of AQUA Magazine — the top resource for retailers, builders and service pros in the pool and spa industry. Subscriptions to the print magazine are free to all industry professionals. Click here to subscribe.

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