Q&A with Todd Starner, director of IPSSA Region 11

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1. The general economy in 2009 was down in most areas of the U.S. How did that affect service in your part of Florida?

There have been a lot of foreclosures in Florida, but that's not been a problem for service companies. For every pool lost to foreclosure there's a bank or real estate company that needs a service person to clean up a pool and get it ready to sell.

At the same time, with the number of new pools down, some pool builders have gotten into service business, mostly for pools they've already built.

From what I've seen, the only drag on the industry from the economy is that people are more reluctant to invest in new technology. They're more likely to stick with what they've got than try a new product, so I've seen a slight dip in my new equipment sales. That's about it.

I'm doing fewer pools but making more money per pool. I've just gone down the list of customers, and where I've had a customer on the lower end of pricing, I've raised their rates. I'm prepared to accept it if they want to go with another service company.

I've been doing pools since 1988, and I'm an IPSSA provider, and I feel I can charge more for the service I provide than someone who's just gotten into the business. And I've found that the people who have money are willing to pay to have the job done well.

2. A common concern in the AQUA survey was unlicensed competitors. Is that a problem in your area?

Yes, unlicensed providers are a problem here in Florida because their costs are less - they don't have to pay for insurance, they don't have the same taxes. I saw an article that said their costs were 42 percent less, so that makes it difficult for licensed contractors to compete with them.

3. Is it hard for service businesses to find good employees in Florida?

For the guys who are looking for new employees, I see people getting into the industry, especially right now, that are not thinking long-term. Maybe they worked in a bank or in retail, and they were laid off, and they're thinking, "I'll just do this for now, and then later when the economy is better I'll get out of it." So they're not as excited about learning or taking classes because they don't think they'll need it in the long-term.

4. How have salt chlorine generators impacted your business?

Well, for me they're an opportunity to make money on replacing the cells and especially adding chemicals because the type of chlorine that salt chlorine generators make means you're always fighting to keep pH in line.

But unfortunately, salt chlorine generators are often sold as if they're giving the homeowner a chlorine-free pool or a maintenance-free pool.

We had a big rain here in Florida, and I had to add some chlorine to a client's pool to get the residual back up, and she came running out yelling, "That's a chlorine-free pool and you're ruining it!"

I had to explain to her of course how salt chlorine generators really work. But that idea is very common.

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