Service Voice 2013: Pete Coccaro, Jr.

For the service portion of our State of the Industry issue, we spoke we three of the industry’s leading service professionals to serve as our “service voices.” In these profiles, they share how their businesses fared last year, their strategies for success and their vision for the future. For 2013, we spoke with Bob Nichols, Pete Coccaro, Jr. and Stewart Vernon.  

Pete Coccaro, JrPete Coccaro, Jr. CEO Nautilus Pools Port Charlotte, Fla.

Pete Coccaro, veteran of the pool and spa industry, is president of FSPA and owner of Nautilus Pools in Port Charlotte, Fla. With 14 employees, Nautilus Pools does a wide range of work for a wide range of customers — middle income, affluent and commercial. The company does construction, repair, and is just starting to get back into traditional service work.

What’s the economy look like where you are? How are things going?

It’s a little bit better. I’ve talked to a lot of people throughout the state, and everybody is pretty much in the same boat. There are some hot spots, of course, on our coast, the West coast of Florida. The Bradenton/Sarasota area and the Naples area are doing a little better than the area in-between. I’m in the area in-between.

Everything has changed in the last few years. We all know that. If somebody doesn’t, they’re not on this planet.

Psychologically, where is the Florida pool owner/consumer right now? How are your customers feeling?

I think they’re feeling a little better. We’re starting to see things loosen up a bit. Even Sun Trust is starting to lend money for pools and they didn’t do that for years. So we’re definitely seeing an uptick and customers that feel a little better about spending money.

Florida has seen a lot of pool legislation in the last few years, and I know you’re involved in representing the industry. What’s going on right now?

I just got back from Tallahassee. We went up there because we’re trying to get a service bill passed and we’re trying to get everybody on the same page.

It involves licensing for service people. Back in … ’93, I think it was, Florida passed a building code and pool service got pushed out of it. We’re trying to get it back in.

Right now you can chemically service a pool without a license, which I don’t think is good because I’ve seen people destroy interiors of swimming pools because they didn’t know what they were doing. They were selling themselves as a service company but they had no training, no license and they simply didn’t know what they were doing.

We want the education element brought back into it, because everything in the pool industry has changed a lot in the last five to 10 years. Between safety compliance and variable speed motors and salt generation, it’s a lot more complicated.

Also, there’s a loophole in the current law that prevents people from getting a contractor’s license to work on pumps. In order to get the contractor’s license to work on pumps, they have to work for somebody else for three years to gain experience. Well, if you have your own company and you’re your own boss, how do you get that license? The answer is: you can’t. This bill will give those people an avenue to get their license.

So we’re trying to help some people get the right license and prevent other people from doing what they shouldn’t be doing.

Making any progress?

Well, we’re fighting it out in Tallahassee, and we’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s moving along. We don’t know if we’ll get it through this time; we tried it once before, and it didn’t make it.

Here in Florida, you have to be heard in the Senate and the House three times. You might get it through one committee and see it pass, but if you get to the second and they don’t even want to hear it, the bill is dead.

So we’re trying to keep it moving through all the phases. Or if that doesn’t work, attach it to another bill.

But you know, even though we’re up there in Tallahassee screaming as loud as we can, the legislature doesn’t consider us a major problem. It’s unfortunate, because we are a big industry in the state of Florida.

The unlicensed contractor issue is a thorny one…

Yes, that’s the other thing we’re really working on. It’s really a problem here in Florida. It’s rampant. We’re trying to get the fine if you’re caught raised from $1,000 to $2,000.

It really is a big problem here. If I was a code enforcement person, I could fill out books of fines every day.

I don’t think you can ever stop it, but you have to keep chasing it to keep it from getting out of hand. I mean, like everybody else, I read the articles coming out of California estimating work being 50 percent unlicensed — that’s an epidemic. That’s huge.

So unlicensed activity and the service bill I mentioned, those are our focus for us this year.

What about the ADA deadline? Are the commercial pools out there taking steps to comply or are they just waiting to see what happens?

Both. We’re seeing a few pools getting the lifts. We’ve put them in a few hotels and I’ve done a couple of campgrounds. And everything we build new has to have it – you can’t get a permit without it. But the older ones, when we suggest they take care of it, they’re still fighting us. And I see a lot of places that don’t have them.

Money’s tight for everyone, and when you start talking to them about maybe $4,500 or more, they fight that. All I can do is tell them that, if you get fined, it’s a lot more.

So what some of them are thinking is, “I’ll wait until someone makes a stink about it.”

Where would you put the compliance rate? 50 percent?

Less than that. I honestly think that a lot of them have not even been notified. They’re not even aware of it. I don’t know who is out there telling them they’ve got to do this, but a lot of them don’t know about it.

Our survey listed healthcare costs as a top concern. Is that one of yours?

Yes. The cost of health insurance for my employees in the last three years has gone up dramatically. It’s gone up 8, 10, maybe 12 percent. Each year.

I have employees that choose not to have it. They’d just rather have the money because of what it costs.

Another top issue was Internet competition.

We deal with that all the time. When we quote for putting in a heater, people are comparing us to the Internet. Same with heat pumps, variable speed pumps, we see it a ton.

I always tell them a few things. Number one, I have to pay sales tax, you don’t. Second, I have to pay someone to pick up the pump, bring it to you, wire it and set it up, and then there’s that one last thing — I love to make a profit. And that’s why my pump costs more.

Some companies do it, and others won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

It’s tougher for retail stores. At all our quarterly meetings, there’s a lot of talk about it. The Internet, the Internet, the Internet. At the very least, I would love to see them have to pay sales tax on the Internet.

What’s your biggest business concern right now?

Pricing has gotten so tight on everything that volume has got to stay where it is. If we go into a double dip recession . . . well, I’ve seen a lot of companies go out. I saw a good friend go out in this recession, a company just like mine, and that scared me.

And the issue is these low-end pool companies. Right now the average consumer is looking at price, and that’s hard for a company that is doing things right and trying to get a fair dollar for it. You can cut costs, but there’s a point where you can’t go any lower and still make a profit. And the competition, at times, does it below where anyone can make a profit.

That’s a part of the problem. At times, our industry is its own worst enemy.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

Want more from our Service State of the Industry story?

Check out Part I and Part II of our series here.  
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