Some people are just meant to be in the pool and spa industry. Take Rich Gottwald, 53, the new president/CEO of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals.
When he was 11, his family got a vinyl-liner pool for their backyard in a Boston suburb. Gottwald was appointed caretaker of the pool and grounds. For approximately seven years, until he left for college, he vacuumed the pool, backwashed the filter and took water samples to the pool store. He learned about pool care by asking questions at the store.
“The pool was the center of our family,” he says. “We hung out there all the time. We had every [water] game imaginable.” With two brothers and three sisters, Gottwald had plenty of playmates. “We were like the Brady Bunch,” he adds with a laugh. “I had a great childhood.”
Gottwald obtained a Bachelor of Science in plastics engineering from University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and his first job was at Dow Chemical in a Houston lab. “Being in a desk facing a corner — that wasn’t for me,” Gottwald says. At one point, after vacationing in Washington, D.C., he returned to work there for the Society of the Plastics Industry. He was executive director of its business units, implemented research and conference programs, and successfully lobbied for industry-supported construction code changes at the federal, state and local levels for nearly five years.
“That got me hooked on association work,” says Gottwald, who has been a Certified Association Executive (CAE) since 2000.
Not surprisingly, then, he went on to become president of the Plastics Pipe Institute, where he also acted as an industry spokesman and lobbyist for nearly 10 years. Subsequent association work included a year as executive vice president at the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, followed by six years as executive vice president of the International Sign Association.
“I’ve been in trade associations for a long time,” Gottwald says. “The opportunity to lead this group [APSP] is exciting.” Indeed, he decided to come on board because of the challenges he saw. The biggest one facing the association, he says, is the need to “really focus on a few key issues that will drive business to our companies.”
He also wants to show members that APSP is getting the most out of every dues dollar. “I understand that has been a concern in the past,” he notes. Gottwald has other ideas he’d like to implement, but says he cannot divulge his plan for APSP before presenting it to the Board of Directors. Details of the plan will emerge in the days ahead, he explains.
As he sees it, the biggest challenge facing the industry is to continue to fight unnecessary regulations that limit the industry. It’s important to protect businesses, Gottwald says, adding, “A big challenge is to highlight the benefit of our products to consumers. When I spoke at the [Las Vegas] show, I pointed out that ‘the person sitting next to you is not your competitor. The competitors are cruise ships, beach houses — that’s the competition you should care about.’”
His goals as APSP’s CEO include boosting the visibility of industry products, and APSP itself. Making pool and spa products at top of mind for consumers is a must, and he advocates going directly to consumers, or providing tools for members to do so, either by traditional means or social media. And, he adds, it’s important that members and the industry know what APSP does day in, day out, and that they recognize the role it plays in helping protect companies’ ability to do business.
He’s a big fan of APSP’s new organizational structure, which was announced last November. The board was reduced from 24 to nine, and more work is being done by task-specific committees. “It will be a huge benefit for the industry,” Gottwald predicts. “Twenty-four directors slows things down. With nine, the board can respond to issues quicker, agree to plans and strategize quickly. We have monthly conference calls and it’s already happening. The board is more nimble and responsive. … We want APSP to become a critical partner to members.”
Since taking office, he’s been traveling extensively and getting acquainted with industry professionals. “I’ve been visiting chapters, suppliers, typical pool companies, hot tub companies, allied trade associations — getting the lay of the land. I’ve been to the four corners of the country,” he says. And that’s not going to stop. Gottwald intends to continue meeting and greeting because he sees it as part of the job.
He’s been impressed by the reception he’s received. “The industry has been very welcoming. It’s amazing, like a family. They treat me like a long-lost friend,” he says. “They’re looking for leadership [and connections].”
Speaking of family, his siblings all still live in Boston. There are four engineers, and three siblings are pool owners. His father was a wood worker, specializing in residential additions and renovations. Now 83 and retired, he still keeps busy with projects. His mother was a school bus driver for 40 years. “The greatest lesson they taught me was to work hard and not give up. Be persistent,” Gottwald recalls.
In his spare time he likes to travel and play tennis. Last May, Gottwald and his significant other of 27 years went through Europe to Istanbul and on a small cruise on the Black Sea.
They live in Washington, D.C., in a renovated brownstone. “It looks like 1905 on the outside, but is very modern inside,” Gottwald says. There’s no pool, but they do have a rooftop deck and, he says enthusiastically, “I could see a hot tub there [someday].”
Gottwald’s parting words reflect his attitude toward his new role. “Before, when people would ask where I worked, I would say in the pipe or sign industry, and they left,” Gottwald says. “Now I say I work for the pool and spa industry, and people are interested. I’m loving my job. It’s a great industry.”