Want to earn John T. Kalas’ business? Besides being bonded, insured and holding a state contractor’s license, there are a few more qualities he expects before he hires you to maintain pools at any of the condominiums, homeowner associations or retirement communities his company manages.
1. Look sharp. We’re not talking pleated slacks and neckties — this is manual labor, after all — but a polo shirt branded with your company’s logo and a clean-cut appearance goes a long way.
2. If you’re scheduled to service the pool Monday, Wednesday and Friday, here’s some advice: Service the pool on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
3. Communicate. Check in with the onsite property manager when you arrive. Check out when you leave. At the very least, leave a note at the pump house detailing the work you performed.
Kalas says pool pros who follow these simple precepts are achingly hard to come by. “Quite frankly, I don’t think there are nearly enough of them,” says the CEO of La Mesa, Calif.-based Castle-Breckenridge Management. Kalas is a member of the Community Association of Community Managers and any poolsmith he appoints should be active with the organization. Flipping through an association handbook, he cited a scant few pool vendors advertised. “There must be 50,000 pools in San Diego,” he says. “Where are you guys?”
Greater earnings, greater risk
The call for qualified, professional aqua-jocks who can service commercial facilities is loud and clear. If you’re a residential pool service provider planning to wade into this market, use caution, or you could be out of your depth.
“We have prospective franchisees that come to us and say, ‘We want to jump into commercial right away.’ We’re very cautious of them because there is a learning curve,” says Willan Johnson, CEO of VivoPools. Based in Monrovia, Calif. the firm’s company-owned division maintains about 300 large commercial properties, among them: Marriott and Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “It’s much more complex,” he adds. “The risk of error is that much greater.”
So are the potential earnings. Luke Norris, president of Luke Pool Service in Alpharetta, Ga., puts it this way: “If you land a couple of commercial accounts, and do some renovations, you can build up a nice cash reserve.” He recently added a commercial division to his company called Stillwater Pool Management. He hopes the name will net him more lucrative accounts. “That’s our bread and butter,” he says.
But with the opportunity to service a health club or resort comes higher expectations. You could be on call 24 hours a day. You’ll need to be proficient with the latest technology, such as automated chemical feeders, and privy to federal, state and local regulations. You’ll be the point person for health inspectors. You may be pulled into a client’s annual budgeting process. (Be prepared to make a presentation.) And let’s not forget the mounds of paperwork, insurance requirements and contracts — things most homeowners aren’t going to bother you with. “I think the first thing you need to ask yourself is: Do you have the infrastructure and desire to support commercial accounts seven days a week?” says Johnson.
The way to HOAs
There are numerous avenues by which an enterprising pool pro can enter the commercial market — public facilities, water parks, country clubs, etc. But homeowner associations are perhaps the easiest to tap into. Governed by a board of like-minded neighbors, HOAs are responsible for a common-interest development’s general upkeep and managing its recreational amenities; a community pool, for example. Think of them as mini municipalities.
HOAs typically hire property management companies to handle day-to-day operations of the community, such as contracting with service vendors. That gives service firms multiple points of entry. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to network through trade associations. Norris recently became a sponsor of the Community Association Institute, a membership organization of property managers and service providers. He says attending its meetings and advertising in its newsletters is yielding positive results. “We’ve been getting a lot more calls for quotes,” Norris says.
Community pools at apartment complexes, condos and gated communities typically aren’t much bigger than the average residential pool. But because they’re commercial facilities, they’re subject to federal, state and local laws that backyard pools aren’t held to. These high-use pools must also be serviced and repaired more often. “You do generate more money, but it’s more work, so you’ve got to be ready for that,” says Joe Lopes, owner of Pristine Pools in Fresno, Calif. “You better be sure you have the manpower.”
There are more than 323,000 association-governed communities, and growing, in the United States. Last year, HOA boards oversaw more than $35 billion for the long-term maintenance of property assets, according to the Community Associations Institute.
Some pool companies are entirely devoted to this niche. “Homeowner associations have very specific needs,” says Lori Cline. She is in the unique position to understand those needs. Cline was a manager of a 3,000-unit development with an impressive assortment of aquatic amenities such as an Olympic-sized pool, lagoon, children’s wading area, water features and spas. She worked closely with the HOA board, helping set budgets and selecting qualified vendors. She used this experience as a springboard to the pool industry. Her company, HOA Pool Services in Rocklin, Calif., maintains 100 to 200 community pools in four counties. “I just think it’s helpful because I’ve sat on the other side of the desk, so I know what these managers are going through,” she says.
Because she is accustomed to how community associations operate, she understands that when repairs need to be made, she must provide photos and documentation to the board, make a presentation, and sit in on the budgeting process. “You’re going to be much more involved,” she says.
This niche market isn’t for everyone. The very things that make it accessible — multiple points of contact through board members and management firms — are also what make it challenging. “HOAs are great clients, but they tend to be a little more hands-on,” Johnson says.
The pool service provider will have to work within what some consider a burdensome organizational structure. “There are a lot of different people you’re going to be dealing with,” says Trevor Sherwood, owner of Brick, N.J.-based Pool Operation Management. Prior to going into consulting, Sherwood provided maintenance and lifeguard services to HOAs. “You have board members from the condo, then you have the property manager who’s usually the one doing the selection process. Then once you get hired, there’s a pool committee you’ll have to deal with … That’s one of the reasons why I got out of it.”
There also tends to be a lot of turnover among on-site managers. And large property management firms frequently snap up smaller firms. That means vendors will find themselves answering to new companies with new ways of doing business. That’s why Norris is marketing his services toward HOAs that are self-managed. “Say they fire ABC Property Management Co., then you’re out the door,” says Norris. “You’re better off making strides with the association board.”
The HOA market has its drawbacks, but it’s an arena in which you can rapidly develop a good reputation. Property management firms oversee dozens — even hundreds — of communities. Lopes began specializing in this market three years ago. Now he has three full-time employees maintaining 280 community pools. “If you provide good service, you’re name begins to pop up around the office, then you start getting calls,” he says.