The pool industry is dying. There, I’ve said it.
Fortunately, for some, a new industry is emerging.
But the question remains: Are you part of the old industry, one that is seemingly content to reproduce mediocre holes in the ground that (it is hoped) hold water? Content with, as Bill Cosby once said, “the regular way”?
This is an industry smug enough to believe we can continue to do what we’ve always done. As a result, many firms will continue producing substandard projects for an unsuspecting public.
Case in point: Who taught you about the pool business?
Most of us started out working for someone else. Our bosses probably had little to no formal training and may not have been the best — but hey, it’s all we knew.
Over time, we decided we could do it all ourselves, and became unaware proliferators of mediocrity, doing some things wrong for so many years that it became long-ingrained habit.
But almost in spite of us, our product was so attractive and alluring that it continued to sell. Demand for the backyard watering hole grew, and the market grew with it, ultimately encompassing the middle class and beyond.
No longer were we just creating pools for the privileged few; over time, loads of people started to want that little slice of paradise in their backyards.
And it’s continued to increase, despite the fact that many of us did such poor jobs of satisfying our clients that we became uncomfortable running into them afterward.
One day, while I was leading an industry seminar in a popular pool-building town, I had an epiphany right in the middle of class. I told the attendees that I had a surprise for them.
“I have a list of 20 pool projects completed by several of your companies,” I said, adding that I had arranged for a bus to transport the class from pool to pool.
We would visit these projects, I explained, examine the craftsmanship and, most importantly, interview the purchasers and ask about the experience: How had our local industry performed? Were they satisfied? Was the job completed on time? Would they recommend their pool company to others?
The room grew very quiet. Most faces registered a distinct look of fear as they began to realize their projects could be included on the tour, and they might not fare so well. Few people, if any, were completely at ease.
The exercise was only a fabrication, but the message was clear: How would your company hold up under such a peer review process?
Today, there is a handful of truly successful designers and contractors whose work leaves clients so satisfied that they actually promote the companies on their own. Much of the marketing for this lucky bunch is done by customers.
Years ago I had another slight, but important, epiphany in my professional life.
I was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for an industry event that included a ride on a riverboat. It was a clear, crisp night, and I enjoyed looking at the beautiful, ornate houses lining the banks. These homes were architecturally magnificent and wonderfully landscaped — and most of them included pools.
Now, admittedly, this was a long time ago. But I remember thinking, “Why do these beautiful, high-end homes have such ordinary pools?”
There were 15-by-30-foot, kidney-shaped pools with pale blue waterline tiles, a diving board with a fast fill spout underneath, surrounded by a ribbon of colored cement patio.
First, let me say I’m not fond of body-part pools. And if I were, it certainly wouldn’t be a kidney. But the question remained: Why didn’t these homes, which deserved so much more, only feature these pools?
Then the answer dawned on me. It was our fault. They were never offered anything more. We had failed them. We’d become so busy stamping out mediocre vessels that we’d let down many of our clients.
Our industry, for the most part, didn’t have any design background. For that matter, we barely had a construction background. We certainly hadn’t studied the basic elements of design; we didn’t know about scale.
We had a limited palette of materials, and made little effort to ensure our vessels fit in unobtrusively, or created a welcoming space with water. We simply offered up models A, B, C and D, and that was the choice we gave our clients.
But do you want to know what the true crime here is? It’s the fact that many of us are still producing similar projects some 30 years later.
I still see these infamous body-part pools, perhaps augmented by an inappropriately placed faux rock or an arbitrarily built-up wall with sheeting water.
Standing on the upper deck of the riverboat that evening, I felt a strong desire to change this rather perverse injustice. I decided I would try to offer something more. I decided to learn.
Lord knows I had plenty of room to grow. Coming up through the service side of the industry, I eventually began taking on renovations, and one day decided that I, too, could be a pool builder.
For me, that riverboat ride was the start of an unending journey to, quite simply, get better.
Unfortunately, I meet a lot of people who continue to grandfather themselves into a perceived level of competence while dismissing quality education.
Frankly, I’m amazed.
Now let me say that I’m a big proponent of mimicking successful people. And why not? It’s often said that a wise man learns from his mistakes, but a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others.
Isn’t that what education is all about — learning from someone who’s already made the initial errors and is willing to share their knowledge with others in the hope that they will avoid the same mistakes? What a concept!
With the current economy impacting myriad pool business sectors, we must get better at what we do to survive.
Many people simply won’t. In fact, I know of several businesses across the country that already have become casualties of poor market conditions. Others will barely squeak by.
But some will actually prosper.
Look around our industry to see who is succeeding. Note what they are doing. Look at their work product, methods and operating procedures, and decide if that model might work for you.
Or don’t. The choice is yours.
A new, parallel industry is emerging, a confluence of landscape architects and designers, water-related environment designers and contractors, architects, pond professionals and environmental artists who work in and around water.
These people understand the great opportunity before us.
We create environments with water that, when done correctly, can be life-changing for those who own them.
To me, a well-designed and executed aquascape can be viewed in the same way as a fine wine: mood changing and life enhancing — something to be appreciated day in and day out.
You see, my theory on wine is as follows: If I have a less-than-perfect day, I deserve one of my most special bottles of wine. If I have a spectacularly special day, I should celebrate with one of my most special bottles of wine.
Either way, I deserve a great bottle of wine. I feel the same about my clients and their water projects.