• Credit: Bobby Hill

David Townley went from flying planes to piloting a pool and spa retail/service company. Not your typical entry path to the industry, but this is no ordinary company.

Townley Pool & Spa of Little Rock, Ark., was founded by Tracye Townley in 1986. As David tells it, his parents had a pool built, then the company left. When the question of pool care arose, his mother researched “maintenance” and realized there was a market niche that could be filled. So she started a pool supply store and ran it exclusively for 10 years. Her husband, Larry, eventually left his architectural firm and they ran Townley together for 15 years.

David remembers helping out by running water samples and carrying out packages as a kid. “It was fun getting to know the customers and their pools,” he says. After high school he went to the U.S. Naval Academy, was a Navy pilot for 10 years, and flew professionally for three more. At that point, his folks asked, “Are you ready to take over the business?”

It was an easy “yes” for David, who wanted to work for a company where he had a say in how things were run. He came in as a manager and learned the ropes from Tracye. Larry had left the company presidency, but remained as an adviser. “We call him the ‘Polaris whisperer’ because he fixes cleaners,” David says of his dad. “He likes to tinker and can fix anything. We joke that when he fully retires, we’ll bring him cleaners to fix [as a hobby].”

David Townley, 37, has been company president for three years now. The plan was for him to acquire more and more ownership over a four-year transition period while learning about various aspects of the business.

Of the transition, David says there are always some bumps, but it’s gone well overall. “We’re much more automated now,” he says. “My mom doesn’t necessarily like computerized over paper, but she understands that’s the future, and we need it. She trusts me to implement a computerized system smoothly.”

Another, smaller change has occurred on the service side. Pool technicians are leaving helpful notes and stickers on equipment for the owners, David reports. “I want to make sure our customers see us as a resource. We’re not just here to sell a product and move on. We truly care about our customers.”

Townley also cares about his eight-person staff. Calling it a tightknit group, he says, “We really are a family here — and we know each other’s families, all the spouses and kids. There’s no employee turnover.” The average tenure at the company is 14 years, and one person has been there 23 years.

“I want employees to have a ‘career’ here as I grow the business [in the future],” Townley adds. “Usually a company will say the most important person is the customer, but I follow the Southwest Airlines motto.” That motto, in the words of Larry Kelly, Southwest’s CEO, is this: “Everything begins and ends with our people. If we keep our employees happy and engaged, they will keep our customers happy, who will reward us with their loyalty.”