denise baker

Subway. 7-Eleven. Dunkin’ Donuts. Hertz. These brands sit at the top of the U.S. franchise world, and are part of a category containing nearly one million similar companies throughout the country.

Yet despite more than 5 million existing pools in the U.S., the industry’s service sector is all but absent from the list of success stories.

However, that might be changing. A notable shift in the background of proprietors, a low barrier to entry and a focus on new technology have combined to create the ideal climate for the formulation of service franchises.

“Service franchises are increasing in general,” says Susan Kezios, president of the Chicago-based American Franchisee Association. “People’s lives are getting busier. They don’t have time to stop and do things, even those they like to do. So it doesn’t surprise me that cleaning, repairing and remodeling services have entered the market.”

As such, she says, the industry is ripe for the business model.

Power to the people

While the trend is still in its infancy, a new breed of business owner is entering the pool and spa service sector by way of franchising. Take VivoPools for example. The Monrovia, Calif.-based firm began operating in 2010 and functions in its home state, as well as Florida, Arizona and Nevada. It established its first franchises in the summer of 2012 and in a few short months now has six throughout California and Arizona.

Like the owners of VivoPools themselves, half of the new franchisees do not have previous experience in the pool industry.

“We’re attracting people in civil service, as well as veterans,” says CEO Willan Johnson. “It’s a broad mix of folks.”

Following some of the basic principles of franchising, VivoPools provides a training program they claim can turn even novices into successful service technicians. Other firms have also purposefully targeted those with little-to-no prior pool knowledge.

In fact, Stewart Vernon has built his company on this very premise.

The CEO of Macon, Ga.-based America’s Swimming Pool Co. founded the company in 2001 and started franchising in 2005. It has since grown to 110 territories in 12 states. This year alone, the firm entered Arizona, Virginia, Iowa and Mississippi. Ninety percent of these business owners did not have a background in pool service.

“That was our model, to bring business-minded folks with the intent of being self-employed to the industry,” he says noting that his company has yet to tap into the large conversion market, companies who already exist as a service firm but may lack the know-how to succeed and grow independently.

Time for technology

Compared to many franchises, a pool service company has a low barrier to entry, making it an affordable alternative for entrepreneurs interested in launching their own business. For starters, having a dedicated location isn’t necessary to function which eliminates many of the expenses.

In addition, before the advent of smart technology, a technician who wanted to check a price for a customer would have to follow numerous steps, including calling the office and manufacturer to work up a quote. By using handheld tools in the field that interface with the latest software, one can determine a quote in minutes and show it to the client with little effort, explains Dan Rubenstein, managing partner of ZipWorks, a pool service firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Started in April 2012 by a group of technology professionals and entrepreneurs, ZipWorks joins ASP and VivoPools by gearing up to launch proprietary software in 2013 that will enable their businesses to streamline operations. The tools will become essential as franchisees seek more ways to eliminate overhead, reduce time in the field and reduce staff, all perks that Rubenstein deems as serious selling points for the franchise model.

Vernon also plans to release a new program for his franchisees early next year. “It will automate a lot of the things our franchisees have been doing manually and will increase efficiency of routing and streamline the communication process for technicians and homeowners,” he says.

Firms that have expertise in service, but lack the knowledge to create and update their websites or establish a strong presence online also are turning to these tech-savvy franchisors for guidance and support. These days, franchisors are providing the latest technology to help with everything from creating web portals and increasing a franchisee’s search engine optimization to managing social media accounts and assisting with online customer service management.

“Think about all the time and effort it takes to set up Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Those are things we are doing now so that our franchisees don’t have to do it,” says Rubenstein. “We would rather have them out in the field managing customers and employees and new customers instead of handling their twitter account. There are so many moving items and variables right now if someone who specializes in technology doesn’t handle all of those things, in today’s competitive environment, you are going to be dead in the water and lose that business.”

Potential for prospects

As a franchisee, an owner can benefit from the training and technology provided to them, but brand recognition sits at the core of the business model’s success. Franchisees are able to capitalize on this and take advantage of opportunities that may not have otherwise been afforded to them. Such is the case with commercial work, which has seen a dramatic uptick in the last two years, says Vernon.

ASP recognized the increased demand for reliable service and remodeling management and began marketing more heavily to hotels, motels, property management associations and other commercial accounts. A number of these corporations have signed on with the company and the firm has, in turn, been able to pass those maintenance, repair and remodeling jobs down to its franchisees.

Without the brand backing the service companies, Vernon says there is less likelihood that the firm would have landed the routes independently.

The same holds true for VivoPools. Its roster comprises 15 percent of commercial vendors. Thirty percent of the franchisors’ overall revenue stems from these accounts, five of which are with top management companies in the country, Johnson says.

Experts believe commercial properties rely more heavily on companies with a brand because franchisees uphold a certain level of customer service and knowledge, which is crucial when dealing with the many safety codes and policies pertaining to public facilities.

“Properties are looking for someone they can count on and lower overall risk,” he adds.