Franchising in the U.S. pool industry is in its infancy. What will it look like when it reaches full maturity?
Probably a lot like Australia.
The days of the independent one-poler are numbered Down Under with family-owned pool stores similarly teetering on extinction. Cropping up in their place are networks of affiliated businesses that are giving entrepreneurs an easy entry into a complicated industry and veterans a viable exit strategy.
Aussies say franchising, which took hold in the pool service sector more than 20 years ago, has helped bring order to what was a somewhat chaotic field and raised the level of professionalism considerably. To hear them tell it, the business model just might be the answer to some of America’s pool industry woes (e.g., succession, Internet competition and the ever present challenge of recruiting young, educated talent.)
Here, PSN takes you to the land of sand, kangaroos and didgeridoos to explore franchising’s impact in Oz.
A couple of quick facts about Australia: With 1.2 million swimming pools, it has the highest concentration of pool ownership in the world. It also happens to be the most franchised nation (on a per capita basis).
The pool industry alone boasts four franchises: PoolWerx, Swimart, Clark Rubber and Jim’s Pool Care. Combined, these companies have about 500 retail and service operations throughout the nation.
Though the U.S. pool industry has a couple of large franchises, namely America’s Swimming Pool Co. and Pinch-A-Penny, currently with about 400 locations between them, you’re not going to see their brands emblazoned across a Ford Charger in a NASCAR event. In terms of sheer brand power, these Australian companies blow their American counterparts out of the water.
Most Aussies have heard of PoolWerx regardless of whether they own a pool. They’re aware of Swimart and they know Clark Rubber as the place with the duckbill platypus mascot that sells aboveground pools. Jim’s Pool Care is another marketing powerhouse, operating under Jim’s Group, a franchisor of do-it-for-me services such as dog washing, gardening and pest control, among others.
“Every one of our territories is designed to support one store and three service vans and that’s a million dollars-plus per annum,” says John O’Brien, CEO of PoolWerx in Brisbane, Queensland. His 22-year-old company advertises nationally during Australia’s Funniest Home Videos and sponsors Lockwood Racing, one of the country’s top-performing V8 Supercar teams. (Think Australia’s NASCAR equivalent.)
With more than 80 stores and 300 service vans, the PoolWerx network represents 10 percent of the nation’s pool and spa care professionals.
The combined might of these franchises have given the industry sway with the government when lobbying for trade certifications. (Yes, that’s an issue Down Under, too.)
Last year, PoolWerx received a $250,000 grant from the National Workforce Development Fund to train its 300 technicians to receive nationally accredited industry certifications. It was the first time the government established qualifications recognizing the trade’s expertise. (However, holding a license is not yet a legislative requirement, something PoolWerx hopes to amend.)
After the government sanctioned a pathway toward professionalism, PoolWerx opened a new training center last year at its Brisbane headquarters. The $500,000 facility features two working full-size pools and a spa where trainees can get hands-on experience installing equipment. Trainees also can learn about sales techniques, merchandising and POS management in a retail environment. (It’s a concept not foreign to the United States. Macon, Ga.-based America’s Swimming Pool Co. completed a similar project earlier this year.)
The nation’s franchising figureheads say the model’s emphasis on educating the trade is not only raising the bar for the industry, it’s attracting top-notch talent. It’s opening the field to a broad spectrum of university-educated professionals who cut their teeth in the corporate world and are now considering the pool business as a way to strike out on their own. It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of franchisees come from outside of the industry.
“Australians like the notion of being in business for themselves, but not necessarily by themselves,” says Chris Fitzmaurice, Swimart’s national franchise manager. The Sydney-based company, a division of Waterco, opened its first store in 1983. It currently has 67 stores throughout Oz, four in New Zealand and dispatches some 250 service vans daily. New recruits go through 23 days of training and are assigned a Swimart mentor for the first six months.
“That’s one of the reasons why franchising in this sector has worked so well,” he adds. “If you elect to join the industry through franchising, you expect a level of support and ongoing training to run the business successfully.”
Aussie industry observers also credit franchising for setting new standards in retailing and merchandizing. Two decades ago, most stores were simply service shops with a few supplies arranged in haphazard fashion. Franchising came along and gave the shopper a new experience. Suddenly, stores were bright, clean and organized and — due to the cookie cutter structure in which franchisees operate — weren’t drastically different from one to the next.
“It’s also filtered into the independent stores,” Fitzmaurice says. “Good independent stores realized that to compete and be successful, they had to [step up] their game in the way they retail products.”
Another notable difference in the way Aussies and Americans do business: Price. There isn’t a whole lot of undercutting Down Under. Franchisees are trained to sell on benefits, not cost. “It’s meant that gross profit margins are much higher than in the U.S.,” says O’Brien, who calculates the average gross profit across the PoolWerx network is 24.5 percent. “It’s nothing in our group to have franchise owners taking home $250,000 of family income a year.”
Higher prices? But isn’t that counterintuitive in this age of stiff Internet competition?
Franchising addresses that by arming operators with products shoppers can’t find online. “What we’re doing is negotiating with suppliers by saying ‘Give us another brand that we can sell exclusively through our channel,’” Fitzmaurice says. “That exclusive product is starting to play a greater role in maintaining the viability of our business.”
A way out
Here’s where franchising may offer a real saving grace: It gives business owners an opportunity to cash out. Australian franchisors seek out mom-and-pop shopkeepers who are eager to retire, but are saddled with a business that’s difficult to sell. In a bid to expand its network, Swimart is waiving its $45,000 joining fee, giving independent businesses an opportunity to convert to the Swimart brand for little to no cost. Once converted, it can then be placed on the market for prospective franchisees.
Fitzmaurice tells of one very profitable Queensland business that was on the market for four years. “We approached them and offered to sell the business as a Swimart franchise and we were able to sell it in a matter of months,” he says, noting that the company has successfully converted five businesses in the last two years.