While it’s rare to find a pool construction firm headed by a woman, Carla Sovernigo-Pawella’s story shows how we as people have more similarities than differences.
The second of four girls, Sovernigo-Pawella was considered the “tom boy” of the bunch, whose natural gifts and talents would probably make her the most likely to take over the Vancouver, B.C.-area company Alka Pool Construction from her father, Larry Sovernigo, and uncle, Amedeo Sovernigo.
Larry, Amedeo and Graziano Sovernigo began Alka Pools in 1961. Larry served as president. Though the company started out building more generic, mid-priced pools, it evolved over time into one of the higher-end builders in the Vancouver area and is a respected member of the Master Pools Guild.
As with many of the industry’s children, Carla’s history with the company goes back to when she was small, about four years old. “Dad would always take me around to the customers,” says Sovernigo-Pawella, now president/CFO of Alka Pools. “If we were pouring a pool, I got to hang out and clean up the tools afterward. Especially when I was about 8 to 12, he took me on a lot of road trips, and I’d be the one to run around, go get lunch, clean up the tools and just be the gopher.”
Of course, with age came more responsibilities. When Carla and her sisters were still relatively young, they were introduced to the finance part of business. Their parents made it a priority to provide these early lessons, figuring it would be valuable no matter what careers their daughters chose. “My parents were always big on us having responsibility, being able to manage money,” says Sovernigo-Pawella. “Dad really wanted to instill good, solid business practices as a life skill.”
Once they understood the finances, Carla and her sisters helped with bookkeeping and typing sales quotes. As a young adult, Sovernigo-Pawella gravitated to a career in real estate. “[In college] I took marketing and real estate, and I did want to make it on my own, have my own independence, and know that I could do it without my dad,” she says.
Getting through college meant working three jobs, one with Alka as a part-timer.
For two years after college, Sovernigo-Pawella worked in the real-estate industry but quickly realized it wasn’t right for her. After taking some time off, she went back to the family pool business, expecting a short stay. “I came back to Alka, just to sort of find where I wanted to be in my life and discovered it was here all along,” she says.
But that’s not to say the experience of working outside the company carried no value. Far from it — it was necessary.
“I have an amazing father,” she says. “He’s the type of man who, when he walks in the room, you know he’s there, even if you don’t see him. He’s an amazing mentor, my personal hero. But I needed to know that my smarts and my drive were my own. In real estate I realized that, hey, I do have what it takes.”
Five years ago, Sovernigo-Pawella and her cousin Rafaelle Sovernigo took over Alka Pools from their founder fathers. Carla became president/CFO, and Raphael serves as COO. Larry Sovernigo is in semi-retirement but still serve as the company’s vice president of commercial sales and special projects. “It’s an awesome relationship,” Sovernigo-Pawella says. “He comes in and gives me his wisdom, then takes off on vacation when he wants. I get the benefit of his wisdom and he gets to continue to use his mind and stay young.” Amedeo Sovernigo remains as Alka’s vice president of operations.
Sovernigo-Pawella says her father has always been encouraging and embraces semi-retirement and the freedom it gives him. And he loves to see the next generation in charge. But anyone who’s built and nurtured a successful company will occasionally have a tough time completely handing over the reins. And somebody who is a doer is used to doing, not necessarily teaching or delegating.
“That was the biggest challenge,” Sovernigo-Pawella says. “I’d say, ‘Dad, you have to teach me, not just do it. Otherwise you’ll always be doing it.’ But he was very good at saying, ‘OK, here. This is what you need.’ It’s a habit he’s starting to break.”
If Sovernigo-Pawella needed to prove that she could do it on her own, she has. Not only has she taken the reins of Alka Pools, but she’s made a name for herself outside the industry, too. She’s considered a paragon of Master Pool’s Generation Next program, by which senior members help shepherd younger managers in. As such, she was voted in as the first woman to serve on Master Pool’s board of directors.