Industry pioneer Larry Gelhaus died Nov. 18. He was 79.
Gelhaus was known as a dedicated, passionate and driven businessman who played a significant role in the early development of the pool industry in Northern California.
“Larry was very willing to share information and knowledge, and that was part of his success,” recalled Don Aston, former owner of Sacramento-based Chem Quip and founder/board member of the Foundation for Pool & Spa Industry Education.
Born in Oakland, Calif., in 1933, Gelhaus worked at his family’s laundry business and was introduced at an early age to chemistry and the use of bleach, knowledge that would serve him well later in his career. After high school, he worked as an auto mechanic, and then as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in 1952.
In 1954, Gelhaus took on his first service route for nearby Landon Pools, but the genesis of his work in the industry dates back to 1946, when his father built one of the first residential pools in Contra Costa County. It was there that Gelhaus would learn the basics of building and maintaining a pool. This exposure would poise him for a future as an expert in service and distribution, and pave the way for more than 10 of his relatives — including his siblings, cousins and son — to lead successful careers in the industry.
“I owe gratitude to my father for bringing me into the pool business at the perfect time and training me,” said son Phil Gelhaus, former president of Rancho Cordova-based General Pool & Spa Supply. (He’s currently president of Gelhaus Bluewaters Inc.) “Without that, I never would have had the knowledge and confidence to run [my business]. I built a legacy from the way my dad taught me how to do business.”
After handling service routes for other companies, Gelhaus and his brother, Clayton, started Catalina Pool Service in 1955. Five years later, he moved on to open Gelhaus Pool Supply and quickly became a well-known distributor in the region, cultivating long-lasting business relationships that would solidify his position as a leading wholesale supplier. For nearly two decades, the store also served as the primary source for service technicians to purchase supplies and obtain expert advice from Gelhaus, who often was referred to as a “guru” on the subject. He frequently hosted informal evening training seminars at the store or invited guests to his home for coffee, where they exchanged tips on issues they had experienced in the field.
When not talking shop, Gelhaus often could be found challenging sales reps to a game of pool in the back of his store, a memory Aston recalled fondly.
“He was a real shark and ... it was quite a challenge to play him because he was good. I think I only beat him once, and I learned my lesson,”Aston said. “He was a neat guy and I always enjoyed and respected him a bunch.”
Gelhaus sold his company to his employees in 1977 and retired from the industry, but his ties to it would never be severed.
“He always kept an eye on the pool business all these years,” Phil Gelhaus said.