Tim Murphy didn’t ask for a new job, but the economy gave him one.
“Three to five years ago, I was on the corporate side
— traveling around, looking at acquisitions and potential new
office sites. I was working on my business,” says
the CEO of Presidential Pools & Spas, a Pool & Spa
News Top Builder in Gilbert, Ariz. “Now I am working
in my business and focused on making money, watching the
bottom line as far as gross profit for jobs.”
Murphy is not alone. As the pool industry continues to contract,
more and more company owners are forced to redefine the role they
play in their own business. Today, even in large firms,
there’s no such thing as a business owner who can devote the
whole day to inspecting financials, developing marketing strategies
and shopping for new real estate.
“In this economy, you can’t be an armchair owner and
survive,” says Larry Duffy, CEO of Cameo Pools, a
Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Mesa, Ariz.
Here, company leaders explain how they’ve shifted their
duties in response to market conditions, as well as how they view
their jobs in the future.
Back in time
Many industry veterans are experiencing a sense of déjà
vu as their job descriptions revert back to the early days of
growing their businesses.
The bigger the firm, the more this holds true.
“Right now, [I am doing] exactly what I did to build the
company 15 years ago,” says Murphy, who heads one of the
largest pool firms in the nation.
While many CEOs continue to delegate tasks such as bookkeeping
and overseeing service, they tend to take over sales and
construction management for obvious reasons.
“I became the sales manager again to make sure that we
could look at every deal that was coming in very closely to make
sure we could get it,” says Mike Church, president of
Cody Pools Inc., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Austin,
This kind of diligence has become necessary when dealing with
today’s customers, who are, shall we say, more discriminating
than ever. Many expect to get a drastic discount because the
economy is so bad. (To see how the economy has affected employment
as well, go to Residential Specialty
Trade Contractor Employment.)
The new arrangement also allows business owners to negotiate
special deals with vendors and subcontractors in an effort to lower
costs and land the job.
Murphy says he closely monitors changes in materials and labor
costs, so he can apply that knowledge instantly to jobs that are on
the table. “Costs have come down substantially,” he
explains, “and we’ve had to follow those prices down. A
lot of new products have become available, so I’m constantly
watching the trends.”
As company presidents step down into the trenches, the effect is
felt in a number of ways throughout their firms.
First, there’s the issue of employees. In some cases, CEOs
let go of higher-level management positions, thereby eliminating
pricier paychecks while allowing the field-level people to stay out
and do the work.
But others, like Murphy, take a different approach. Just as he
has reverted back to a more hands-on position, so have some of his
managers. He essentially had them step down and go back out in the
field, doing what they did before, and take a commensurate salary
Demoting a highly paid manager may not be considered a standard
move from a human resources perspective, as there’s always
the concern about morale dropping and a subsequent lack of
But Murphy sees it differently. “We kept our best people,
whether they’re paid highly or not,” he says.
“When the economy comes back, we can rebuild faster, and we
have the loyalty there. We feel that we owe the people who’ve
been here and really put forth the effort to grow the company, and
therefore those are the people that we have kept.”
Another challenging issue for company owners putting on a new
hat is the question of how to work in the business, while still
maintaining the big-picture view necessary to work on the
“After running around 10 hours, you go home and think,
‘OK, I have to look at those numbers again. But I don’t
want to,’” Duffy says. “It’s a lot tougher
working on your business when you’re working in it so much.
But you have to make that time.”
It’s a matter of discipline, time management skills and
adaptation. Duffy used to plan and track operations from his
office, but now he takes that office with him, often reviewing bids
and financials from a computer in his truck that’s
When the economy turns around, some company presidents will quickly
return to their pre-recession duties.
But others actually plan to continue running the show from a
closer vantage point.
Duffy, for one, found that being back in the field has helped
him pinpoint inefficiencies that he couldn’t quite grasp
“When I was in the office, things would come up during
construction and I was saying, ‘Why is that coming up? That
doesn’t make any sense’…But once you get out in
the field you realize, ‘Oh, this is why it’s coming up
— because this guy’s doing this when he shouldn’t
Duffy doesn’t plan to remain the company’s
construction manager indefinitely. But even after the economy
recovers, he intends to take a job every now and then to ensure the
machine’s running smoothly.
“I don’t think you have a viable company unless
you’re replaceable,” Duffy says. “Until your
company can run without you, you don’t really have a
In the end, this downturn has taught builders many lessons
— lessons they’ll use in the future.
“When we pop out of here, we’re going to be smarter
for this recession,” says Ron Robertson, president of
Robertson Pools & Spas in Coppell, Texas, a
Pool & Spa News Top Builder.
“We’re going to be better businesspeople, and
we’re not going to make the mistakes that we made before.
We’ll be smarter for it. I know I will anyway.”