Most entrepreneurs wouldn’t put “pool tech” on the short list of career paths. After all, few college business courses explain the proper method for transporting gallon-jugs of acid across a customer’s backyard.
So how is it that Stewart Vernon, just six years out of college, has attracted one white-collar professional after another to his growing network of pool service franchises?
“Our growth is a testament to the success of each franchisee, [which] seems to promote the business internally,” explains the founder/owner of ASP Franchising in Macon, Ga. “Our goals from the beginning have been to take business-minded people and put them into the swimming pool industry.”
Vernon has successfully replicated his original pool service business into a sprawling franchise that’s expected to reach 23 locations by early 2009.
And though historically franchises haven’t worked in the service sector, ASP has bucked the trend. The boon is attributed to a few key factors, Vernon says. These include a tight support network, a comprehensive training program and a model tailor-made for growth — growth that may be poised to defy even the toughest of economic times.
A helping hand
As is the case in most things, a successful franchise operation is all about relationships.
To that end, Vernon personally oversees the progress of the individual businesses. His hands-on approach includes visiting job sites, and checking the profits and losses of each franchisee.
“Our communication is probably a lot more frequent than most franchises because of how new we are and how much I want to see that everyone thrives,” Vernon says. “That’s the idea behind franchising — we’re going to ensure their success.”
At the start, all ASP franchisees are given a dense, 80-page manual that outlines everything from service procedures to marketing protocol to dress codes.
But it takes more than just an operating manual to succeed. And that’s why Vernon accompanies each new ASP owner on bids for larger clients to help them pitch the ASP brand and secure the account.
“He will physically go with us to commercial accounts to help us call on those businesses,” says Tom Swift, owner of two ASP Pool & Spa Co. franchises, in Atlanta and Warner Robbins, Ga. “He’s very active.”
But Vernon doesn’t just provide sales support. In a typical week, he may help finish a renovation project in Charleston, S.C.; oversee a vinyl liner replacement in Augusta, Ga.; and check on a newly sealed deck in Destin, Fla.,
In fact, Vernon periodically drops in on franchisees across Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee to ensure larger jobs are done to his satisfaction.
“I try to be as hands-on as they want me to be,” Vernon says. “There’s a certain level I have to be, but everyone seems to want more, which is why they’re successful.”
When he can’t be there in person, he’s on the phone arranging discounted prices with a local distributor or coordinating with a subcontractor for renovation work such as replastering.
“Stewart does a lot of follow-up via e-mail [after] referring clients,” Swift notes. “If, at any time, there have been issues or questions, he’s been there either physically or to answer [the phone].”
When it comes to finances, there are few surprises. Vernon analyzes the profit-and-loss statements of each ASP franchise on a monthly basis, ensuring the business is growing in proportion to its market.
Of course, he’s available for technical troubleshooting as well. But thanks to a state-of-the-art training center in Macon, these requests have grown less frequent in recent months.
Vernon’s franchisees had no previous experience in the service industry. So the right technical training was critical to ASP’s success.
In 2005, Vernon trained his first franchisees at the original ASP Pool & Spa Co. of Macon. Trainees were brought along on a week’s worth of service calls. But because of the timing, they weren’t always exposed to the full gamut of pool repairs.
“It was kind of, ‘What’s coming in this week for them to train on?’” says Matt Dayton, a franchisee who now owns the original business in Macon. “An itinerary wasn’t set as far as the training.”
As ASP grew, Vernon improved the system. In early 2006 he rented a warehouse, where he then set about establishing a modest training center and administrative office. Beginning technicians now were able to train on real equipment before confronting it in the field. Earlier this year, he bought the building outright and began a full-scale renovation.
The finished product is a fully heated and cooled headquarters with a 900-square-foot training area, adjacent board room and administrative office. The facility boasts five fully functioning equipment pads from Hayward, Jandy and Pentair, complete with operational controls and valves.
Elsewhere, a full row of equipment-laden counter tops lets franchisees hone their skills on a variety of automatic cleaners, timers and pump models.
“Training has drastically evolved since I got involved 21/2 years ago,” Swift says. “It’s helpful for me because I can always send my employees to pool school to get refresher courses, or to be trained in certain aspects [of service].”
ASP training now includes two full weeks at the facility. Trainees spend six days reviewing routes and learning maintenance, including basic cleaning, water testing and hydraulics. The following week covers equipment repairs and replacement.
However, classroom training is just the appetizer; the real test is hands-on. After a morning session in the facility, trainees are exposed to, on average, 15 pools daily, where they can apply what they just learned. These accounts are all customers of the original ASP location in Macon.
“So if we know we have two pump replacements and a sand change to do in the afternoon, they’ll do [the work] here, learn it, and then go out into the field,” Vernon says.
And Vernon isn’t finished with the facility either. He’s planning to further enhance it in summer 2009, including installing an outdoor tank that would allow water to flow through the equipment pads.
Strategies for growth
But dedicated mentoring and intensive training are not enough. For any business to succeed, there needs to be opportunity and motivation for growth.
Vernon quickly discovered how to provide that carrot.
“When I started studying franchising, I realized there was no incentive as the franchisees grew their business,” he says. “I saw the possibility for revenue hiding or dissension. So we developed a backward sliding scale.”
It works like this: New franchises send a royalty fee (8 percent of gross sales) to ASP Franchising each month. This may sound excessive, but the fee is automatically lowered whenever a franchisee meets certain revenue goals.
So businesses that gross more than $100,000 annually pay a 7 percent fee; those topping $200,000 pay 6 percent, and anyone topping the $300,000 mark pays 5 percent, according to Vernon.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. With only one exception, all the franchises that have been in business more than a year now gross upwards of $200,000 annually. The flagship Macon branch itself now tops $1 million in annual sales, Vernon says.
But his winning formula is based as much on opportunity for growth as it is on available capital and controlled marketing. For openers, start-up costs for an ASP franchise are comparatively low, Swift says.
“I spent more than a year just researching franchises, and I found many of them were very capital intensive,” he explains. “What attracted me to the pool business was the smaller capital start-up and the low overhead.”
But the greatest allure, Vernon adds, may be the return on investment.
At the start, franchisees are not obliged to spend significantly on stock or leasing a facility. After the franchise fee and a few small business expenses are settled, all that’s required is a truck, a cell phone and a home office.
When ASP launched, Vernon got his direct-mail pieces from a local supplier. But the company’s message lacked focus, so he reached out to Covington, La.-based PoolCorp, and its marketing director, Dominic Latino.
“We have a lot of tools and expertise, and he had a business plan that made a lot of sense,” Latino says.
Latino agreed to provide a list of pool customers in each of ASP’s territories and develop a series of direct-mail pieces. From there, ASP franchisees are free to craft their own marketing plans, choosing when they want to buy into companywide mail-outs.
Now, every few months ASP disseminates seasonal marketing materials. For example, a spring mail-out may address pool openings, while November fliers could promote renovation.
“I’ll send out an e-mail to everyone saying, ‘We’re about to ramp up our springtime marketing. Who’s in?’” Vernon says.
This optional campaign allows start-ups to advertise strictly on an as-needed basis, while more established franchises can take maximum advantage of the program.
Finally, franchisees are encouraged to branch out. Like Swift, Dayton bought a second ASP franchise in 2007. An employee from the Macon store now oversees those accounts.
He hopes to cultivate more young talent in Macon to continue the push for additional locations.
“That’s what I’m trying to do — have a home-grown employee to be a partner with me in something bigger,” Dayton says. “So far, it’s working out well.”