Today 60-year-old McKenna is CEO of Gardner Outdoor and Pool Remodeling — a company that was on the vanguard in the renovation specialty — as well as incoming chairman of the board for the National Plasterers Council.
A bit of history
But back in 1978, he was a 23-year-old living in Portland, Ore., who was just desperate to see the sun. “I really had no interest in pools,” McKenna recalls. “But I was looking to get out of the rain and I had a buddy in California who said, ‘Come on down. I’ve got lots of work.’ He was a pool plumber and I was his ditch witch.”
It wasn’t long before McKenna had moved up out of the ditch and into a superintendent position at California Pools. From there, he started his own service company, before he, his father and brother founded a high-end pool-construction firm called Trimac Pools. While the business was successful, McKenna wasn’t quite sold on pool construction, where he could spend 30 or 40 hours working with a client and still not get the job.
“That used to crush me,” McKenna says. “I didn’t like working that hard and having nothing to show from all that time and effort.”
Then in 1994, everything changed when he and his partners bought Gardner Pool Plastering, which would later become Gardner Outdoor and Pool Remodeling. At the time, the purchase was more about diversification than anything else. But McKenna soon felt like he’d finally found his place in the pool industry.
“After doing it for awhile, I was like, ‘Wow! I like this a lot better than building pools,’” McKenna recalls.
Along with only spending two to three hours per customer, McKenna enjoyed being a pool “detective” when it came to renovations. But becoming a regular renovation Sherlock took some time.
“Building a pool and remodeling are two completely different things,” he says. “I thought it would be the same old, same old, and it wasn’t. I had a lot to learn.”
Now, McKenna can quickly spot clues that tell him where a pool needs help — and where the pitfalls lie — before he even starts renovating. He’s used those skills to build Gardner from a 200-pool-a-year plastering concern to a 1,300 pool-a-year empire with headquarters in San Diego, Orange County and Palm Springs. Along the way he’s grown from 22 employees to 140. He’s even brought his nephew into the family business.
While much has changed over the years, a major part of his business remains the same: pool plastering. These days he subcontracts plastering jobs for numerous pool builders around Southern California. And while his firm has expanded well beyond the plastering focus of its early years, McKenna hasn’t forgotten how important that craft is to the industry.
“I can’t plaster to save my life,” he admits. “I’ve tried it. My guys make it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world. But it is a craft that takes years to perfect.”
Although not a plasterer himself, McKenna has been involved with the National Plasterers Council ever since he bought Gardner in 1994. Much like his pool industry career, his tenure with NPC started with lower-level positions before McKenna worked his way up. After being a member for a time, he has spent the last 11 years on the board, serving as chair of the Technical Advisory Committee for the past eight years.
Aspirations for his tenure
As incoming chair for the entire organization, McKenna has ambitious goals for his two-year tenure.
First, he would like to see the NPC make its studies on the effects of water chemistry on plaster more user friendly. “We’ve done a lot of research at NPC and we haven’t done a good job of getting that out to the public,” he says. “We need to distill it down to something someone could actually read and get some value out of as opposed to, ‘Here’s an 800-page report.’”
While that information and research is important to everyone, it’s especially crucial for commercial pools, where higher bather loads make maintaining proper water chemistry more difficult. “What can we do as an industry to make a better surface to withstand that load?” he asks.
Next McKenna wants to beef up NPC’s educational offerings. He says these classes should teach the latest research and findings about plastering and also act as a forum for skilled plasterers to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation.
To that end, McKenna hopes to expand education beyond the national conference into more regional and seasonal classes. Already, he says, the NPC has a model for this type of education in its Start-Up Certification course.
Along with maintaining the skills of current plasterers, McKenna says these efforts also will help address the skilled-labor shortage the plastering industry continues to face. This dearth is especially concerning given how long it takes to develop plasterers. “We’re constantly looking for potential candidates,” McKenna says. “Training guys to trowel is a long and expensive process. For the first six to 12 months, you’re just paying them to learn. But if you don’t do that, eventually you don’t have anybody.”
Given that reality, McKenna wants to see that skilled plasterers get properly recognized. That’s why he’s pushing certification as one of his agenda items. But he warns that offering a plaster certification is far from being a done deal.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” he explains. “When you certify, are you certifying the company, or the guy who does the work? We’re working through it to try to figure out the best possible way to do that, but it’s going to be quite a process. Still, I would love to have certification in place when I leave.”
McKenna believes such a recognition would go a long way toward addressing the plastering industry’s big nemesis — the underground economy. “We’re competing with guys who work out of their garage, rent a truck and take only cash,” he complains. “They cut corners. They don’t pay taxes or worker’s compensation. That’s our nemesis.”
While NPC can play a role in lobbying against such workers, McKenna says everyone in the industry needs to help educate customers about why such cheap labor exists and the pitfalls of succumbing to the siren call of price over quality. It’s not just unlicensed contractors who give the industry a bad name, he adds. All industry pros — from plasterers to ditch diggers — need to focus on delivering a quality product.
“We run into pools that we’re remodeling where we see so many shortcuts have been taken that the whole product is compromised,” he says. “It gives the industry a bad name and a bad reputation. There are great builders out there, but the ones who aren’t make us all look bad.”
That’s why, whether as president of his company or chair of NPC, McKenna wants to focus on what makes the pool industry great.
“We get to provide something people want and love,” he says. “It’s fun, and I’m lucky to be a part of it. I appreciate what I get to do every day.”