Samantha Foster

Were it not for a rare heart attack at age 26, Jeremy McKinney may never have become a pool builder. But the owner of McKinney Custom Pools probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

It was Nov. 3, 2002, and the former University of Iowa Buckeye was enjoying his career as an NFL free agent. He had just signed with the Dallas Cowboys, and the team was in Detroit to take on the Lions, when everything changed.

“I started having some chest pains,” he recalls of that autumn Sunday. “I flew home and had shortness of breath on the plane but didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was just indigestion.”

McKinney ended up having an emergency angioplasty. Although there was no blockage, he had suffered 20 percent damage to his heart.

After five years playing with numerous teams, including the St. Louis Rams, the Cleveland Browns and the Houston Texans, McKinney was forced to retire from football. So he did the next best thing: In 2003, he formed McKinney Mowing & Landscaping and began his foray into the outdoor living business.

Starting from scratch

McKinney hit the ground running. Despite a near-death experience, he built his business from the ground up, going from door-to-door in hopes of landing enough lawn service jobs to ensure a stable life for his growing family.

“We would be mowing 25 yards a day to try and make ends meet and try to figure out what to do next,” he said.

During its first few years, his landscaping firm would work side-by-side with pool builders in the Houston region and get a first-hand look at the intricate process of constructing pools and spas. But the thought of doing it himself hadn’t really crossed his mind until he was approached by a member of the Houston Astros in 2004 to build a pool.

McKinney accepted the challenge and worked alongside the construction team to offer his insight and help oversee the project from conception to completion. With his first pool all but in the bag, he built a second one, this time for himself and by himself. From that point on, he considered himself a pool builder.

Self-educated and having not grown up in the industry, McKinney sought out everything there was to know and understand about the construction of pools and spas. He consulted with local builders. He met with distributors and manufacturers. He attended seminars and classes. He lived and breathed pools.

In 2007, McKinney dropped landscaping to focus on pool building full time. Year over year, the firm grew to become one of the leading companies in the Houston market. Today, McKinney builds upwards of 100 custom pools a year. He specializes in grottos, slides and caves but has expanded into all aspects of outdoor living, save landscaping.

Maintaining diversity

Despite the refocus, he hasn’t kept all his eggs in one basket — a critical business trait he relied on during the recession.

McKinney’s company has evolved over time to meet the demands of the market. With an eye on remaining competitive and growing his professional skills, he has pursued educational, networking and business opportunities by attending Genesis seminars and joining the buying group Carecraft. Recognizing the need to share information industry wide, while also catering to an increasingly more sophisticated clientele, McKinney keeps tabs on trending design and construction methods throughout the country.

McKinney himself became a self-proclaimed trendsetter in south Houston when he began offering the signature spa, a concept he borrowed from a builder on the East Coast. A 6-foot radius on beam spa wrapped with glass and featuring contoured split-level seating, the spa offers clients a high-end look for minimal extra expense.

“Nobody here caught on to it until I started doing it, and then customers started asking builders if they could do what we do,” he explains.

In 2014, the 40-year-old took another risk when he diversified again and opened AquaClear Pool Services, which now has a clientele upwards of 100.

Even with this winning business perspective, McKinney says he lives in the now, adding he hasn’t lost sight of what he believes is most important.

“[The heart attack] was a very eye opening experience,” he reflects. “It makes you realize that life is way too short to not live it to the fullest. You live a little bit differently, and you are cautious of the way you live, even if you try to get it all done at one time.

“There comes a time in your life when it’s not about the money any more. It’s about the quality and time you have with family and kids.”