The state of the economy is causing most
businesses to hunker down, cut costs and wait.
But that may not always be the best strategy.
“An economic downturn is not the time to shy away from
risks,” says Julia Middleton, CEO of Common
Purpose, an international leadership development organization
based in the U.K.
History has shown those words have some truth. General Electric,
Revlon, Hyatt, FedEx and a host of other hugely successful
companies all got their start during a recession.
And today, three of the Top 50 pool builders have braved the
economy to take a truly entrepreneurial stance. Follow their
When Debra Smith decided to purchase a majority share in the
company that had employed her for 17 years, a number of people
asked the same question.
Who does that right now?
“My attorney said I’m either the dumbest person in
the world or the smartest,” says Smith, the new president of
in Fort Worth, Texas. “And he said he was going to withhold
She and new vice president and sales manager Mike Clark are
embarking on a financial adventure at a time when human tendency is
to squirrel away what you can.
Third-generation owner Barry Pulliam had been thinking about
retiring for a while, and Smith and Clark were two long-standing
managers who shared his business approach.
“[The economy allowed me to] buy the company at a lower
price than I could have when it was booming really big,”
Smith says. “And I think it made the transition easier not
having such a hectic year to handle everything.”
But when word of the purchase began to leak, she says, some
competitors started telling prospective customers that Pulliam
Pools was having problems and probably would close.
“I’m calling two reputable pool builders in the area
because their employees are telling customers…that we sold
out and are about to be out of business. I’m getting ready to
call them to say, ‘Hey don’t be lying. Fight
In October of last year, Phoenix-based builder Tim Murphy made a
bold move. The founder of Presidential
Pools, who had sold much of his company’s stock to a
private equity firm, repurchased the business to take complete
“I feel really strongly about Arizona,” he says.
“We were the fourth fastest-growing state, and it’s
just a matter of time.”
Since Murphy’s been back in the driver’s seat,
Presidential has seen a strong increase in market share.
“It’s unbelievable right now,” he says.
“For years the highest we ever got was 10- or 11 percent. Now
we’re at 15 percent — and we’re exceeding our
Murphy has fortified his company’s earnings by opening a
commercial department and expanding into Tucson.
To date, Presidential has won bids for two YMCA pools, and expects
the commercial division to earn $2 million in its first year.
Starting the branch required a significant investment, since the
large commercial entities pay 60, 90 and even 120 days after the
work is done. “It’s a serious deal,” Murphy says.
“But when this market comes back, we’re going to be
sitting in a great position.”
The Tucson move has made a difference as well, with that market
now constituting as much as 15 percent of the company’s work.
For the time being, Murphy is using his own employees and
subcontractors to set up shop and firmly establish the firm’s
culture and best practices. When things pick up, the plan is to
gradually integrate local help into the Tucson operation.
Holland Pools and Spas
Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Holland Pools and
Spas also is growing geographically.
In early spring the company expanded into Jacksonville, and next
year Holland expects to branch out to the Palm Beach and Tampa
To start, company CEO Michael Holland is hiring salespeople
based in those areas. He’s searching for former pool-company
owners with good reputations who couldn’t survive the
devastated Florida market. This way, Holland Pools benefits from
their knowledge of local subcontractors.
Holland looks for people who mesh with his company’s
approach and philosophy, and has them work out of their homes. The
construction operation is still run from the main headquarters,
using subcontractors. Holland credits the construction program he
developed, Pool Engine, for allowing him to do that without adding
Holland also recently hired a contractual mortgage broker to scour
the country for financing in hopes of addressing the credit
The program is brand new, but after two weeks, Holland saw about
a 50-percent success rate. “We’re finding some
unsecured monies, but most of them are refinancing,” he
“There’s money out there – you just have to find
it. We’ve had to go out of the area and spend a lot of
resources researching aggressive sources of financing that work for