For years, Alan Smith routinely received dozens of inquiries from homeowners and developers in search of a builder to design and construct a new pool.
The only hitch was that Smith’s business was primarily remodels and plastering, which meant he would refer those calls to other firms in the area.
Approximately four years ago, however, the head of Alan Smith Pool Plastering in Orange, Calif., saw the storm clouds of an economic downturn taking form and chose to take action.
“We decided to branch out and do more of the yard,” Smith recalls. “We changed our business model, and we did it before [the recession] really hit.”
He examined his company, which has long been considered one of Orange County’s premier plastering firms, and in 2008 began gradually expanding his repertoire.
Today, Smith is converting those new-pool inquiries — which number anywhere from 50 to 75 a year — into projects. Indeed, Alan Smith Pool Plastering now offers a wide array of services (new construction, landscaping, deck coatings, patio coverings, fencing, etc.) to supplement its core competency.
And the results have been undeniable: While plastering is down 50 percent, the company is performing beyond where it was pre-2008, Smith says, citing approximately 60 remodels and new-pool projects in various stages of construction in late December.
“We’re not getting rich off of it, but we’re maintaining our staffing levels,” he adds. “Plus, a lot of the plaster jobs I get now come from selling the whole remodel.”
Throughout the industry, a handful of plastering firms have taken a similar approach, building on existing capabilities to augment business during a slump.
It isn’t seamless — Smith, for example, notes that new-pool challenges include learning how to properly bid and manage projects, as well as planning and building around existing underground plumbing, and electrical and utility lines.
But because many of the tools inherent in a functioning service firm already are in place, the evolution isn’t often as strenuous as one might think.
Another one to embrace new vistas is Rick Williams, president/owner of C&R Pool Plastering in Sacramento, Calif.
As a subcontractor, Williams relies on builders for much of his simple plaster and finish work. But with new-pool construction in Northern California down anywhere from 60 to 75 percent in recent years, those leads have dried up considerably.
So Williams, who long held a C35 plasterer’s license with the Contractors State License Board, in 2010 added a C53, which allowed him to perform major remodels. Nowadays, the bulk of his new jobs involve equipment change-outs and installation of energy-efficient pumps, as well as decking and tile work, he says.
“We’re still in business,” Williams adds. “And the transition has been fine — most of it we already knew how to do, and were capable of doing. We just wanted to do it properly and legally, since at least 20 percent of the stuff we’re doing now I wouldn’t be able to touch without the C53.”
Looking ahead, Williams has thought about branching out even further, into service and maintenance. However, he concedes that may be difficult, considering he receives referrals from the very technicians he could soon be competing against.
According to industry insiders, the bulk of pool plasterers intent on finding ancillary revenue streams have gravitated toward either remodels and repairs, or construction of outdoor living spaces.
But Thomas Lopez, a Phoenix-based remodeling and plaster specialist, already provided many of those services when his area — and new-pool market — fell victim to the slowdown. So Lopez, owner of Aquavida Pools, went in a radically different direction.
Based on months of research, he developed multiple lines of pool-improvement products (including plaster, pebble and quartz pool surface patch repair kits, as well as pool deck and tile repair kits) for service professionals and the do-it-yourself homeowner.
Lopez subsequently founded Pool Patch, LLC in 2010, and has partnered with a major manufacturer (he declined to state which one) that is helping him take the products to market “I just knew there were open avenues in the pool industry that were realistic for me to explore,” Lopez says. “It was just a question of how we could supplement what we’re doing out here. So it’ll help, and we’ll be able to structure our company a little differently moving forward.
“You have to figure, if I only have one line in the water, I’m only catching fish in one area of the pond,” he adds. “This is really just the brainchild of stuff I can do on the side, while everyone else is sitting around and getting depressed.”