You might call Carrie Armstrong Johnstone a quick study.
Her introduction to the pool/spa industry came when a family friend asked her to draw on her skills as an instructor and teach a school for new pool owners. Johnstone accepted and threw herself into learning everything she could about water chemistry, pool equipment and maintenance so she’d feel comfortable talking with the pool owners about caring for their pools. Several attendees were so impressed, they later asked her to maintain their pools. From that experience, Mirage Pool Services was born in 2007.
For an outsider to leap in and take to the industry so quickly is out of the ordinary. For a woman in a still male-dominated industry sector, it is extraordinary.
Jumping right in
It’s a far cry from where her career began. While majoring in English and minoring in comparative religion at Texas Christian University, Johnstone worked in an office, continued there through school, and stayed on after graduation, eventually becoming office manager. Later she worked at a legal video deposition company in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. Upon moving to Houston, she went back to college to get a teaching degree.
“Then I taught those pool schools, and the money was good,” Johnstone recalls. The idea of a pool service business proved irresistible, and she went on to acquire a 27-pool route. Seeking to immerse herself in the industry, she also became a member of the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association and the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. She also became CPO-certified, and licensed by the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation.
Johnstone’s company serves a high-end clientele in the Houston area, maintaining 135 pools weekly in a 30-mile radius. “I wanted to set myself apart,” she explains.
But she didn’t stop at upscale homeowners — she narrowed the niche further, marketing to affluent, stay-at-home women. So it is that she chose the colors pink, gold and black for her website, which not only offers many service packages, but also a complimentary bottle of wine to each new client.
Making her mark
Like so many others who are lured into the pool and spa industry, Johnstone takes an interest in many aspects of the business. But it’s the areas traditionally dominated by men that she feels passionate about — digital equipment and apps, as well as chemistry.
Needless to say, she often finds herself the only woman in service seminars and the like. But it doesn’t faze her. Indeed, Johnstone has had a lifetime to become comfortable with such situations. Case in point: In orchestra, from 6th grade through college, she played trombone — typically the instrument of choice for males while females often opt for flutes.
“I was always around boys,” she says.
Furthermore, her father was a hands-on, fix-things kind of guy, and that approach meshes with hers. “Being around men [all the time], it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do [certain] things,” Johnstone explains.
With nearly a decade of service under her belt, she enjoys the reputation she has earned. But it was tough when she first entered the business. “Men would look at me like I couldn’t possibly know very much,” she says.
Overcoming one of her first hurdles helped allay doubt. “Here in Texas, a law was passed requiring people to pass a four-hour test to prove they know how to do electrical work,” she says. “Some of the longtime pool [professionals] were struggling. I had to take the test, to have it for our company — and I passed it on the first try!”
Nowadays a lot of Johnstone’s time is spent at her home office, keeping the business running smoothly. But she’ll still head into the field to service pools or train a new hire, a task she shares with husband Andrew. A former Verizon Wireless salesman, Andrew Johnstone now is co-owner of Mirage, working full time on the route, troubleshooting, cleaning pools and training.
When Carrie and Andrew aren’t immersed in the service business, they like to relax in their own backyard retreat. Their small, Roman-shaped pool measures 15 by 30 feet and sports sun shelves, glass tile and a raised spa that can hold six to eight adults. The couple’s other pastime is watching their children’s sporting events, which include competitive swimming. There’s not much extra time for other activities, but Johnstone says she likes reading historical fiction and country western dancing.