Credit: Randy Berger Photography
Strong foundation: (L-R) Siblings and co-owners Tara Onthank, Michael Vassallo and Gina daRoza credit their father’s influence and work ethics as a driving force behind their business today.
In 2003, the owner of Rising Sun Pools & Spas, Charlie Vassallo, passed away suddenly at 53 years old, leaving his three children to take over the family business. The siblings, Tara Onthank, Mike Vassallo and Gina daRoza had grown up working alongside their father in the Raleigh, N.C.-based company, but it took some time to adjust to ownership.
“Dad was so young, so there was no succession plan. It was a difficult transition without our patriarch to guide us,” recalls Onthank, who today oversees the company’s sales and marketing. “It took us several years to work out new roles and reestablish our positions within the company without our father. There were some very difficult times but I think we are better owners and siblings because of it.”
Thinking on their feet was a necessity, but Onthank says there was no other alternative.
“We did it for the benefit of our staff and customers,” she explains. “We couldn’t fail or there would be so many affected.”
Today, each sibling has found his or her niche and believe that it’s a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Vassallo started Rising Sun Pools in 1972, from a storage shed at the family’s home in North Carolina. After spending some time in the steel industry, he had begun working for a pool company owned by a relative and soon, decided to start his own pool business.
Today, the company operates three locations in the Triangle area of North Carolina, with hopes of opening a fourth within the next five years.
“We’re working on growing our commercial pool division and coming up with new strategies to combat the issues brick-and-mortar businesses face against the Internet,” says Onthank.
Rising Sun installs fiberglass and vinyl-liner pools and offers a wide selection of spas, pool accessories, patio furniture and outdoor kitchens. A 26-vehicle fleet provides pool and spa service. The company has nearly 50 employees, including a half-dozen seasonal workers.
“We have key employees who have been with us for 20 years and many for over ten years,” notes Mike Vassallo, who manages the construction side of the business. “We’re a small company, but we offer the benefits larger companies have for their employees, such as a retirement plan and health care. These things have always been important to my father and they will remain important for us, as well.”
Secrets to success
Last year, Rising Sun built 136 pools, with total revenue of more than $5 million.
And despite increased pressure from online retailers, they’ve learned how to set themselves apart from competitors, Onthank says.
“We work with lower margins on the items we compete most with on the Internet and we offer extended warranties to keep people shopping with us,” she explains. “We have the ability, due to our manufacturer relationships and sheer buying power, to offer better parts/labor coverage on items that are frequently purchased online.”
Retention of customers is a key objective for the company, she adds.
“It’s easy to make one sale, but it’s much more difficult to keep them coming back year after year,” she says. “We continually strive to make each experience with our customers a step above the rest, so they can realize the value of coming into our stores, instead of going online.”
That mission became especially important five years ago at the height of the recession when the company saw pool sales plummet 50 percent, necessitating some tough decisions.
“We had to decide how to best cut costs without sacrificing our trained staff or employee benefits. We have great financial advisors and are starting to see a small light at the end of the tunnel,” says Onthank. “I believe decisions we made then have enabled us to be more successful than ever, including new endeavors into the commercial field, renovations and by carrying a quality line of patio furniture to help supplement revenue.”
All three siblings believe a great deal of the company’s success centers on their employees.
“I believe in paying attention to employees and trying to avoid problems before they arise,” Mike Vassallo says. “You have to take care of good employees. They appreciate it and we’ve found it’s a good trade off.”
Another mark of success for the siblings is their commitment to their community. In addition to supporting charitable organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and March of Dimes, they also sponsor local youth athletic teams and community churches.
Rising Sun Pools has garnered accolades within the industry, as well as locally, for its success. Each year since 2009, the company has been named a Top 50 Builder by Pool & Spa News. In 2013, they received the “Retailer of the Year” award by the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association.
A family affair
As each sibling entered their teens, working alongside their father meant countless weekends and summers spent at the store.
“I helped sweep, take out the trash … that type of thing. Dad started us at the bottom and it was your responsibility to work your way up. As time went on, I eventually graduated high school and began to train with the bookkeeper,” recalls DaRoza, who now oversees the company’s finances and human resources.
Mike Vassallo began working full-time for his father in 1986 just a few days after high school graduation. He recalls graduating from college on a Sunday and having to report to work bright and early the next Monday morning.
“We were each trained in all aspects of the business and there was no preferable treatment for the kids,” he says. “You had to work your way up the ranks.”
Working with family members has its challenges, but each sibling says they can’t imagine life any other way.
“I think we have a relationship that is so complex and yet so simple, you wouldn’t understand unless you were in it,” says Onthank. “We can argue about something one minute and be at a family cook out the next. We spend our free time, vacations and weekends together. It’s a great dynamic. My father would be proud.”
Ultimately, the siblings see their father’s guidance as the main reason for their success, despite adversity.
“We do what it takes to get the job done,” says Mike Vassallo. “Dad was vocal about statistics that showed family businesses don’t succeed when going from first to second generation. His dream was that we would continue with the business. He took a lot of time and effort into molding the three of us so we could continue his legacy.”