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In an industry already experiencing historic sales, one segment seems to be standing out: fiberglass pools.

The category had already seen considerable growth over the last several years. Now, the COVID-19-driven demand has taken it to a new level, leading manufacturers to expand facilities and staff.

“Most of [our dealers] have ordered more than ever before,” said Ed Vondell, chief operating officer/co-owner of Fortville, Ind.-based manufacturer Thursday Pools. “So it’s like a double bump.”

Some of the most pool-friendly weather in years hasn’t hurt, either.

Some of the manufacturer expansion came in direct response to this year’s brisk activity, while other initiatives had been planned well ahead of this year’s business glut.

“Things were looking good before the lockdowns, but the lockdowns put everything on steroids,” said Bob Harper, chief commercial officer of Latham Pool Products, based in Latham, N.Y.

To adjust, Latham sought to hire 300 new employees across its 20 plants in North America. This included a variety of positions, most in production, operations and shipping, and also accounts for the company’s other product categories, such as covers. So far, the company has hired about 50% of its goal.

“We see this as a longer-term trend,” Harper said.

Knoxville, Tenn.-based Leisure Pools has also undertaken some major initiatives. This summer, it acquired the Marion, S.C. facilities for fiberglass yacht producer Group Beneteau. The 225,000-square-foot facility set on 40 acres is the third for Leisure, which also has facilities in Knoxville and New Braunfels, Texas. Not only that: Leisure has retained and trained more than 100 former Beneteau employees who have experience working with fiberglass.

Existing customers were placing larger orders, and Leisure had added more than 400 new dealers. “It was starting to push out our lead times,” said the company’s CEO and cofounder, David Pain. “So we decided that instead of continuing to increase our lead times, we’d [increase] our manufacturing capacity.”

Within nine weeks of learning about the Group Beneteau facility, it produced its first pool.

But an even larger project perhaps better reflects the increased solidity of this product category. Leisure Pools is preparing to offer franchising, Pain said. In preparation, the company hired former United Aqua Group CEO and franchising veteran Patrick Walls last year to serve as company COO and develop the program. While details are still being ironed out, the company knows it plans to release the franchising program toward the middle of 2021.

As Leisure sees it, the simpler, quicker installation of fiberglass is conducive to the types of repeatable systems and procedures on which franchises thrive.

“With our product, you install it basically the same way each time, and it’s the same product each time, so you can create efficiencies around training, as well as processes and procedures to install the product,” he said. “So I think a fiberglass pool is probably better suited to that kind of process than any other structure for swimming pools.”

Because of robust growth the past few years, Thursday Pools began a 51,000-square-foot expansion of its current facility, to provide additional production capacity and 10 acres of storage space. The process began before the pandemic hit, Vondell said. The company also plans to invest in more equipment so lead times can be reduced. For instance, the storage will be used during winter, as the company makes back-ordered pools for next spring. The new spaces are expected to be complete by year’s end, he added, yielding a 150,000-square-foot facility.

It has also increased it staff by about 60%, Vondell said.

He reported that the 10-year-old company expects to see 100% growth this year over 2019.

Others are reporting growth well into the double digits.

Manufacturers of fiberglass pools say that, because their product takes less time to install than concrete or vinyl, more builders have taken an interest in them as a way to satisfy this year’s deep well of demand. The shorter lead times also draw consumers looking for ways to bypass the year-long backlogs of concrete builders, they say, while fiberglass' need for fewer crews attracts builders who are having a hard time finding labor.

Thursday Pools, for one, has put a hold on new dealer applications, so it can keep lead times down for existing dealers and take enough time to train the new dealers who’ve already signed on. “We didn’t want to grow so fast that it became a negative for us and the people who signed up with us,” Vondell said.

According to manufacturers, most of these new dealers are trying fiberglass for the first time, having begun as concrete or vinyl builders. Most come from the vinyl side, these manufacturers say. Some like the ability of fiberglass to be installed during colder weather, Harper said: “Many builders have done what they call bookkending, where they’ll do fiberglass in the beginning and end of the season and vinyl in between.”

Among new dealer requests, Thursday Pools’ Vondell is also seeing more landscape professionals who want to begin building the pools they specify in their plans without having to wait for an available pool contractor.

Producers are seeing more business in the western half of the U.S., but not all the way to the coast. While some report growth in Texas, they say California and Arizona have yet to show a significant interest. But they believe the time will come.

Though sales have increased drastically, they still aren’t approaching numbers seen before the Great Recession. This leaves Harper believing there’s plenty of growth potential before the product reaches saturation. “The industry has built in excess of 150,000 inground pools in a year in the U.S.,” he said. “Last year it was estimated that there was somewhere just south of 80,000 pools built. This year we think that’s going to be a much higher number, obviously, but there’s still room to grow.”

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