In 1985, when I took over General Pool & Spa Supply, the distribution business was fragmented. At the time, there were no major national companies.

The first big change occurred in 1988 when BioLab created BLN and became a challenge to independent distributors. As a result, I helped form a distributor buying group in 1989.

Then came SCP. It was buying up companies such as Superior and Fort Wayne Pools, and lots of regional distributors. This created a big problem and we needed to differentiate ourselves.

SCP was spending lots of money on marketing, advertising and private labeling, and bringing in a lot of technological advances. It had the capital to put more dots on the map. We were able to hold our market share, but we could see the writing on the wall.

At that time, General Pool & Spa Supply had operational problems. Our antiquated system just wasn’t any good. I knew I had a big choice to make: Should I invest more money in the business or sell it?

I decided to invest.

The first thing we needed to do was to get sharper about how we handled inventory. Our competitor could carry more products in more places, so we had to become as efficient as possible. We had to use technology to do it.

I went on a great search to find software to help our business. We had the slipper, but we needed our personal Cinderella. After attending a distributor software convention in Chicago, we thought we had found the right fit.

However, technology is not cheap, and our bank was about to pull the plug on us. We signed a contract with the software company and the bank got cold feet about giving us the loan at the last minute. Had I made the right choice? There were a lot of sleepless nights during this period.

I found another banking partner and purchased the software. Cinderella’s slipper was a perfect fit, and between 2001 and 2006, our company grew 100 percent.

Our success lay in the details. I learned that sweating the small stuff is important in everything you do. We looked at our fulfilling process, which was not working. Using the new software, we altered our system and now our inventory is total allocation: first in and first out.

With this concept, we improved our warehouse management as well. Now a customer can come online, look at the inventory and know they’ll have what they want when they want it. The orders are time-stamped and reserved for the specific customer who made the purchase.

The big lesson for me was that you can’t stand still. Today, we are always bringing in more features and upgrading. With such a big investment — $1 million — I learned that these changes can’t just be good for the company. It has to be good for the customers and suppliers, too.

My experience with the bank taught me about loyalty. It made me determined not to abandon my customers, who were faithful throughout our redesign.

It’s about risks and rewards. You can’t reap any rewards without taking risks. It’s a philosophy that still guides me in my business dealings today.

Phil Gelhaus


General Pool & Spa Supply

Rancho Cordova, Calif.

Lessons Learned

  • If you have a vision, believe in it. Stick with it and follow through.
  • Your focus must intensify dramatically, and you must pay attention to the finite details to be successful. Make sure you sweat the small stuff.
  • Be loyal, and repay those who are loyal to you.