One of the nation’s largest pool builders abruptly ceased operations last month, spurring intensive press coverage and an investigation by the state licensing board.

Manteca, Calif.-based Aqua Pool & Spa Inc. closed its doors with 50 to 60 pools yet to be completed.

Many in the industry speculate that it’s the largest pool building firm in history to go under.

Business has been particularly rough in the Sacramento area, which suffers some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. In Aqua’s case, the final blow came when a $3 million loan held by the company was called in by the bank, said CEO Richard Townsend.

The bank itself was apparently distressed. Two days later, it was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and eventually purchased by another financial institution.

Townsend founded Aqua in 1988 and merged with a competitor, The Vintage Co., in 2004, after which it saw meteoric growth. The firm consistently ranked highly on the Pool & Spa News Top 50 Builders list, most recently taking the No. 7 spot. Annual revenue peaked in 2006, when Aqua reportedly brought in $65.4 million and built 1,221 pools.

In 2009, the company claimed $24.5 million in total gross revenue and a volume of 330 pools. At one time the firm had 500 employees, but had pared down to approximately 200 by the time of the closure.

Aqua became renowned for completing what it dubbed the largest pool showroom in the country. The 6,000-square-foot display featured 11 water elements, including nine full-sized pools. Its highly visible placement just off Highway 99 made it familiar to consumers.

The company’s closure has become just as visible, having been covered extensively by the local press, with some journalists even going into unfinished backyards or standing outside the Aqua offices while clients waited to find out about their pools and employees sought to collect paychecks.

The press also quoted workers saying they were made to wait for their final paychecks and that management didn’t explain why they weren’t working anymore. However, the former staffers were given checks on their regular payday and were told what happened, according to Gregg Whitley, former vice president of sales and marketing.

“Richard didn’t want to cut a payroll check and not be able to make the check right,” he said. “So the employees were told to wait; we’ll have an answer, but right now we need to understand what all this means. We’ve never had a note [from the bank] called on us [before].”

Former Aqua clients have a few options for completing their pools. At press time, company officials were working with a local contractor, Adams Pool Solutions, and several vendors to formulate completion plans for each project.

In addition, another Sacramento-area Pool & Spa News Top 50 Builder, Premier Pools, reached out to former Aqua clients, stating through the press that the company would complete pools at, or near, cost.

Also SPEC, APSP and the Contractors State License Board are prepared to step in if needed.

But the CSLB is investigating why Aqua had to close down before completing its pools.

“It’s abandonment of a contract,” said David Fogt, CSLB’s chief of enforcement. “You cannot abandon 60 contracts and not be subject to disciplinary action.”

Fogt added that two Aqua principals removed themselves from the company’s license a few weeks prior to the closure and had applied for their own licenses to form a company called Pools by Aqua, dba, Vintage Pools.

“That application has been pulled, and it’s not going to be approved until something is resolved with these outstanding contracts, or it’s proven that [the two individuals] had no knowledge or participation,” Fogt said.