When you talk to pool plasterer Dave Schilli, he sounds pretty matter-of-fact.
Asked why he decided to be the National Plasterers Council chair, a two-year commitment, he nonchalantly says, “I was asked, so I accepted.”
It’s not until pressed that he mentions the fact that getting to be chair was the end result of years of involvement, including stints on the organization’s Membership Committee and Scholarship Committee before joining the Board of Directors and holding various executive positions there.
The fact of the matter is that when the president of St. Louis-based Schilli Plastering Co. takes on a task, he truly commits.
Consider the fact that he took stewardship of his father’s company at merely 20 years old, just months before marrying his wife of nearly 40 years. Or that he coached Junior B ice hockey for two decades while running his firm, even though a trusted advisor said he couldn’t do both.
As NPC chair, he played a historic role: Schilli led the group in its search for a new executive director after the abrupt departure of its previous management.
As for Schilli Plastering, he has grown it from a five-person establishment to the 35-employee operation it is today. It’s had to change with the times, but it remains firmly in the family.
While Dave Schilli’s history goes deep, his company’s spans even further.
Elmer Schilli opened Schilli Plastering in 1950. The company performed exterior and interior plastering on homes, at a time when skim-coat plaster was common, before drywall became popular. It was literally a mom-and-pop establishment, with Elmer managing construction, and his wife, Dorothy, handling the books.
In the mid-1960s, as pools started gaining a presence in the St. Louis scene, Elmer was asked by a local contractor if he could plaster a pool, since there wasn’t yet an established industry specializing in that type of work. That marked the beginning of a new product offering.
“Pools weren’t really that big in St. Louis at that time,” Schilli says. “He got into plastering pools, and we’d do 15 or 20 a year. As more pool companies start to grow and come into St. Louis, we started getting more work.”
Each generation makes its mark on a company. The elder Schilli grew his firm by focusing primarily on customer service, whether plastering homes or pools.
This immediately became clear to Dave Schilli when he first started working with the company and would meet long-time customers.
“One of the things I heard so frequently ... was always, ‘Oh, your Dad was such a great guy. He was such a gentleman, such a fantastic guy to work with,’” Schilli recalls.
“Back when he was running things, everything was done with a handshake. ... He had a reputation for being a gentleman to work with. If [something] wasn’t right, he’d go back and fix it, no questions asked.”
The company held another distinction that remains to this day — it employs union workers.
“It is a rarity in the pool plastering industry,” Schilli says. “We’re able to go to the [Plasterers] Union and pull apprentices out of a union hall, and then we train them on pools because it’s easier for them to learn pools, I think, than it is to learn conventional plastering.”
Though the union workers are paid more than typical pool plasterers, he says, there are benefits. “The quality of work that these guys put out is exceptional,” Schilli says. “The good thing about it is they always show up for work everyday, and they’re always there to work.”
But it didn’t take long for Dave to make his mark.
Like many pool brats, he started with his father’s company working summers as a high schooler and moved up through the ranks. By the time he graduated from high school, pools had become a substantial part of the business, generating about half the company’s income. Being a restless young man, Schilli was drawn to that side of the business because of the variety.
“I really enjoyed [it] because it was kind of in-and-out, here one day and gone the next onto another job,” he says.
The company incorporated in 1976, at which point Dave Schilli took control of the company, with Elmer serving as vice president for about five years, before enjoying a retirement of more than 25 years and living to the age of 97.
With the times
Upon taking the helm, Dave Schilli could see certain shifts taking place in the market and began altering his firm in response.
“My main focus started to transition over to pools, because house plastering had started to fade away, with drywall coming in,” he says. “Stucco also was kind of disappearing. There was more of a brick and siding market. The pool industry in St. Louis had started to grow more, and it served a more high-end clientele.”
He made another change. While his father mostly subcontracted renovation work, Dave Schilli brought those jobs in-house to gain more control over scheduling. Now, the company handles remodels with the exception of equipment replacement or structural alterations.
The process of plastering homes is fairly different from plastering pools. Because of this, some of the company’s crews specialize only in homes, others just pools, while about a half dozen can do both. Most of the younger workers are on the pool side — that part is easier to learn and now comprises about 80 percent of the business. Those who do homes or both tend to be veterans, some of whom have celebrated more than 20 years with the company.
Schilli also was one of the first pool plasterers to incorporate hydroblasting into his company. Using this process, crews shoot water, rather than sand, at high velocities to remove plaster from the shell. It’s a significant financial investment and requires extensive training, since the powerful force can be dangerous at 40,000 pounds per square inch. But it’s paid off in efficiency and by providing another revenue stream.
“A couple of the pool companies have taken us on [to do] their blasting where in the past, they had somebody sandblast for them,” Schilli says.
He recently purchased another unit, enabling crews to handle multiple jobs, work both machines in tandem at large commercial sites, or serve as back-up if one rig temporarily goes out of commission.
The formula has obviously worked. The company is the largest of its kind in St. Louis, with Schilli estimating its market share at approximately 60 percent of new-pool plasters. While it hasn’t quite reached the peak volume it saw in 2007, last year came close and exceeded expectations, at approximately 340 pools compared with the company’s high watermark of 425.
“We’ve recovered,” Schilli says.
The company has evolved in its 65 years, but one thing hasn’t changed: The Schilli family remains a key component.
Dave Schilli’s sister, Janice Mesler, joined the company a few years ago to help with customer service and now is a salesperson for the remodeling operation.
Schilli’s son, Ryan, at 33, currently serves as operations manager. Like his father, Ryan started working summers in high school and progressed up the ranks, serving as a plasterer, foreman, then salesperson before taking his current post.
But before joining the company full-time at age 21, Ryan played in Junior B ice hockey for two years on a Connecticut team, where he served as captain for part of his stint and won the national championships. He then moved to Illinois to play on a Junior A team before he aged out at 21.
Dave Schilli believes the sport helped prepare his son to manage the company, especially since he held assistant captain positions from junior high. “I’ve said all along if you want your kid to be disciplined, you need to get him in hockey, because hockey is a very disciplined sport,” Schilli says. “I’ve seen more kids go through hockey and become very good, mature adults.”
The sport holds plenty of meaning to Dave Schilli as well. He began coaching because of his son but continued for 20 years. He clearly had an affect on others’ children, too.
“I’m proud to say that right now I’ve got about six kids who play in the NHL who I coached,” Schilli says.
It’s true that coaching hockey divided his time, as his father had warned him. But it proved good for the company. About a half-dozen of Schilli’s employees played hockey growing up. And even today the company gets new customers because of the relationships Schilli formed. Some of the children he coached have grown up and want their pools plastered. Others have become trusted vendors of such supplies as cars and printed materials.
“I did make a lot of contacts through the years as a coach,” Dave Schilli says. “And now Ryan is doing the same thing, because he’s coaching my grandson and starting to create his own contacts.”