The state of the economy is causing most businesses to hunker down, cut costs and wait.

But that may not always be the best strategy.

“An economic downturn is not the time to shy away from risks,” says Julia Middleton, CEO of Common Purpose, an international leadership development organization based in the U.K.

History has shown those words have some truth. General Electric, Revlon, Hyatt, FedEx and a host of other hugely successful companies all got their start during a recession.

And today, three of the Top 50 pool builders have braved the economy to take a truly entrepreneurial stance. Follow their stories below.

Pulliam Pools

When Debra Smith decided to purchase a majority share in the company that had employed her for 17 years, a number of people asked the same question.

Who does that right now?

“My attorney said I’m either the dumbest person in the world or the smartest,” says Smith, the new president of Pulliam Pools in Fort Worth, Texas. “And he said he was going to withhold judgment.”

She and new vice president and sales manager Mike Clark are embarking on a financial adventure at a time when human tendency is to squirrel away what you can.

Third-generation owner Barry Pulliam had been thinking about retiring for a while, and Smith and Clark were two long-standing managers who shared his business approach.

“[The economy allowed me to] buy the company at a lower price than I could have when it was booming really big,” Smith says. “And I think it made the transition easier not having such a hectic year to handle everything.”

But when word of the purchase began to leak, she says, some competitors started telling prospective customers that Pulliam Pools was having problems and probably would close.

“I’m calling two reputable pool builders in the area because their employees are telling customers…that we sold out and are about to be out of business. I’m getting ready to call them to say, ‘Hey don’t be lying. Fight fair.’”

Presidential Pools

In October of last year, Phoenix-based builder Tim Murphy made a bold move. The founder of Presidential Pools, who had sold much of his company’s stock to a private equity firm, repurchased the business to take complete charge.

“I feel really strongly about Arizona,” he says. “We were the fourth fastest-growing state, and it’s just a matter of time.”

Since Murphy’s been back in the driver’s seat, Presidential has seen a strong increase in market share. “It’s unbelievable right now,” he says. “For years the highest we ever got was 10- or 11 percent. Now we’re at 15 percent — and we’re exceeding our year-to-date projections.”

Murphy has fortified his company’s earnings by opening a commercial department and expanding into Tucson.

To date, Presidential has won bids for two YMCA pools, and expects the commercial division to earn $2 million in its first year.

Starting the branch required a significant investment, since the large commercial entities pay 60, 90 and even 120 days after the work is done. “It’s a serious deal,” Murphy says. “But when this market comes back, we’re going to be sitting in a great position.”

The Tucson move has made a difference as well, with that market now constituting as much as 15 percent of the company’s work. For the time being, Murphy is using his own employees and subcontractors to set up shop and firmly establish the firm’s culture and best practices. When things pick up, the plan is to gradually integrate local help into the Tucson operation.

Holland Pools and Spas

Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Holland Pools and Spas also is growing geographically.

In early spring the company expanded into Jacksonville, and next year Holland expects to branch out to the Palm Beach and Tampa areas.

To start, company CEO Michael Holland is hiring salespeople based in those areas. He’s searching for former pool-company owners with good reputations who couldn’t survive the devastated Florida market. This way, Holland Pools benefits from their knowledge of local subcontractors.

Holland looks for people who mesh with his company’s approach and philosophy, and has them work out of their homes. The construction operation is still run from the main headquarters, using subcontractors. Holland credits the construction program he developed, Pool Engine, for allowing him to do that without adding in-house staff.

Holland also recently hired a contractual mortgage broker to scour the country for financing in hopes of addressing the credit freeze.

The program is brand new, but after two weeks, Holland saw about a 50-percent success rate. “We’re finding some unsecured monies, but most of them are refinancing,” he says.

“There’s money out there – you just have to find it. We’ve had to go out of the area and spend a lot of resources researching aggressive sources of financing that work for our customers.”