Debra Smith, Pulliam Pools
Debra Smith, Pulliam Pools

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pool and Spa News Top 50 Builders list.

In the two decades that we have honored the most competent, revenue-generating and well-rounded pool/spa builders in the country, one firm has ranked all 20 years — Fort Worth, Texas-based Pulliam Pools.

Arguably the world’s oldest pool builder, founded in 1916, Pulliam Pools has evolved over the last three decades in particular from a 50-pool-a-year builder to the large player that last year reported 282 excavations and generated more than $24 million in residential pool/spa construction.

It’s no coincidence that these changes have taken place in the time that the company’s president, Debra Smith, has been with the firm. Looking back, the pairing of Smith, a former bank auditor, with Pulliam Pools seems fated. She joined the company part-time when the firm was led by Barry Pulliam, a member of the founding family. It was just a transitional gig in 1992, meant to tide Smith over until her family moved to Africa, where her husband had been reassigned by his employer. On the day they found out the assignment had been canceled due to political strife, Pulliam’s accountant quit.

“Barry said, ‘Oh, my gosh, my accountant quit today. I wish you weren’t going to Africa,’” Smith recalls. “I said, ‘Well I’m not.’ He said, ‘Do you want this job?’”

Four years later, she became general manager; after 12 years she was vice president. Then in 2009, she bought the firm with then-sales manager Mike Clark. In 2020, she purchased Clark’s stock and became the sole owner.

Last year, the company made history when it sold to Concentric Equity Partners, a private-equity firm that also purchased two other Dallas-area builders in 2021, which operate under the name of the first acquired firm, Riverbend Sandler Pools. She continues to serve as Pulliam president.

Smith has blazed some trails as well. In addition to serving as architect for Pulliam's growth strategy, she maintained a visible presence in the industry as one of very few female pool construction executives in her early days. She was the first or second woman to earn the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance’s Certified Building Professional designation, shortly after it launched. “I had experienced [sexism] in the early days," she says. "I think [the CBP] was to prove to myself that I fit in and that I could do what the guys did. Now there are women in all aspects of [the industry], but back then there weren’t a lot."

For a time, she served as the president of APEC, the Texas industry’s legislative advocate, playing a significant role in beating back a bill that would have restricted the handling of electrical around pools and spas.

The company has remained a Top 50 Builder through considerable peaks and valleys. Smith attributes this to a customer-service ethic based on the Golden Rule, and adaptability. " My motto has always been if you’re not changing you’re dying," she says. "So I’ve always tried to monitor what’s going on in the world, and I’ve always tried to diversify."