Credit: VivoPools

Pool service technicians are buying franchises in increasing numbers.

Case in point: VivoPools. The Monrovia, Calif.-based firm recently launched its eighth franchise location — its first on the East Coast — after only a year of experimenting with the franchise model. Its newest addition will serve Bergen County, N.J. That makes a total of 14 VivoPools locations, six of which are company-owned, across Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada.

“Pool service is very much a relationship-based business,” said CEO Willan Johnson. “You’re building a relationship with the homeowner. You’re out there 52 times a year. … As we started to grow, we found it increasingly difficult to manage those day-to-day relationships sitting a thousand miles away from our corporate location.”

The franchise model offered an opportunity to grow his company while building nationwide brand recognition by way of independent owner-operators.

“We got into franchising really as a complement to our current operations,” he said. “We’ll continue to own and operate pool businesses in various markets. At the same time, if we can find partners to work under the VivoPools brand and grow with us, then that would be great as well.”

VivoPools, which began operating in 2010, is among a growing number of pool companies that are entering the franchising fray. Another is America’s Swimming Pool Co. The Macon, Ga.-based company currently has nearly 130 locations across 13 states. It’s added about a dozen franchises so far this year and currently ranks No. 224 among Entrepreneur magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing Franchises. That’s up more than 200 spots from last year.

“The service sector is there and homeowners are still spending money on their backyards,” CEO Stewart Vernon said. “We’re tapping into that market more successfully today than we were in the boom of ’06 and ’07.”

So what’s fueling the franchise frenzy? Career professionals who have fallen out of the workforce are eager to be entrepreneurs. Franchising offers a turnkey approach to owning a business with built-in brand recognition, training and marketing support.

“That has been one of the drivers of our growth since the recession started,” Vernon said. “These are quality franchise owners who are entrepreneurial, hungry and have been in the private sector in some form.”

VivoPools aims to help franchisees grow their revenue per customer through upgrades. For example, the company sends monthly newsletters with product spotlights to customers, inspiring them to upgrade equipment. “As a sole business owner, it’s hard to invest in some of those resources to help you get that information in front of the homeowner,” Johnson said.

Also, the company’s training and support can help create more business prospects for franchise owners, Johnson noted. “There’s an opportunity to add accounts quicker, and also maybe go after segments of customers you might not normally,” such as hotel and resort owners. Under the franchise system, they have the confidence, training and support to chase commercial accounts.

A typical franchise system charges would-be franchisees a licensing fee. (Pool service companies are advertising that you can buy your own business for $20,000 to $40,000.) Under most models, the franchisee pays a gross percentage of sales to corporate, typically 4- to 15 percent.

The system gained steam in the 1800s when Albert Singer used the model to distribute sewing machines nationwide. Since then, it’s become a staple of countless other businesses, from frozen yogurt joints to elder-care operations. The number of U.S. franchise establishments is expected to grow 1.3 percent to 757,438 this year, according to the International Franchise Association.

So, will we someday see a Stanley Steemer of swimming pools?

“It’s very, very realistic,” said Joel Libava, a business consultant and author of Become a Franchise Owner (Wiley, 2011). “There’s a market for it, for sure. It would take a systematized pool service company that has a really good route-management system to make it efficient because gasoline costs are going to be really high.”