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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 12, 2019 4 months ago

Pool rules

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Retired executives acquire Tri-City Pools with the goal of raising the level of professionalism in the pool service industry. They say retraining, rebranding and refinement will result in resurgence.
by: Andrew Warfield Lee-Collier Editor

It started with a poorly dressed, window-peering pool technician. That led to a conversation among residents at a community party about dissatisfaction with their pool service. Then that led to a chance meeting of neighbors, which, in turn, provided the impetus to entice the two retired executives out of retirement and into the swimming pool maintenance and repair business.

But those entrepreneurs, Daniel Buettin and Eric Dobson, who met at that neighborhood party one year ago and struck an immediate friendship, aren’t just dipping their toes in the water. They’re diving in head-first with a goal of transforming the vast pool maintenance industry in Southwest Florida. In the process they are using some well-learned business lessons, such as consistency is the key to repeat business; keeping customers is easier than growing by acquisition; and in the home services business, a technician's appearance goes a long way.     

The two are residents of the south Naples community of Lely Resort, which like most affluent neighborhoods in the region include a high percentage of homes with backyard pools. So many, in fact, that thousands of them are serviced by what Buettin calls one polers — a single technician in a single truck with a single net and one pole on the back of the truck. 

With that in mind, the pair saw opportunity in an industry they say lags behind in professionalism, technology, customer communications and certification. Their goal is to fill that void, first acquiring Tri-City Pools in November and in early February the combined company of Majestic Pool Service and Infinity Pool Service. They are now all branded under the Tri-City Pools flag, serving residential and commercial customers from Cape Coral to Marco Island.

“We both had long careers as executives working for different corporations, and I missed the challenge of business in general,” says Dobson. “We weren’t interested in something that would be a full-time job, but being involved in a business in some way and being active is something we crave. That’s what we talked about when we met at that party; the love of business and the challenge to improve a business.”

The pool maintenance industry provides plenty of opportunity to take that plunge. Buettin, who sold a landscaping company in 2017 before undergoing cardiac surgery, says a personal experience convinced him the industry could use an upgrade. He and his wife, Taylor Curry — who manages the company’s marketing efforts — were sitting at their kitchen table when a pool technician entered their lanai.

“Through that door walks a guy with a pair of desperately worn-out khakis that were too long, a T-shirt that was stained all over and he wasn't carrying any equipment,” says Buettin. “He didn’t even have his testing kit and was walking around and looking in the windows. He wasn't our regular guy, so I opened the door and asked, ‘Who are you? Where is your testing kit?’”

The technician, Buettin says, pointed toward the street and said, “‘It’s out there,’ I told him to go get it and do his job. When he finally did his job, all he did was shake the test kit, look at it and walk away. He didn’t check the filter, he didn’t clean and he didn’t check the equipment. That is the void we will fill.”

50% in five years

Buettin, 65, had a 40-year career primarily managing small businesses and financing their growth, starting with international accounting firm Arthur Anderson. He later served as CFO for small and large companies over 25 years, taking several of them public. Since retirement, he has purchased and created three companies, most notably Florida Evergreen Landscape & Lawn Care.

Dobson, 52, retired after more than 30 years in leadership positions in the telecommunications industry including vice president and president at Sprint Canada; senior vice president at Rogers Communications; CEO of Bruce Telecom in Ontario, Canada; and most recently CEO, part owner and director on the board of  Bermuda Telephone Company in Bermuda. He and his partners sold that company in 2015. 

After meeting at that party, the pair explored numerous opportunities for a partnership. They settled on the pool maintenance business and Tri-City Pools, a commercial pool service company founded in 1962. They acquired the company Nov. 1.

One draw was the desire, says Buettin, to improve "the quality of the technician, his training, how he presents himself, the equipment and the quality of his service delivery to the customer.” He adds: “Our goal is to make it a professionally run organization of professional technicians by giving them the proper training.”

“I think customers will stay with their company as long as their pool is blue every night when they come home...when the system breaks down or the water turns green, that’s where we will shine because we’ll take care of it.” Dan Buettin, Tri-City Pools

That training includes earning a Public Pool Service Technician Certification, with the cost covered by the company. Buettin, Dobson and Curry have each passed the course themselves, as have about half the company’s technicians, soon to be followed by those added with the February acquisition. The company has invested in new trucks, rebranding, new equipment, uniforms and PoolTrac, a swimming pool service management software that provides real-time communications with the home office and the customers, many of whom are seasonal residents.

It’s all part of the partners’ strategy to grow the company’s residential and commercial customer base by 50% over five years with an anticipation of building revenues to about $6.5 million annually. At that level, Buettin and Dobson estimate some 40 to 45 pool technicians with a total employment of about 75 including support staff, quality control personnel, repair technicians and management. They declined to disclose their investment in the companies, but Buettin estimates the acquisitions to represent about $3.5 million in current annual revenues.

They acquired about 300 commercial customers with Tri-City Pools, and about 50 more commercial and some 850 residential customers with Majestic and Infinity.  Since the acquisitions, Buettin says they have added some 50 new pools.

“The average annual growth rate is 7% to 8%, but internally we will target 10% per year,” says Buettin. “It would be beyond our dreams to meet that goal. Long-term, we would like to see the management join us in the ownership, and we think we have one of the best management teams around.”

Creating efficiencies

Reaching those growth figures will require greater efficiency. Once all technicians are certified and all equipment is rebranded or replaced, Tri-City Pools will shift into growth mode through direct marketing efforts. But first, it must be able to keep up with growth.

From left, Eric Dobson, Dan Buettin and Taylor Curry own Tri-City Pools and plan to grow the combined commercial and residential pool company by applying a professional, efficient approach to the industry. Stefania Pifferi photo

PoolTrac will allow the company to better schedule routes for maintenance technicians by tracking how much time each stop requires based on pool size, average condition and level of service requested by the customer. Buettin and Dobson are researching more efficient delivery methods of chemicals from truck to pool and, for residential pools, new backpack vacuums that are faster to start and use than standard pool sweeping systems.

“We're not afraid to invest in equipment and technology to improve the quality of service and to make it easier for the technicians to do their job,” says Dobson.

In an industry where customers seldom switch service providers unless they are dissatisfied, it’s how Tri-City Pools sets itself apart that will lead to greater market share, the partners say.

“They will see equipment that is new and maintained and they will see employees in uniform,” says Dobson. “The technician will also wear a name badge with the Tri-City logo on it, so there is some security in that. I think they will see a different level of professionalism. With PoolTrac the customer will receive an email with a photo of their pool and information about their pool and the chemistry. We’re going from a world where a sloppily dressed technician arrives in a beat-up truck. That will visibly change.”

That strategy will drive word-of-mouth. The company is also targeting “home watchers” who monitor properties and schedule maintenance services for seasonal residents when they are absent for months at a time. “That lightens their burden because the pool is one less thing they have to worry about," Curry says. "The pool will be serviced, repaired if needed and the customer will receive a report no matter where they are.”

Buettin anticipates organic growth rather than expansion through acquisition. “We like the idea of most of our growth coming over the next couple of years organically, and not just trying to buy routes,” he says. “That’s just too tumultuous.”

When the partners acquired Tri-City Pools, the company operated 13 routes and employed 20 including office staff and repair technicians. The February purchase of Majestic and Infinity pool service companies effectively doubled that. They brought their own hand-picked general manager, Jeff Adams, to oversee operations.

Solid organization as much as anything, they say, will drive growth.

“Our employees care,” says Curry, who from 2013 to 2016 was regional sales manager for one of the largest animal nutrition companies in the U.S. and now owns 50% of a local agricultural business, Taylor Made Growers. “It doesn’t matter the business, to find employees who are dependable and actually care about their job is critical. We have people who came with the companies, but we've been very fortunate to have them buy in and care about the customer and about our business.”

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