Matching the program and the process

Sequestered by stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, homeowners across the country are instead creating their own backyard escapes.

Swimming pools and spas are high on outdoor wish lists, causing a surge in demand that has flooded pool builders, creating massive backlogs and long waiting lists.

“Nobody in the pool industry has ever seen a phenomenon like the reaction caused by COVID,” says David B. Katz, who founded his 1985 New York landscaping company, The Land of ELITE, which has merged with The Neave Group Outdoor. Solutions in June 2020.

In June, Katz’s company was already booked for the next 12 months with three times more pool requests than usual, resulting in almost 60% more projects than expected. Other companies are looking at “two or three years on pools”, he says, “and I don’t think (demand) is going to drop anytime in the next five years”.

This deluge of demand has triggered a chain of challenges for pool companies struggling with labor shortages, product delays and price hikes. Here’s how contractors navigate the rise to ensure pool projects go smoothly.

Respond to an increase in inquiries.

When pool demands exceed a company’s capacity, entrepreneurs can afford to be picky about the projects they take on.

Potential clients could wait three months just to have a first meeting with Andy Gagnon Landscapes.

“While the number of projects we’ve undertaken hasn’t necessarily increased, we’ve seen a surge in interest in swimming pools because everyone is spending so much time at home,” says Tyler McClure, president of ‘Outdoor Dynamics near Dallas. He added that the company receives between 10 and 30 leads each month through word of mouth. “It’s allowed us to be very selective about which clients we choose to work with,” he says.

McClure’s ideal clients have a clear vision of what they want and the budget to invest in a high quality custom designed pool. “If a client just wants a hole in the ground, I have to tell them up front that our projects are usually more expensive than production builders,” says McClure, whose pool projects start around $150,000 and go up to $750. $000 if they include other outdoor living features. such as kitchens, fireplaces and pool houses.

Pool and spa requests have also tripled for Andy Gagnon since the start of the pandemic. “We get a lot more requests than we can handle,” says Gagnon, who founded Andy Gagnon Landscapes in 1980 and acquired Cricket Pools in 1996 when the previous owner retired. Currently, potential clients have to wait three months just to have a first meeting with him.

Besides budget, location is also a critical factor when shortlisting potential projects. “I don’t want my crews on the road to a job site 40 minutes away,” says Gagnon, who prefers to work within 15 to 20 miles of his company’s headquarters in Woodland, Calif. “We prescreen customers to find out where they are, talk to them about their budget, and see if they’re willing to wait based on our schedule. If that’s all okay, then we’ll take a tour.

“No one in the pool industry has ever seen a phenomenon like the reaction caused by COVID.” David B. Katz, Founder of The Land of ELITE

Although Katz’s business spans a wider 60-mile radius that spans three states, COVID has given her an unexpected opportunity to rethink client meetings. “We did everything virtually,” he says. “It saves a lot of time, so you can see more people.”

Even after COVID restrictions are lifted, Katz predicts that this change “is going to last.”

“Why do I have to go to a client to present designs (when) I can do screen sharing?” he says.

Manage larger volumes of work.

While hiring more employees seems like an instant fix to meet the surge in demand, pool contractors nationwide may be sympathizing with labor shortages that are limiting their capacity.

“I’d like to expand my squad, but I’ve had a hard time getting someone in,” said Gagnon, who employs 18 to 24 people in a typical season. “I found that to be one of the hardest things to deal with this year.”

In fact, Gagnon is missing a team this season, since a foreman is on sick leave and a few other employees haven’t returned. “I had to revise my production expectations,” he says, “because we’re operating with only four crews.”

COVID-19 has made a lot of things virtual, including consultations with interested pool customers.

McClure currently does most of the design work for Outdoor Dynamics as a solo owner/operator, but he is trying to hire an architectural designer to free up time and increase his capacity. Even with the help of professional recruiters, he still hasn’t found the right candidate after six months of searching.

Instead, McClure contracts out specialist craftsmen to create construction documents and install its pool designs. During the pandemic outbreak, he says, “we had to bring in more contractors, and we had to lay off some who just couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Coordinating contractors for swimming pool projects requires a delicate balancing act, especially during a pandemic.

“I try to give them more notice when we’re ready for steel, gunite (concrete) or plaster,” says Gagnon, who regularly replaces these specialties to complete his pool crews. “We try to schedule the cast six weeks to two months in advance. All contractors are booked, so you need to be very careful with your planning. »

Manage supply shortages.

In previous years, Katz could order pool liners and have them delivered to a job site in just a few days. Now it takes two or three months. Shipping delays have multiplied delivery times for materials and equipment, pushing the project’s deadlines back five to seven months and extending its waiting list of pool applicants until next summer.

“No one anticipated the supply and demand issues, so on the rush, you couldn’t get piping or steel,” says Katz, president of the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance Builders Council. “Now we pre-order material in large volumes – 3,000 or 4,000 feet of one-clip pipe – and let our suppliers know the volume of projects we have in the works so they can supply the materials we need. .”

Another benefit of pre-ordering supplies is price lock-in. At the beginning of the year, Gagnon compiled a list of materials for pipe fittings, light niches, skimmers and other basic supplies. “I figured I had about eight or nine pools to build this year, so I ordered all the materials right from the start,” he says. “I won’t have to deal with shortages or price increases.”

Not only are material shortages restricting project timelines, but a low volume of labor is also available to complete the job.

While it can be convenient to pre-order common pool building materials, it’s difficult to budget for specialty products for custom designs. That’s why Gagnon waits to order filters, pumps, clocks and heaters until he knows the specifics of the project. McClure, likewise, is stocking up on some supplies, but waiting to stock up on equipment until each contract is signed.

Being booked next year provides extra time to order specialty supplies before they are needed on a job site. But some product delays are so severe that Gagnon and McClure are exploring alternative materials instead of waiting for items to be restocked.

“For example, we could finish the inside of a swimming pool with a quartz,” Gagnon explains. “My installers had trouble getting [plaster] and they told me two weeks before that we were going to plaster a swimming pool, so I went to the client and said, “This material is not available”. Are you willing to switch to this other material, at cost, so that we can meet the schedule to complete your pool? » The client (accepted) pays the additional $2,000. Sometimes it’s hard to anticipate (delays), so communication with customers is key. »

Juggling price increases.

Even though McClure pre-orders as many materials as possible, price increases were inevitable. While prices for plumbing, steel and concrete have risen since COVID, he says pool equipment costs have risen 20-30% over the past year, exacerbated by the February freeze. that devastated Texas.

To compensate, McClure increased his prices between 15 and 20% in total. “We try to increase only where necessary,” he said. “This has led us to take a lower margin ourselves, as we always want to provide fair value to our customers.”

“I had to revise my production expectations as we are operating with only four crews.” Andy Gagnon, founder of Landscapes Andy Gagnon

With more than four decades of price fluctuations under its belt, Gagnon reviews its pricing structure every year to anticipate cost increases over time. But typically, he says, pool equipment suppliers only increase their costs by 3 to 5 percent a year, making those wild price swings impossible to predict.

“On one particular project, we’re doing a steel arbor patio cover, and between when I priced it and when I bought the materials, it went up by about a third,” he said. “You can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘Hey, the price went up’ because you have a contract.”

Now Gagnon is considering adding a clause to his estimates that would give his company the ability to adjust project prices when costs change unexpectedly. “We are offering job offers in six months,” he says. “We want to be able to cover cost increases when it comes time to build it.”

He says the key to managing all of these challenges surrounding COVID — from the flood of requests to product delays to unpredictable price spikes — is simply transparent communication. Staying in touch with customers, suppliers and contractors is key to managing the influx of pool construction.

“You have to manage customer expectations,” says Gagnon. “If you can get ahead of the game and explain to clients in the first meetings that ‘we’re having delays and it’s out of our control’, it makes the process much smoother. It’s when you don’t communicate with customers that they get upset, so communication is really important, even more now than it has been in the past.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.