By Pete Humes
In the pool business, there’s a big difference between swimming and just treading water.
In one case, you’re just staying put and keeping afloat. In the other, you find a distant point on the horizon, take a deep breath and start kicking until you get there.
Bill Schlemmer started kicking March 2 when his ASP – America’s Swimming Pool Company franchise opened for business.
He’s still going strong.
“It’s been a tremendously busy summer,” Schlemmer said.
How busy? Bill sometimes forgets to eat.
“I’ve lost like 12 pounds,” Schlemmer said. “My wife is always reminding me to stop for food.”
When Inside Business first spoke with Schlemmer in February, he was standing on the board, ready to dive in. Following 23 years in the Navy and a stint as an operations manager at Amazon’s distribution center in Richmond, Schlemmer was moving forward to open his own business.
After consulting with friends who found success as franchise owners, Schlemmer saw an opportunity in pools. There were lots of smaller companies in the area but no big names.
America’s Swimming Pool Company started in Georgia in 2001 and grew to become the largest pool service franchise in the nation. ASP provides service to residential and commercial pools, with a business model based on providing a higher level of service, backed by competitive pricing and dependability.
Schlemmer is the managing partner, majority shareholder, general manager and head of marketing, branding and outreach for ASP’s Coastal Virginia franchise. His other partners are David Kaufman and John Garel, senior managing directors of Envest Ventures.
There are 70 ASP franchises across the country, but Schlemmer’s is the first in Hampton Roads and only the second in Virginia.
When Schlemmer first “opened his doors” March 2, it was quiet. He’d sent out a direct mail promotion. He pursued new clients. But it was still early in the season.
Then, after a few slow weeks, the momentum started to build. The phones rang, his calendar filled up.
“When April hit, it was nonstop,” Schlemmer said.
His franchise territory is the Great Neck corridor of Virginia Beach, an area that contains an estimated 8,000 pools. Schlemmer has one full-time employee to help him manage a current client load of 49.
With limited manpower, organization is key to a smooth operation, and Schlemmer is grateful for ASP’s investment in technology and software. Both company vehicles are chipped and can be tracked from Schlemmer’s iPad, allowing him to constantly monitor and sync with a complex scheduling grid that displays very few empty spaces.
Follow-up emails are generated when a job is completed and sent along with pictures of the pool.
The other key, Schlemmer has learned, is finding the right people. After a couple of false starts with pool technicians who didn’t work out, Schlemmer found the right fit with employee Josh Wade.
“I had a grand vision, and I wanted good people,” Schlemmer said. “Josh is a missile that leaves the rail, and I never have to worry about him.”
That reliability allows Schlemmer a bit of freedom to interact with his customers and zero in on what it takes to continue to build his business.
“My focus has been locked on satisfaction and customer expectations being met,” Schlemmer said. “We constantly ask people how we’re doing.”
Schlemmer understands the power of a positive review and actively solicits his customers to share their opinions online whenever possible. He’s also convinced that this level of engagement increases the flow of new business through word of mouth. One satisfied customer has become a prolific recommender, leading to at least nine new jobs, according to Schlemmer.
“We’re up against this sort of ‘pool service apathy,'” Schlemmer said. “Where owners are resigned to the idea that there isn’t a higher level of pool service available.”
He believes that there is and will do what it takes to prove it.
“If I have to go out to a house on a Sunday for the eighth time to make it right, I will,” he said. “We’d rather be on the side of honesty and fairness to build a relationship that will last for years.”
It’s an old-fashioned approach that seems to be working.
According to America’s Swimming Pool Company’s founder and CEO Stewart Vernon, Schlemmer is “in the lead for best new franchise start for the year.”
Vernon said that Schlemmer is on an above-average track in terms of sales and planning.
“If all owners were like Bill,” Vernon said, “we’d be twice as big as we are today.”
But even though he may be ahead of the game on paper, Schlemmer has no plans to abandon his slow and steady strategy.
“This year is about growing the business,” he said.
When asked about expanding, Schlemmer exhaled hard and smiled.
“Right now I’m just focused on the 3-meter target, which is the next pool,” he said. “From Norfolk east to Virginia Beach, there is something like 40,000 pools. I can’t get my head around that. We’ve barely scratched the surface of our territory.”
As the summer winds down, Schlemmer finds further proof that his strategy has paid off: a boost in new clients during the month of September. The hectic pace that started in April has yet to subside as he makes the shift from routine service to winterizing and pool renovations and repair.
“This is our first closing season,” he said. “And I’m getting the very familiar feeling of doing things again for the first time.”
Schlemmer is grateful for all of his success and growth, but wouldn’t mind a little slowdown. He’d like to find some time to work on getting more commercial clients, penetrating deeper into his territory and expanding awareness through social media.
Soon, the former Navy officer will tackle Facebook and Twitter. But for the moment, he seemed content to reflect on how far he’d made it in the water.
“It’s been a steep learning curve, and we’ve learned from our mistakes,” Schlemmer said. “But I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and I love it.”
Article originally posted on Inside Business.