When Erik Eikevik first started out in the pool industry, the pool construction market was already changing from the one he knew as a child. By the time Eikevik joined the family business, building a swimming pool in South Florida had suddenly become an entirely different proposition from the projects his grandfather built when he first started Ike’s Carter Pools back in 1949.
“I always wanted to work for my dad and build pools. My mom showed me a drawing that I did in crayon when I was a kid. It was me drawing a swimming pool and it said, ‘Daddy, I’m going to build this one day,'” said Eikevik.
By the time he was in fifth grade, he had already been functioning as a gopher on the job sites. “That summer I did my first pool prep,” said Eikevik, “I used to leave school early and go work on pools while my friends were still taking classes. Basically, I’ve worked in every phase of pool construction my entire life.”
A Change From The Cookie-Cutter Mentality
“My dad designed pools, he built them and was considered one of the better designers in South Florida,” said Eikevik, “back then pools were very basic so there was only so much you could do design-wise. Back in the day pools were very templated. You had a box of templates you would use to draw swimming pools in by hand. A lot of the pools were very similar, especially in Florida. The cookie-cutter production pools that were built out here were just constantly the same thing, and that drove me crazy.”
“If I’m drawing a pool, even if it’s a small pool, we have to have something on it that’s different and cool. I won’t have that special feeling inside unless it’s got something unique going on that’s a little different for me. What kind of really keeps me going and makes me love what I do, is that I want to try to do things that are different. That’s the crazy side of me that wants to do the custom stuff which is not easy and can have all the headaches,” said Eikevik.
The days of cutter-cutter swimming pools are a thing of the past in South Florida claims Eikevik. The perception of what the outdoor living area should look like has changed as well. “I’m in these neighborhoods and building these pools. These days what I hear is ‘I got to do our pool better than our neighbor. ‘ It’s become a big statement, especially with younger people with families. Their kids are going over to the neighbor’s house, and they’re hanging out there because the swimming pool in their backyard is so cool.”
Baby Boomers Set a New Bar For Swimming Pools
“That was the first huge shift we saw in South Florida. We saw things like that coming out of World War II. If I showed you some of the first awards that we won in the 1960s in one of the original pool magazines from that era, it won awards simply because the pool had a curve in it which was unheard of back then,” explained Eikevik.
“When we first started out, the pools down here were built out where they’d pour a floor, and build it out of concrete blocks. The pool was very small and rectangular. In the late fifties and early sixties, he started doing gunite and shotcrete, when it first came to Florida. He started doing radius pools and things like kidney-shaped pools. They would win awards and it would have like an elevation where it would go down to a seawater canal, which is really big in South Florida,” said Eikevik.
Although much has changed about how swimming pools are built since the era when Eikevik’s grandfather built them, some things are still very much the same. “Back then it was a status symbol to own a pool,” explained Eikevik, “I think it’s even bigger now. While you don’t have to be one of the elite to own a pool, it’s still definitely a big symbol particularly down in South Florida and I think in many other places of the country.”
Eikevik said he feels that a goal of keeping up with the Joneses is one that has permeated throughout the years in South Florida. “Every customer these days is like, ‘Well, they had that on their pool, we’ve got to do that’, I literally have people who have gone to another customers house on a pool tour and say, ‘I want ours to be better than theirs’, so there’s definitely that sense that everyone’s trying to one-up each other in the backyard,” said Eikevik.
“The pandemic just blew that up and put it on steroids. Like, we already had a fire that was burning for years, and Covid came and poured gasoline on it that caused some type of explosion. Suddenly everyone had to have the best pool and the best backyard,” said Eikevik.
“In the northeast, most people are going to have a vinyl liner pool and you have to be doing pretty well to even have one in your backyard. It’s a massive luxury in those areas like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia,” said Eikevik, “they all have this yearning to move to Florida and a big reason is that everyone’s got a pool. It’s like as soon as you move down here, you get a swimming pool and you’re doing better than everyone else already. It’s one of the reasons so many people move here because they want to have a big beautiful yard with a swimming pool.”
“We always used to think that people only come down to retire in Florida, that has all changed. You can live down here now and work remotely from your computer. That’s probably why we’re seeing more younger families in South Florida than we ever have before. They want that whole entire experience,” said Eikevik.
Although building an inground pool may be cheaper in Florida, the process may not be as unencumbered as one may think. “If you’ve ever taken a Brian Van Bower GENESIS Class, you’d know one of the things we joke about are the Florida building codes,” explained Eikevik, “we have some of the strictest building codes in the country. People get down here and they realize we go off the Florida Building Code, not the International Building Code. There are very strict things you have to do to build a pool down in Florida. I tell people what’s involved and they’re like ‘are you serious’, with all the barrier codes and main drains and things like that. That’s why when you get to the luxury pools it becomes harder to do everything.”
The features and amenities that South Florida homeowners are requesting have certainly changed as well over the years. These days Eikevik says a major feature that homeowners are looking for is an oversized tanning ledge which has become near ubiquitous in Florida.
“Every pool, big or small is going to have that Baja Shelf, as they call it on the west coast, or Sun Shelf as we call it out here. I tell people you are literally losing value on your home if you opt not to build one. Anyone that buys your home will be expecting to see one in the pool because they’re that common now, they’re everywhere,” explained Eikevik.
“I knew from a business perspective, but I didn’t realize how important they were until I started seeing my own kids who are five and two in the pool. I was just like, wow, this is such a big, pivotal thing,” said Eikevik.
“The biggest thing is just making sure you have the right size. When you’re talking about big pool states like Florida, California, and Texas,” explained Eikevik, “there are these companies that will build a shelf that’s 9×9 or something like that. You need to have something that’s like 12×6 or 12×9 so you can have a section for your ledge loungers or your pool chairs and a section for the kids to get in and out of the pool.”
The needs and wants of South Florida homeowners may have changed over time, but one thing is for certain; given that Florida has the highest percentage of pool owners by population, owning a swimming pool will forever remain a goal for most, regardless of what type they ultimately wind up building.
Listen to our entire conversation with Erik “IKE” Eikevik of Ike’s Carter Pools on the Pool Magazine Podcast.
Featured Photo Credit: Jimi Smith Photography
Going Above & Beyond For Pool Customers
Scott Payne knows a few things about making brand ambassadors out of his pool customers. As one of the leading pool builders in Pennsylvania, he says he considers it his personal priority to make sure that his customers are happy with the end product.
His company Scott Payne Custom Pools is a local fixture in Montgomeryville which is located roughly 40 minutes between Allentown and Philadelphia as the crow flies. Word-of-mouth referrals are important to the builder who says that when it comes to the backyard, his clients are looking for a firm that does it all.
Recalibrating For Success
“Over my career, I saw the disconnect with some of the companies I worked for in the industry. We set up the model of Scott Payne Custom Pools to be different. When you’re expecting a client who is spending a lot of money with you to GC their own project, that never ends well. So we vertically aligned with carpenters, landscapers, and hardscapers. We created a very good sub-base,” said Payne, “now most of that work is in-house for us. We employ Scott Payne Outdoors as our sister company and have four full-time carpenters in that company. We have landscape, hardscape and fencing in-house, with a landscape architect on staff. There’s a benefit to it, and the customers appreciate it. They want to write one check to one person,” said Payne.
Being a One-Stop Shop
Being that all-in-one solution for the homeowner means that quite often, Payne is handling every aspect of the backyard renovation. This goes for everything from the swimming pool, to the hardscaping, to the landscaping, to all of the carpentry that goes into building the various outdoor amenities his clients are looking for. “When clients call, they ask, ‘You do everything, right? Yes, ma’am. Good, that’s what we want.’ and it just reinforces the decision for them,” said Payne.
Payne said that being that one-stop shop is what his pool customers are looking for nine times out of ten. “I have a silly rule, and that is if someone asked me more than three times for something, I explore it just to see what it would take to become fluent in it,” said Payne, “for example, we do sports courts. Now we’re one of the top distributors on the East Coast for Versa Court. We do X Grass for putting greens. Now we do Danver outdoor door cabinetry. There’s just such a benefit to being that person and having all that in our back pocket. We’re a Generac dealer and do generators. Why? People ask for them or they had bad experiences with their existing contractor. They complained about it. So we got licensed. We’ll do 50 to 60 generators this year. It makes sense. We’re already there. We have an electrician there, and we have a gas guy there.”
On Educating Himself
For Payne, the path to becoming a top pool builder would mean educating himself on what he’d need to learn to make a difference in his own local market. That meant taking the time to take classes that would make him a better builder. “I made a promise when I started the company to forget everything I thought I knew,” said Payne, “I was taught things when I worked for a national builder who was very high volume. Everybody had the same sentiment and that was how it was always done. Their process never factored in if it was right or wrong or justified.”
“I developed a relationship with Kevin Ruddy from Omega Structures. And at the time he was entrenched in Genesis with Skip Phillips and Brian Van Bower. We had this amazing friendship and he kept telling me to come take a class,” explained Payne.
“I just thought it was such an oxymoron because everything that this company stood for was not what Genesis stood for. There was just no sense in doing it their way because it was going to benefit me, but it was never going to trickle down to my customer. Literally, I think the day that I started my company, I called Kevin Ruddy and I said, hey, I’m ready,” said Payne.
“He connected me with the office at Genesis. The first class I took was in October of 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a pool studio class at a Master Pools Guild event. So it’s a very nice hotel and I didn’t have a laptop. I did my pool studio on a desktop. I literally dragged my CPU down there with my monitor, my keyboard and my mouse. And I walked into class the first day and it just brought looks and laughter, but I set it up on a table where everybody set their laptops up, and that was it. I was hooked. And I’m very proud to say that I completed my SWD. 150 hours of education all over the country inside of two years,” explained Payne.
On Educating Pool Customers
Payne said that getting that education was key for him simply because building pools in Pennsylvania can be difficult at times. That education often comes into play when it comes time to educate the customer about what is involved with building a pool. “I think the consistency of state, county, and township regulations do not exist in Pennsylvania. It’s a state where every township has its own set of rules. We build in probably 40 townships in a 75 miles square area. Each has different rules and regulations. I have a full-time person where all they do is handle permits. They expedite engineering, download and fill forms out. It’s all they do all day.”
Other than the permitting concerns are the restrictions that come with building an inground swimming pool. “Stormwater management has become very prevalent in the past ten years. In almost every township it could cost the customer an additional $5,000 to $15,000, depending on how big the devices are,” said Payne.
While the pandemic spurred a tremendous increase in outdoor living improvements, rising costs are also something Payne said he has to frequently contend with. “When it comes to price increases, there’s a sadness to it. I have to be honest, we had a base price pool that we sold all day, every day. Pre-Covid that base pool was $59,000. The base price of that pool today is $84,000. It’s at the identical margin and we’re not making a penny more on that pool,” said Payne, who said it’s his unfortunate duty to break the news about what pools cost these days.
It’s also incumbent upon him to educate consumers about the pool-building process. “The process is horrible. It’s like a hip replacement,” explained Payne, “the client says, ‘I don’t want to go to PT, I don’t want to be in a hospital, but I want to dance.’ So I’m going to come in, I’m going to tear your yard up for six weeks, six months, hopefully not six years, right? But you’re going to have that first party and you’re going to remember Scott Payne Custom Pools. That’s why I do this,” said Payne.
Making every customer happy is the goal, even when things go awry, said Payne. “I think I was in business about two years and I was called out on a job for a woman named Rachel. She gave me her budget and her wish list. The number she threw out was not going to get this done. I politely start to excuse myself and say, listen, you’re probably more of a vinyl pool client than a gunite pool construction. She gets upset and I listen to her. She says, ‘I went through this hard divorce, and want to build a swimming pool for my kids, you’re going to be the builder.”, said Payne.
“I pictured my mom with my sister and me, struggling. So I said, okay, you know what? That budget, can you stretch it? And she said, ‘Yeah, I can stretch it.’ And I said, okay, ‘I’m going to bend. You stretch, I bend and we’re going to do this together,'” said Payne.
The project, which was one of Payne’s first, had its inevitable hiccups. One Payne counts as a costly lesson in doing the right thing when it counts. A few weeks after starting construction of the pool, Payne would hear back from his customer with an urgent concern. “I think it has something to do with the pool she said,” explained Payne, “the toilets are all backed up and I think you hit the sewer line. I walk through her backyard, and I walk through the neighbor’s yard, and I walk another yard over and guess what I find? A sewer line that goes right through the middle of the pool. The sewer line is leaving the basement at about seven feet deep. It’s under the pool. My excavator more than likely nicked it. Gunite comes in and shoots over it and concrete just seeped into the pipe,” said Payne.
“There’s a Marriott around the corner. I get them a room, and call my excavator,” said Payne, “I said, ‘can you do me a favor and bring the mini X and meet me at that job? He and I, over the next five or six hours dig down the front side of this pool to find the pipe. Sure enough, it’s broke.”
“We find the break. Now I have to make a decision, do I fix it or do I move it?”, said Payne, “The pool is parked on top of this pipe. I do the right thing. We dig all the way around the deep end of the pool and demo the equipment that was already set. We connect it, if you can imagine, like a question mark to the other side to the lateral going three yards down. We dig the hole, plumb it, put in cleanouts and get it inspected and backfilled. We reset the equipment, which is now junk. We redo all the plumbing, paid for that twice. We tiled, coped, and put the deck on the pool while still completing it in 28 days. It cost me $8,500 for that mistake but that story sticks out to me as a win, as setting the expectation at that point that we’re going to do things the right way, because it’s not about money. It’s about integrity.”
Pool Design Trends With Kelly O’Leary
As we move well into the 2020’s era of outdoor living design, customers value a more modern design aesthetic in the backyard. Pool design trends are changing rapidly. Homeowners put a premium on a well-designed and contemporary outdoor living area. Moreover, they’re looking for ways to be able to utilize the backyard as a multi-purpose space for entertaining.
To speak more on the subject of what today’s homeowners want, we reached out to up-and-coming custom pool builder Kelly O’Leary of OLeary Pools & Design in Houston, TX. In a very traditional market known for freeform lagoon-style pools, O’Leary says that today’s homeowners in Houston are looking for something else. Consequently, he’s noticed a trend emerging as a growing number of homeowners have begun looking for designs that complement the aesthetic of their modern home and lifestyle.
Pool Design Trends Shifting Away From Freeform Pools
“We’re shifting away from those traditional kidney bean-shaped pools with rock grotto waterfalls that have been more predominant in this area. Those are just done over and over again,” said O’Leary, who is working with clients willing to push the envelope.
“We started to really get clients that were more accepting of contemporary designs and things they haven’t seen before and it began to evolve,” said O’Leary, “you’ve seen it in a lot of the industry. Social media is helping propel that. We see things now at the speed of light. The design changes and trends shift really quick.”
Furthermore, he suggested that professionals monitor places like Instagram and Pinterest in order to stay in touch with modern design trends. “If we’re not always thinking about what’s next and what’s new we’ll get stuck in a rut repeating the same design and have various clients with the same exact pool.”
Some of the more modern and contemporary pool designs featuring infinity edges with weir walls simply aren’t found very often in Houston. The topography of the city itself is very flat so builders look for other creative ways to incorporate sophisticated elements into their designs.
Modern touches like perimeter overflows and raised infinity edges make the pool appear like a sheet of glass. It’s those types of contemporary aesthetics that are a 180-degree approach from the predominantly lagoon-style pools found in many high-end homes throughout Houston.
Many of the contemporary design aesthetics featuring modern shaped geometry can already be found throughout California and Florida. That these pool design trends have been slow to catch on in places like Houston is something that has begun to change says O’Leary.
“It’s been a learning curve to be able to push new things. Over the past few years, we still have clients that say ‘we love that but not for this market’ or ‘that’s beautiful but may not be right for Houston’.
Austin is a good example, there are some great landscape architectural firms and pool builders there doing really modern things. The architecture of the homes there is very modern and we’re beginning to see that start to bleed into our market here in Houston.”
“Introducing that to this market is a double-edged sword though,” said O’Leary. Much of the architecture in Houston leans toward more traditional Farmhouse, Ranch, Tudor, and Craftsman-style homes. Consequently, finding modern design trends that best suit those style homes and backyards can present a challenge. This is particularly true with homeowners looking to incorporate elements that don’t necessarily suit their outdoor living environment.
“We come across that in the design sometimes, all the details and materials are thought through. Then they begin to change and add things. Once all of their design changes are made it can begin to resemble the yard from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘,” said O’Leary, who told us a story of run-away change orders during the materials selections phase of pool construction. This contributed to a customer submarining their own design with superfluous elements that detracted away from the intended design.
It is something O’Leary has learned how to avoid from happening. Preselecting and limiting the available options on the menu gives clients less to consider. Given too many design choices, customers can easily mix and match elements that don’t necessarily cohesively gel together.
Introducing modern and contemporary themes seems a question of striking the right balance. Still, O’Leary has become adept at designing backyards that are bringing in contemporary elements that still find a congruent harmony in Houston’s more traditional-style homes.
Drawing inspiration from other designers and well-known landscape architects has continuously helped O’Leary up the bar in terms of the backyards he is building. Collaborating with elites like Randy Angell seems to be the next evolution in the up-and-comers path.
“Being able to work with him is very exciting because he’s one of the best at what he does,” said O’Leary, “it’s quite a bit different because we don’t typically get large master plan projects on that scale.”
Although he envisions more collaborations such as that in the future, Kelly O’Leary is still making a name for himself in a market inundated with high-end pool builders. He has begun to distinguish himself by working with high-end materials and larger custom luxury pool projects.
Stepping outside his comfort zone and taking on more custom work is also helping distinguish him in the eyes of his peers in the industry. On a recent project that caught our eye, he brought in Mosaicist, Ray Corral to design and install a glass mosaic tile interior finish. Certainly, his work has begun to hit the stride most builders take decades to achieve. It’s making Kelly O’Leary one to watch.
Listen to our entire conversation about Pool Design Trends with Kelly O’Leary on the Pool Magazine Podcast.
Photo Credit: Jimi Smith Photography
Pool Builder: OLeary Pools & Design
The Next Generation of Rising Stars in San Antonio
There are a few rising stars in the pool industry that are definitely setting a name for themselves. One powerhouse couple that stands out and is establishing themselves as the next generation of elite pool builders in San Antonio, is JC and Daniella Rodriguez.
The couple recently appeared together in Pool Pro Magazine’s 30 Under Forty issue with JC Rodriguez being featured on the cover. Their new pool construction firm Element Pool Company has been creating a reputation in their local market for designing beautiful outdoor living environments and exquisitely crafted inground swimming pools.
“It was a surprise to be chosen for the 30 Under Forty, we both made it and in fact, Dani was recognized as ‘Rookie of the Year’,” said JC Rodriguez. “I laughed out loud when I heard I won and said ‘no way you’re kidding me’,” said Daniella Rodriguez, who said she couldn’t believe it when she heard the news. “Sure enough, I opened up the magazine, and there I was. It was a real honor,” said Rodriguez.
This type of acclaim is helping establish a footprint for the new firm in a crowded market inundated with pool construction companies. The recognition that Daniella Rodriguez received is an equally encouraging sign that signifies women have begun to claim their rightful place in a largely predominantly male industry. Alluding to this, she agreed, “We have to make elbow room in the industry in order to make a name for ourselves, so I was really happy to step up to the plate for all of us,” said Rodriguez.
Rising Stars Make a Dynamic Husband & Wife Team
It’s exceptionally rare to find a couple working together in the field of pool construction. In this regard, Element Pool Company is something of a rarity. The pairing of their skillsets appears to provide a well-nuanced balance that customers in their market seem to greatly appreciate.
At the first point of contact, Daniella often leads off the conversation with customers. “Dani navigates them and helps provide some of the introductory information. We let them know that we’re a little more custom than your drop-in fiberglass pools or cookie cutter concrete swimming pools,” said JC Rodriguez.
Approaching Things Differently
“It’s such a large market in San Antonio and there is so much competition,” said Rodriguez. “A lot of the top builders in the United States are in this area. Huge companies that build hundreds of pools a year. We wanted to make a name for ourselves and realized that a lot of that came from the relationships we’re building with the customer. We saw that we could distinguish ourselves in this regard versus making it a one-off project. Establishing that long-term relationship with the client is what our company is based on.”
Turning Customers Into Brand Ambassadors
It’s this novel approach toward client acquisition that sets Element Pool Company apart in some regard. Establishing that type of strong referral-based business is a strategy that appears to be working for the couple.
For many consumers, a swimming pool may be the single most expensive thing they purchase for their home. For some, it’s the culmination of a dream they may have had for decades. Pool ownership is the realization of a goal for many and a life-affirming purchase. This is why the experience holds as much importance as the end result itself, in terms of converting customers into brand ambassadors.
“We’re definitely cognizant of the fact that this is a major purchase for homeowners,” said JC Rodriguez, “one of the things I tell our customers is that we’re not going to do just one design and say ‘hey that’s the pool we want to build you, take it or leave it.'”
Changing The ‘Order-Taking’ Mentality
In this high-volume environment, many pool companies have resorted to an ‘order taking’ mentality as they try to keep up with demand. This is a practice that Rodriguez says he is desperately trying not to adopt. “During the height of the pandemic there were a lot of companies out here that were just giving over the phone quotes and virtual estimates. To us it never made sense because you don’t understand the necessities of that backyard,” explained Rodriguez.
“Even through the pandemic we were always interested in getting into the backyard,” said Rodriguez, “If the client stayed in the home, we were on the phone with them the entire time while we were back there.
“Our goal is to always understand what the house and backyard are calling for, as well as what the customers are looking for,” Rodriguez explained that it’s much easier to get a true sense of that customers lifestyle and accurately bid a project rather than trying to supply a virtual estimate.
“A lot of customers have been dreaming about building a pool for a long time,” said Rodriguez, “We want to make sure we get it right. Ultimately, they will be living with it long after we’re gone from the backyard. We’ll make a hundred different design changes if we need to. This way, we’re getting the right design at the right budget. The goal is that when they walk outside they’re ecstatic about their backyard.”
Educating The Customer
As the prices for swimming pools continue to rise, one of the biggest challenges Rodriguez says he faces is educating consumers on what swimming pools really cost these days. “I wish we could still build pools for the same price we were building them a few years ago. Your average pool in the San Antonio market is going to be around 15 feet wide by 30 feet long. These days, for a basic swimming pool without any extra bells or whistles, you’re going to be starting at around the $60,000 range and going up from there.”
One of the pools they built that caught our eye certainly isn’t in the bottom of that price range. This pool features an expansive travertine deck, a spa, premium pebble tec interior, ledge loungers (Signature Collection), and exciting fire bowls with sheer descents by USA Fire Bowls.
A separate conversation area at a lower elevation with it’s own smartly appointed fire table was another great feature. These are all subtle nuances that add to the overall experience. Aside from the basic cost of pool construction, all these factors add to the total price of the project and that’s before ever getting to what’s actually in the pool itself.
When discussing some of the higher echelon features that homeowners are looking for in their pool such as LED lighting, pool automation, and dramatic fire features, “homeowners can easily price themselves into the $400,000 range and up”, said Rodriguez.
Quality pool builders can definitely justify the asking price. During the pandemic, homeowners made it clear they were willing to pay top-dollar for a backyard that truly delivers the experience they are dreaming of.
Providing a premium product combined with a great customer experience is what consumers want. With projects like this one, Element Pool Company appears to be delivering just that. This young but talented pool firm is definitely on our radar now and one to watch in the upcoming years.
Listen to our discussion with Element Pool Company on the Pool Magazine podcast.
Additional Photo Credit: PoolPro
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