Pooled resources a lifesaver
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Curtis Lum
Like most of his peers, swimming pool cleaner Jon Deluca works alone. So when he suffered a serious wrist injury last fall and couldn't work for nearly a month, he risked losing his 40 regular customers as well as his business.
"I was screwed. There was no way I was going to work," said Deluca, owner of Aloha Salt Pools. "I had 40 pools to do and there's no way I could have done any. I could go out to the site and carry a bucket with one hand, but I couldn't do much."
But Deluca is a member of a unique association of swimming pool maintenance business owners whose primary purpose is to cover for another member who is injured, ill, or otherwise unable to work. Under the bylaws of the Swimming Pool Association of Hawaii, its members must help out a disabled colleague to ensure that his customers are covered.
By doing this, the pool cleaner will be able to hold on to his regulars while he's out. The cleaner also will continue to receive an income because all of the fees go to him and not the people who substituted for him.
For Deluca, the association helped to save his 15-year-old business.
"My customers probably would have gone elsewhere had I not made some arrangement," Deluca said. "You get a week or two when you don't go and the customers just find somebody else. So we're talking about saving a person's business, we're not talking about an idle threat here. You don't show up for two to three weeks you're done. You lose them all and you're out of business."
Deluca is one of five SPAH members who have had their businesses saved after they fell ill or were injured since the association was created eight years ago.
SPAH, which is modeled after a larger association in California, consists of 25 sole proprietors, most of whom have no one to fill in for them should they be out of work for any length of time.
Before forming SPAH, pool service owners had to work through their ailment, cancel their routes, or rely on the kindness of another pool cleaner for help.
"They would have to go out there in pain and were barely able to move," Deluca said. "They knew of this organization and said, 'We've got to do this. We've got to do this here.' "
Curtis Hawkins, owner of Rainbow Pool Co. and a founding SPAH member, said local pool cleaners formed the group after attempts to be affiliated with the Mainland organization failed. About five cleaners met in another's backyard and started to craft the bylaws and mission statement of their new group.
"What prompted it was someone had gotten hurt and he was laid up for a while. Luckily, he knew enough guys, made some phone calls, and some guys came and they rose to the occasion," Hawkins said. "We thought, 'What if we could get an association together to do that?' "
BOND BUILT ON TRUST
SPAH was formed in 2000, but Hawkins said it got off to a shaky start. He said many "naysayers" doubted that the association could work and feared that pool cleaners would take the opportunity to "snag" clients from their competitors.
Hawkins said early SPAH meetings deteriorated into social gatherings because alcoholic beverages were served. But Hawkins said the negative people were purged from the association and it has been running smoothly since.
Hawkins has served as SPAH president and says the current members have a strong bond built on trust. Although they're competitors, they also know that they need each other to stay in business.
Most cleaners have from 40 to 60 customers that are serviced weekly. With 25 members, that would mean each cleaner would be assigned about two extra jobs a week should they have to fill in for another cleaner.
Pool cleaners typically charge a monthly service fee of about $150, and with 40 customers the potential loss for a downed cleaner is great.
"It's really made clear up front that if someone goes down, we're going to be there to help because what happens if it's you," Hawkins said. "We've seen people go down who you would have never thought would ever have happened to."
But Hawkins said SPAH serves as more than just a lifesaver. He said the group offers educational seminars, the latest in pool products and technology, presentations by manufacturer representatives, as well as networking opportunities.
Monthly dues are $10 and members meet once a month.
"It's a very, very small price to pay for what you get should you get hurt," Deluca said. "You can't buy this kind of stuff."
'IT'S A GREAT CONCEPT'
The idea that business owners in the same industry would help another was praised by small-business advocate Tim Lyons, executive director of the Hawai'i Business League.
Lyons said there are variations of the concept, such as in construction where companies sometimes share employees when they have big jobs. But Lyons said he hasn't heard of anything similar to SPAH where competitors do the work of others to preserve that person's business.
"When they know each other and particularly if they can get together periodically for whatever reasons, then they get to know each other and trust each other. Then it's great. It's a great concept," Lyons said.
Lyons said he's particularly impressed with the lengths the pool cleaners would go to help each other, including turning down the fees. He said associations such as SPAH are key to the survival of small businesses.
"The fun thing about small businesses is typically they're inventive and innovative," Lyons said. "Sometimes their ideas don't work so good, but other times they work great. If they can take an idea like this and mature it and have it grow, I think it's great. It's something that other people can't do for them."
Hawkins admits that he's surprised that the association has worked so well, particularly after the way it got started. But he said SPAH has succeeded because its members have bought into the group's code of ethics.
He said honesty is vital because pool cleaners who fill in for each other have access to clients' keys, security pass codes and gate openers. Customers are notified ahead of time that a replacement cleaner will be servicing them.
"There's enough business out there for all of us," Hawkins said. "If you practice ethics, you can sleep at night. It sounds a little hokey and old-fashioned, but that's what we try to do and because we practice those principles, we've stayed around."
Reach Curtis Lum at email@example.com.