As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Stewart C. Vernon.
Stewart C. Vernon is the Founder and COO of ASP — America’s Swimming Pool Company, the nation’s leading swimming pool cleaning, repair, and renovation franchise. In 2002, he started ASP out of a desire to provide high-quality, honest pool services at an affordable price. Vernon also has a passion for helping drive real-world innovation. He is a founding partner of Classic Overland, a car import company, KUDU Outdoor Grills, and Central Piedmont Investment Group, an Angel Investment Firm. In addition, Vernon is a professional speaker with adequate experience in serving as a keynote speaker for occasions.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Ever since I could remember, I had always had the drive to seek out opportunities to create my own business. It took trial and error, but I had my mindset that after school I would get started with my career. My first job out of school was short-lived, as I worked as an operating partner for a pool service company. Getting let go from that job motivated me to create my own pool service business. In 2002, I founded America’s Swimming Pool Company to provide higher quality swimming pool service to my hometown community in Macon, Georgia. As the business rapidly grew, I took the time to research new approaches to help expand the brand. By 2005, I made the decision to form ASP Franchising as a way to keep up with our quick growth and have been expanding ever since.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Entrepreneurs look for several “Aha Moments” throughout their career. We are always looking for a new opportunity to create or enhance leading to dabble in several occupations. It is that constant urge to find a new opportunity and make it succeed that leads us to these moments.
There is a little more to how I got started that really lead me to create America’s Swimming Pool Co., which you could say was my “Aha Moment”. Being a 22-year-old operating partner did not last long when the company decided to go in another direction with someone older that had more experience. Once I was let go, before even getting the chance to clean a single pool, it led me to the idea to create my own path in the industry. Ironically after borrowing money from my parents and buying all the necessary equipment to become my previous jobs’ biggest competition, I ended up partnering with the brand which leads to developing ASP.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In my first month or two of business, I received a call about a “green pool” that needed to be drained and cleaned. I asked to look at the pool before providing a quote, but I was told this was a very exclusive property, so the manager did not have time to meet me, and the owner was certainly too busy for me.
Being new to business and wanting to build the company as fast as possible, I knew this was potentially a big opportunity. I took the job and showed up to drain the pool, only to find it was an abandoned mansion with a massive pool to match the home’s scale and size. The abandoned pool was full of leaves, trees, frogs, and algae. I just purchased all the tools, pumps, and equipment I needed to do this job, so I could not afford to turn it down at this point. What should have taken 1–2 days turned into two weeks. This experience taught me a very painful business lesson about always putting your eyes on a job before quoting a flat rate price!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As I began to seek the next business plan, I realized in asking around to find which opportunity to pursue, that the business needed to satisfy a demand. Not only did I want to provide higher quality swimming pool maintenance, but as a few years passed and we looked to expand by franchising, I wanted the business concept to serve as a purpose to allow other entrepreneurs to live out their dreams as well. Every hard decision I’ve made in my leadership role, I keep the franchisees and their customers top of mind. With a team of such incredible business owners as part of the ASP family, it has certainly encouraged us to reach for greater success and has led us to our current growth.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Since day one of America’s Swimming Pool being created, I wanted to demonstrate consistency and hard work in everything the brand did. As a home service franchisee concept, it was essential to keep communication a consistent message to establish ourselves and create a business model that works seamlessly in each of our locations. In any industry, nothing beats hard work. We are offering a service of high-quality pool care, and in order to deliver, we need to stay consistent with our work. Especially when we began this business, we would go above and beyond the status quo to have our work speak for itself. The best way to have continued success is to provide quality service time and time again.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I would say the main principle would be to tell the truth and stay transparent in a business. Since launching ASP in 2002, I have learned through financial crisis and unprecedented times such as during this pandemic, that it is so to consistently update your owners and customers. It shows accountability to share the ups and downs and continuously communicate with those investing in the company. During the pandemic, we have kept in close communication with our franchisees to provide updates on the status of the business.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Every entrepreneur faces their own hard times as part of the path towards success. The concept of franchising was new for me and we had our speed bumps along the way. One of the biggest challenges when starting off, for any franchise company, is the second to fifth owners that buy into your concept. I held on to a hope and a prayer that the brand was building a successful foundation. It put a lot of pressure on myself as the founder to create a successful brand. The franchisees took a risk in believing in me and most likely thought to themselves why they should even become a part of a brand that has no history. The first five franchisees were challenging in that regard, and 2006 was a hard year to overcome to get the brand up and running, but failure was not an option. I saw this as a challenge that needed to be worked through and thankful to now has 115 franchise partners that have taken that leap of faith and joined the ASP team.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Today, we lead 115 America’s Swimming Pool Company franchisee owners across 23 states. We continue to have same store sales increase year over year even in the face of financial down turns, including this pandemic. In fact, during the pandemic the pool industry saw a spike in pool installments. As the demand continued to rise, several businesses were reporting pool production delays due to a lack of raw materials and staffing during COVID-19. We recognized this as an opportunity to accommodate the demand and, in some locations, combat the shortage in workers by tacking on pool installation in addition to the brands usual maintenance services offered.
We would not have achieved this success without our dedicated franchisees. When I was first looking into franchising, I spent time learning which values I wanted to embody and studied the franchise system. My top-line value as a leader is to always put the franchisee first and make this decision early on. You want to communicate trust and confidence with your team and value the work they contribute. Any decision we make as corporate staff, we put ourselves in the shoes of the franchisees first. We want to make sure that we think of how information will sound if a single owner franchisee was reading it. Especially during the financial crisis, we worked to communicate frequently with our franchisees and make decisions that were best for the owners and the business.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) When you first start, go beyond the scope of the job to “wow” the customer. In my early days of business, when we were slow and only had a few customers, we would pressure wash their pool decks for free. No questions asked. This service built an incredibly local and vocal initial customer base. Invaluable.
2) Accounting is everything. Learn your books and your business as well as the accountants would. Proactive accounting advice is hard to come by.
3) Never underestimate the power of your employees, no matter their paygrade. Early in our company’s history, we implemented weekly staff meetings to go over what the employees saw in the field while cleaning pools. Many times over, these weekly conversations sparked great ideas or passed on a customer suggestion. Without team meetings, far too often, your staff will stay in a bubble.
4) If franchising your company, always make decisions with the franchisee in mind. They will take note of this, and it will pay great rewards down the line.
5) Begin with the end in mind. What is the ultimate long-term goal for your service-based business? If it’s to one day franchise, then the things you are doing today will impact the things you can (or cannot) do many years from now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Wholeheartedly I would have to give thanks to my parents who have embedded in me my work ethic early on. They always encouraged me to have a job while receiving a great education. Matter of fact, my parents allowed me to turn their garage into my very own car washing business. Growing up I was always trying to think of my own business and kept trying out my next big plan. For two years I turned my parents’ garage and driveway into a full-on car detailing shop. The yard was brown, and I am sure the water bills those years were incredibly high, but they allowed me to execute my business. This taught me how to be an entrepreneur and the power that it can bring to create something of their own.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Having paid minimum wage and had jobs where I paid six-figure compensation packages, I’d love to see an effort underway to bridge the gap with income inequality. This issue is far greater today than when I owned companies that paid minimum wage 15 years ago and still needs improvement. There is a time and a place or role for the minimum wage to be implemented, but for those that are living off minimum wage jobs deserve to see a transition to fill the gap. A temporary job such as a summer lifeguard correlates to minimum wage, but jobs deemed to provide minimum wage are career paths for many and should be receiving a wage they can live off of.
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