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A Call for Ambassadors

200412BVB0

200412BVB0

“To succeed in business or in life, I don’t think you need fancy schooling or highly technical experience. What I think you need is common sense, a commitment to hard work and the courage to go your own way.”
— Robert Mondavi

That statement from Robert Mondavi’s autobiography truly inspires me. Since I first read those words, I’ve become keenly aware of how this and other things he says about his career in the wine industry apply not only to my life and career, but also to what we all do in shaping a different kind of liquid for our clients.

Mondavi single-handedly transformed the U.S. wine industry. He founded his company in the mid-1960s at a point when growers here were producing high-volume, largely mediocre products and selling them cheap. At that time, the U.S. wine industry was totally overshadowed by the European chateaux.

Editor’s note: As part of this special issue’s look back at the magazine’s first six years, here is a slightly updated version of the column Brian Van Bower wrote for WaterShapes’ very first issue back in February 1999. To a large extent, this column set the stage for lots of discussions that have followed since – and still serves as a clarion call for quality and excellence in the watershaping industry.

Mondavi decided to step into the sun. He came along and said, “We’re going to produce world-class wines,” challenging his industry and the marketplace with the crazy idea that he could take a combination of old principles, traditions and techniques, then apply American technology to produce top-quality, world-class wines.

For years, people in the industry thought he was crazy, muttering about “Bob’s Follies.” But Mondavi stuck to his plan and kept his focus.

BREAKING THROUGH

It took years of hard work, but ultimately Mondavi’s winery became wildly successful, and he watched as his nay-saying competitors followed suit or fell by the wayside. Today, U.S. wineries produce top-flight, world-class products and have indeed become world-class competitors.

More significant, Mondavi demonstrated to his peers that re-orientation toward quality and value could open the market to a whole new set of consumers. Now, just 35 years or so after my hero blazed his trail, the industry is packed with highly individualized companies, both large and small, producing a variety of amazing products sold at healthy margins and consumed by a public that now demands quality and value.

I dwell on this because we are in much the same position as an industry of watershapers that the wine industry was when Mondavi started shaking off the cobwebs in the 60s.

Despite progress on many fronts within our industry, we still trade to a large extent in products of reasonable to poor quality being sold in volume and marketed primarily on price. Surely, we too could benefit from expanding on the notion that selling quality and value is a way to elevate pricing and increase margins – and, at the same time, increase customer satisfaction. Surely, a broader focus on custom, quality watershapes can open up a whole new class of creative designers and builders and elevate our products and consumer demand for them.

Robert Mondavi’s Seeds of Success

[ ] Confidence: First and foremost, you must have confidence and faith in yourself.

[ ] Passion: Interest is not enough. You must passionate about what you do if you want to succeed and have a happy life. Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work another day in your life.

[ ] Commitment: Be completely honest and open, making only promises and commitments you know you can keep. A broken promise can damage your credibility and reputation beyond repair.

[ ] Positivity: One of the most interesting things I’ve found in reviewing my life is the way the nay-sayers were always telling me that I could not accomplish what I set out to do. Whenever they said, “You can’t,” my answer always was, “Oh, yes I can!”

[ ] Understanding: You must understand that you cannot change people. You might be able to influence them a little, but you can’t change anyone but yourself. Accept that people are the way they are.

[ ] Flexibility: In both life and work, stay flexible. Dictatorships and rigidity rarely work; freedom and elasticity do.

[ ] Generosity: Learn to initiate giving. What you give will enrich your life and come back to you many times over.

[ ] Harmony: Live and work in harmony with others. Don’t be judgmental; instead, cultivate tolerance, empathy and compassion. As I’ve learned, if you want to teach someone to fly, you don’t start by clipping his or her wings.

[ ] Inspiration: Out of the rigidities and mistakes of my past, I’ve learned one final lesson, and I’d like to see it engraved on the desk of every business leader, teacher and parent in America: The greatest leaders don’t rule. They inspire!

Source: Robert Mondavi’s autobiography, Harvests of Joy

There’s another key similarity between Mondavi’s story and ours – one that I believe shines a light on prevailing attitudes in our marketplace. That parallel is this: Pools and other watershapes, like fine wines, are pleasure-oriented products. People want to have a good time with (and around) our products and, in fact, they come to us looking for fun, relaxation and enhanced lifestyles.

Think about it: When clients buy from us, they absolutely aren’t looking for a negative experience. They absolutely do not want to be persuaded away from the upbeat feelings that led them to us in the first place. Nor do they come to us because they want to hear a rap sheet on other contractors or designers or learn all about the inner workings of the motors your competitor uses.

THE NAME OF THE GAME

Truth be told, I don’t think most our clients want to be involved at all with the nuts and bolts of the product, despite the fact they’ve been conditioned by contractors to feel obliged to ask about them. Rather, they want enjoyment. They want the whole process to be fun and uplifting, from the instant you walk into their home to the time they take their first dip in their pool or spend their first quiet afternoon at the pond’s edge, watching minnows ducking under lily pads.

Doctors take an oath, “First, do no harm.” As a watershaper, I have my own version of that oath: “First, do not foul up the client’s good mood,” to which I add, “Second, work to enhance that good mood.” To put this into practice, I need to have a positive outlook about myself, my business and the products I sell.

We need to be confident and proud of our work, excited to help clients realize their dreams. We need to make a commitment to do the right thing, to follow through on promises, to be credible, honest and open. We need to break down the barriers of design, habit and practice to show that we’re flexible and not locked into doing things in just one “cookie cutter” way.

Just as Mondavi took farming techniques and distilling processes from Europe and made them work in America, we can take things such as Japanese gardens, the fountains of Rome and the works of modern masters of landscape design and introduce those value-added concepts into our clients’ personal visions. We also should incorporate a broader range of high-end materials for decking, interior finishes, tile, lighting and landscaping – all with the idea of expanding on clients’ positive impulses and enhancing their good moods.

In short, we have to work on letting our clients have a pleasurable experience. Building a watershape should be an adventure, not a form of paranoid drudgery. But this principle remains foreign to a great many people I know, this idea that you can build a swimming pool or other type of watershape and that everyone can end up actually enjoying the process.

If my experience in applying this principle is any indication, there’s real power at work when product and watershaper exceed expectations, giving clients more than they thought they were going to get and, as important, making it happen in a way that’s both upbeat and enjoyable.

UPWARD BOUND

Applying this pleasure principle to pools, spas and waterfeatures of all kinds in a Mondavi sort of way also has the genuine benefit of separating the contractor from the negative perceptions many consumers cling to. We see manifestations of this negativity in price-driven marketing, in competitive bad-mouthing and in a volume-over-quality attitude toward design and engineering. In other words, we all too often live down to negative expectations.

And yes, this negative perception persists, just as it did when Mondavi began his crusade to get the wine-drinking public to think about California as more than place where jug wines were made. We have to accept the fact that the public has been programmed by one too many hole-in-the-ground horror stories; although they are perhaps outdated and unfair, those stories do work to shape a negative public image and our own self esteem (or lack thereof).

Recognizing that the challenge exists, we need to continue to move on. You need to uproot all the negativity and supplant it with the positive. In fact, you can use those negative stereotypes to your advantage by blowing them away in the client’s eyes. When you do, the client then becomes your ambassador and will start selling your products for you.

You’ll look better in the client’s eyes, and that will reflect positively and directly on our products and who we are as professional watershapers. Just like Mondavi, who became an ambassador for the U.S. wine industry, each one of us can become an ambassador for our own businesses and for our industry at large.

“Ambassador of all things positive.” That has a great ring to it.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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