Sometimes, just when you think you have things all figured out, something comes along to transform your point of view.
For as long as I’ve been a part of the watershaping trades in general and the pool/spa industry in particular, there have been those special occasions when I’ve had just the kind of experience that has caused me to see things with fresh eyes. Case in point is the trip I mentioned in my last column – the one in which I was heading to
Germany with my Genesis 3 partners, David Tisherman and Skip Phillips, in an attempt to forge alliances with the people and organizations of Europe’s pool and spa industry.
I’d suspected it ahead of time, but I was surprised when the time came by just how significant the trip became and the valuable perspective it gave me on the way things are done overseas and their implications for what we do in the United States.
David, Skip and I have traveled together on several past occasions, and it’s always been interesting and usually lots of fun. In this case, however, we were on a serious mission to discover what possibilities might exist for sharing education and information across the Atlantic. What we found were national industries that share much with their American counterparts but display vast differences as well – plenty of food for thought.
Our goal in traveling this time was to lay the groundwork for some sort of international summit that would bring international organizations together in ways that might elevate the trades on both sides of the ocean.
That seemed a straightforward goal, but doing so immediately became more complicated than we had supposed. As it is here in the United States, the European pool and spa industry is fragmented and has numerous organizations with distinct agendas. Some were anxious to hear what we had to say, but others seemed to have no interest whatsoever.
In preparation for the trip, for example, I sent a package of information about our organization to one of the leading trade magazines in the United Kingdom – a comprehensive description of Genesis 3, our perspective on the state of the industry and what we saw as a potential for cross-pollination of our industries. To my disappointment, I received no response at all – complete silence. The same thing happened with a couple of other groups we contacted.
Right off the bat, this told us that, to whatever extent, the industry over there shares some characteristics with ours, including various measures of shortsightedness. I suppose that won’t really come as a surprise, but in any event we recognized that we’d need to do some digging to find open-minded people and that there would be no guarantees that out efforts would be successful.
We pursued what avenues we could, making solid contact with the primary German trade association, Bundesverband Schwimmbad & Wellness E.V. (BSW) as well as a number of leading contractors and manufacturers – all courtesy of my good friend Gera van der Weiden, who has a great deal of experience marketing U.S. pool and spa products overseas and who served as our liaison and Genesis 3 representative.
Fortunately, we found representatives of the German industry generally open to the idea of interacting with like-minded people from the United States. One of the people with whom we met was Guido Rengers, who runs a company that makes fiberglass pools and spas and is currently president of BSW. We’d first encountered him at the 2005 Aqua Show in Las Vegas and agreed at that time that we’d get together in Cologne, Germany, at some point in 2006.
In the interval, we did our homework and learned that BSW participates in a larger organization called European Union of Swimming Pool Associations (EUSA), an umbrella for all groups within Europe’s pool and spa industry. We had the reasonable thought that Rengers and his organization would be a good start in our quest for overseas affiliation.
Discovering what makes European organizations tick was our main focus in meeting with Rengers, but we also found that looking at his own company gave us a key insight that was somewhat surprising.
In the United States, fiberglass pools and portable spas are not typically considered to be high-end, value-added types of products by comparison to custom concrete structures. Right off the bat, Rengers’ work with pre-manufactured systems opened our eyes: His products blow away anything of this category we’d seen or had our attention called to in the United States: We’re talking vessels that embody both quality engineering and (in many cases) high-level aesthetics.
It was soon clear that nobody in Europe considers these types of products to be any sort of compromise compared to concrete watershapes: In fact, there’s a contingent in the German pool and spa industry that sees fiberglass manufacturing as the very best of all possible ways to create systems that are as well-made and beautiful as any other available type of pool.
The fact that portable spas and fiberglass pools are generally seen in the United States as an inexpensive alternative to the “real thing” in concrete was one of the things that Rengers and others saw as a big separation between their industry and the American marketplace.
After our tour, Rengers had set up a meeting with key BSW members and staff – including the executive director, Dieter Rangol, who with his staff had gone to a good deal of effort in creating a PowerPoint presentation in English about their organization. There was definitely a language barrier that tended to limit direct discussion and the meeting started off slowly, but with van der Weiden’s help in translating, we were able to make important inroads and establish a working, common ground. And as the day went on, we discovered that their English was much better than our German!
One of the people at the meeting was Bert Granderath, who runs a company called Grando that manufactures a line of high-end, floating pool covers. Again, his company was in the business of making a top-dollar product in a category that, in America, isn’t usually noted for high-end solutions (the exception being floating covers offered by Aquamatic Cover Systems of Gilroy, Calif.).
Suffice it to say that it wasn’t long before we noticed an emerging European theme in which quality isn’t driven by product type or category the way it is here in the United States. Instead, it is based on the attitude of the people running the companies and their overall approach to doing business.
We spent hours in our meeting, went out to dinner that evening and generally spent the entire day discovering what their industry was about. The next day we visited a variety of companies that represented different levels of the industry – and that’s where things really began to get interesting.
First off, we visited what might be described as a rank-and-file service/construction operation, which aside from the language difference appeared as though it could’ve been a typical firm you’d find in the United States – same issues, same challenges. Then we visited a high-end design/construction firm that employed on-staff architects, created extremely advanced designs for spectacular projects and might be considered a rough equivalent of a specialist landscape architecture firm back home.
In all cases, we found people who, regardless of level of sophistication, were extremely hospitable and obviously saw the sharing of food and drink as a part of doing business – a distinction I’d noticed before along with the fact that the dress code is much more formal (suits and ties all around) than it is now in the United States.
In other words, what we found is an industry that takes the business of working with clients and other contacts very seriously. Frankly, all of this was quite refreshing – and it seemed to us that this air of sophistication and formality was something that actually put us at ease because we felt we were being treated with respect. Just by the way they dressed, they set the groundwork for meaningful, serious interaction – not to mention that fact that their attitudes simply made for a pleasant experience, which is, after all, what our products are all about.
In our discussions, we learned that many mid-range firms are suffering from market erosion because of Internet sales and volume operations that were stepping in to gobble up market share. Business wasn’t as strong as it had been, they said, and they were looking to manufacturers to give them some form of geographically based exclusivity to counter the trend.
It all sounded even more familiar when the high-end firms told us they had no such concerns, conducted business with a broader international reach and obviously were secure knowing that the high end of the market was more stable, carried greater value and was actually expanding into more creative projects.
In that sense, what we found was that the European market, at least in Germany, appears to follow the U.S. paradigm when it comes to the high-end custom market’s relationship to the mid-level sector. Our discussions of these similarities increased our sense of shared burdens – and provided a sound basis for discussion of additional interaction.
ENGINEERING AND AESTHETICS
In our various tours, we also learned that in Germany and other places in Europe, pool and spa equipment is still largely made of bronze, brass and stainless steel. As an example, Rengers’ fiberglass pools are set up with bronze skimmers – unusual for any body of water in this country and utterly alien in connection to fiberglass vessels.
What this reflected is a basic obsession in the German industry with top-to-bottom precision and durability. Everyone believes firmly, for example, in the value of proper hydraulic design, and we never saw any evidence of the use we see in the United States of oversized pumps and undersized plumbing.
How this all translates across the European continent I don’t know, but in Germany at least, the nation’s stereotypical fascination with precision and technological excellence is one of the pool/spa industry’s defining characteristics. There was a lot of pride, too, and a conviction that they viewed their approach as superior to the ways things are done elsewhere.
Moreover, we consistently found people at all levels of the industry who had a burning desire to elevate the aesthetics of their products and output – and many were intrigued that we at Genesis 3 focus so much energy on education in art history, color theory and basic design principles. In fact, if there is one area where it seemed we had a real opening with respect to an exchange, it was in this area of giving them the keys to making watershapes beautiful and aesthetically exciting.
The upshot? Well, on the one hand, we saw an industry that in many ways seems to operate at a higher level of professionalism with respect to technical sophistication and business decorum; on the other, we had the sense they had a long way to go in advancing the emotional appeal watershapes can and should embody.
David, Skip and I came away from the experience with a sense that there is indeed a great deal we can learn from each other, and all three of us were interested to see the prevalence of a high-end attitude in sectors that have not generally taken the high-end road to success and even prestige in our home country. Conversely, there’s no question that the advances we’ve made in the United States with respect to unleashing creative, beautiful designs is admired by our European counterparts.
All of this reinforced my belief that learning about the bigger world can inform and possibly transform the work of individual firms and the industry at large. For my part, I’m excited by the idea of returning to Germany and other European countries to further this dialogue – all with an eye toward gaining a greater grasp of the all-important “Big Picture.”
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]