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In Search of Community

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200107BVB0

Through the past 50 years, the watershaping industry has evolved from a small, elite group of contractors serving the needs of a small, elite group of consumers to become a vast industry whose services are in demand across a wide range of socio-economic levels. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that in these most recent years of prosperity, watershapes are being sold to more people across broader economic bandwidths than ever before.

Yet for all this demand and the innovation that’s been happening, I don’t see unity. Instead, I see a massive, diverse “industry” (definitely in quotation marks) with scores of niche organizations, geographic enclaves and specific interests, each moving forward without the benefit of any sort of cohesive leadership, compelling voice or collective vision.

I find this strange and disconcerting, because nearly every great industry has had effective leadership that has been able to move agendas forward within some form of organizational structure.

As much as we Americans love our rugged individualism, collective efforts exist for the simple reason that there are some things a group can do that individuals cannot, from influencing government and dispensing ideas and education to providing a forum for marketing services and technology. To achieve these goals industry-wide, in other words, organizations and industries need direction, purpose and leadership.

At this moment, I believe the watershaping trades are lacking in these key areas.

SCATTERED ABOUT

Has the time come to look at the way things are, step back and consider what could happen to change things? I think so. I think it’s also time to start conversations about what kind of structure would best serve our industry’s diverse and far-flung needs.

It’s not my intention to point fingers at any particular group of people, any particular segment of the industry or any particular organization. I’m not familiar with all of them, and I have solid emotional ties to the two I’ve known well, namely the National Spa & Pool Institute and Associated Swimming Pool Industries of Florida.

I just think it’s time to acknowledge the fact that – for a variety of reasons in this era of tremendous change – we have seen ourselves become scattered and even alienated from one another. And when you step back and look at it, this lack of connection really isn’t a surprise. Just consider the array of issues and trends in play right now:

[ ] Changing consumer desires: All of this malaise starts with the fact that the demand for water is much different, much greater and far more diverse now than it once was. It seems that every set of plans I look at these days includes not only a pool and spa, but also a fountain and a Koi pond and a reflecting pool – and that’s only a slight exaggeration.

This is a time of remarkable growth that is drawing out creativity on the part of the trade and its consumers. And while that is certainly a wonderfully positive trend, it also means that many people are doing new and different things in their work and are sometimes operating out of their comfort zones as they face new and ever-changing challenges.

[ ] The melding of trades: With this diversification in the demand for watershapes has come a diversification of people in the business of providing them. As has been mentioned countless times in this magazine, the traditional pool/spa trades and the mainline landscaping trades are converging and interweaving to a greater extent than ever before.

Again, I see this is a positive trend, but it’s one that complicates the picture tremendously in terms of how the trade should be organized – and for what reasons.

[ ] Consolidation of manufacturing and distribution: The economic prosperity in recent years has spawned a vigorous spate of mergers and acquisitions and tremendous consolidation of resources on the manufacturing and distributing levels.

Where there were half dozen companies serving a specific niche or area ten years ago, in many cases there is now only one supplier or distributor. This centralization has dramatically altered the economics and operations of the supply side of our industry.

[ ] Globalization of markets: Buying and selling across international lines and communication via the Internet across the globe have expanded the watershaping trades in a variety of directions.

There are more products available from overseas than every before, and I believe many of us are discovering the vast world of creative influences that exist abroad. This trend puts pressure on organizations to evolve and remain relevant in today’s broadening markets.

These factors are all, in my view, positive and are serving to drive our businesses to new heights of creativity and excellence. But other factors at work in today’s business environment are not so positive in nature:

[ ] Liability issues: Recent developments in the courts having to do specifically with the swimming pool industry, coupled with our society’s reliance on the courts to assign blame in matters of plaintiffs’ personal behavior, means that watershapers of all sorts – not just pool builders – are more exposed to lawsuits than ever before. This cuts to the matter of trade associations’ roles in writing standards – a truly complex and baffling issue that just seems to get scarier all the time.

[ ] Government regulations: I’m not one who believes that government should be prevented from having any role in regulating industries, but there’s little doubt than some forms of government regulations can be extremely intrusive and detrimental to business. Providing a collective voice to influence the direction of government is a major function – one that needs to be addressed by a whole industry.

[ ] Margin selling: There are different ways to compete in a free market, and as I’ve said before in these pages, competing on price and price alone is bad for business. One of the things that can happen with a responsible trade association is an influencing of the culture and values within a trade to emphasize things such as quality and creativity as the basis for competition.

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE

With all these trends (and more) at work these days, it’s easy to see how and why our business environment has become so complicated.

Now consider the vast tapestry of associations we have at our service: There’s NSPI with its national office and councils, committees, regions and chapters. There’s the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and their subgroups. In larger markets, there are local organizations at the service and retail levels. There’s IPSSA, UPSA and a host of others. There are also builders’ buying and marketing groups.

As one who’s participated for years and years in NSPI on the national, regional and chapter level as well as with ASPI of Florida, I’ve seen how these groups work on all levels. Without going into the details and specifics, I can say that on both the national and local levels these groups are having their problems.

For NSPI, the most tangible evidence of this trend can be seen with its international expo. There was a time when this was a tremendously exciting, can’t-miss event, and I would never have even considered not going. Now and for the past couple years, however, I’m not so sure, and it’s clear that many exhibitors and prospective visitors are having the same misgivings about the value of attending. At the least, exhibitors are now weighing the amount of money they’re spending against the business benefits they’re seeing, and rightfully so.

I sense the same decline in energy and enthusiasm on the local level. I still feel a certain attachment and loyalty to these groups and especially to my friends in these organizations, but in terms of assessing the groups’ continued utility and purpose, it’s all very unclear and uninspiring. And based on my conversations with other members of these groups and others, my sense of what’s going on isn’t isolated to one organization or geographic area or level of participation.

What I find so amazing is that this malaise is occurring at a time when business is good and most of the major trends driving our businesses are positive and exciting. There’s never been a time like this, filled with opportunities we couldn’t have imagined even ten years ago – and it’s clear that our trade organizations haven’t kept pace.

BLUE SKIES

So, how do we steer our organizations in a more positive direction, one that meets the needs of the vast spectrum of businesses working under the watershaping umbrella? I wouldn’t have started this column without a suggestion to offer, so here goes:

I believe it’s time for a change and for NSPI to re-invent itself as a brand-new watershaping organization – or for an entirely new national trade organization to take its place. Let’s call this outfit the Society of Watershapers, or SOW. (That’s not the most attractive of acronyms, but it’ll do for now.)

I see SOW as a loose federation of smaller, geographically organized, niche-specific organizations that have practical ties to the big umbrella association. This international entity would exist for three specific reasons: to satisfy the watershaping industry’s need for unified, coherent government relations; to unify provision of information and education for the industry; and to organize and host a national or truly international gathering to bring watershapers together on a regular basis.

SOW would be all-inclusive, welcoming anyone who’s involved in watershaping on any level. The primary requirement for membership would simply be an interest in belonging, and there would be no attempt on the part of SOW to market the value of dealing with SOW members to potential clients.

The umbrella organization would stage an international show to provide a forum for manufacturers and give them direct access to all industry segments. From the individual member’s standpoint, SOW would provide a unifying presence and networking opportunities to the broadest possible range of professional organizations, local or regional. In short, it would bring together under one roof all of those professionals engaged in the creation of watershapes.

SOW’s participating organizations would exist within this structure while retaining autonomy, their own by-laws and their own standards and requirements for membership. The ones that are already serving their members well will thrive; those that aren’t will eventually fall by the wayside. And any necessity for choosing one’s individual organization over this new collective entity simply would not exist.

In effect, I’m hoping we’d get the primary benefits of membership in a national association – a voice in legislation and regulation, a source of education and organization of a national trade fair – without expecting it to be all things to all people. Meeting the specific needs of contractors, service professionals, retailers and other groups would be left to the smaller organizations.

Maybe I’m being irrationally exuberant about this idea, but I would like to think that a two-tiered structure of this type would empower a national organization without asking it to compete with more focused and locally responsive grassroots organizations.

HAVING MY CAKE

It seems to me that the true beauty and power of the watershaping trade is its broad diversity and, as we are only coming to recognize now, the sheer numbers of its participants.

It’s unreasonable to think that any single organization could, all at once, serve the localized, specific needs of professionals as diverse as landscape architects, chemical manufacturers, spa retailers and pool service technicians as well as the global need of the industry for swift and thorough communication: One size does not fit all in terms of organizational structures and goals. At the same time, there’s no doubt that a national organization with a clear-cut, collective agenda would be useful.

Hey, I know this notion is about as far into the blue sky as it gets, but I’ve always wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. With so much going on in our trade, it seems that we should be able to make our associations meet our needs, and not the other way around. It’s an idealistic vision, I’ll grant you that, and as I wrap it up I want to remind you that this is simply food for thought.

You don’t have to go along with me, call it SOW and make me dictator for life (a great idea I hadn’t mentioned up to this point), but hasn’t every great organization started out as just an idea?

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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