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The Big Picture

200612BVB0

200612BVB0

Anyone who runs a good business knows that day-to-day operations are so all-consuming that it’s difficult to step back and scope out where you fit within your corner of the industry let alone within the context of national and international business conditions and trends.

We can’t give those daily details short shrift or step away from balancing the needs of our clients, our projects and our employees and/or subcontractors. We invest in the here and now and in our futures with blood, sweat and tears.

Still, it occurs to me that, like all major investments, our daily endeavors need to be protected by an understanding of the entire range of factors that influence our success. So to me, understanding the Big Picture is a practical necessity, because failing to do so means I’m almost certain to miss opportunities and, just as bad, will not be prepared for conditions in the market that influence my success.

WIDE ANGLES

In an appropriate year-end sort of way, this column extends my recent comments about trade shows (“A Season for Renewal,” October 2006, page 10). As I mentioned then, there’s much “business intelligence” to be gained by attending industry gatherings – they take us out of our routines, expose us to new ideas and products and, most important of all, place us in the company of our colleagues. That’s all valuable.

There is, however, more to be considered. We all know that our world is extraordinarily complicated and that events take place that are well beyond our control: We can’t do much about higher gas prices, the costs of worker’s compensation insurance or slow-downs in the housing and construction market. What we can control is how thoroughly we evaluate those factors and position ourselves in response to them.

To illustrate, let’s run through what we all know (or should know) has happened around us in recent years. There’s no doubt, for example, that watershaping and the overall exterior-design market has boomed since the early 1990s, exploding successively into all sorts of new areas including outdoor cooking and dining areas, landscape and exterior lighting, interactive waterfeatures, fire effects, outdoor sound systems and much, much more.

Those of us who have embraced those trends as part of our Big Picture and moved beyond the water’s edge have done well. By contrast, those who haven’t broadened their scope have either stayed in the same place or perhaps lost ground in the marketplace.

Even in prosperous times, there’s peril in not thinking on a broader level. But when times get tougher, a heightened level of situational awareness may be the key to securing ongoing success – or surviving.

I inserted the word surviving there for a reason: Many of you are certainly aware that there are ominous signs of a major slowdown in the housing market, and it’s my observation that a great many of you have never worked your way through down markets. After all, it’s been about 15 years since the last time the housing market tanked, and the fact that it’s happening again to varying degrees around the country and across all levels should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Trouble is, many watershapers weren’t running their own businesses 15 years ago, so they lack a visceral appreciation for what such a downturn really means.

ROUGHER WATERS

Speaking for myself, I’ve rolled through tough times in the past, and on those occasions when I was running much larger companies than I’m running now, cyclical economic ebbs and flows caused a fair measure of stress.

Ultimately, what saw me through was the conscious adjusting of my approach to business in response to what I saw around me. Had I left my head in the sand and chosen to only focus on the small picture within my companies’ walls, I’m certain I wouldn’t be writing this column now.

On a couple occasions in the past, I’ve written about the concept of the “frontrunner fee” – that is, the cost of the learning curve that comes with doing things that are innovative and out of the box. Some of us choose to make these investments in our future, while others are happy to sit back and emulate what trendsetters are doing.

The frontrunners may lead more exciting lives, but there’s truly nothing wrong with following behind so long as you pay attention to what’s ahead. In addition to those two classes of business owners, however, there are those who stay put no matter what happens. These folks are left to pay (for want of a better term) a “back-runner’s fee” – and there’s absolutely no upside or true benefit to that cost.

Let’s get specific: We all know the housing-construction market is slowing down and that it’s going to put pressure on watershaping from the supplier level all the way through to subcontractors and service firms.

My own experience in tight times has taught me in no uncertain terms that when the overall market cools, the middle ranges and especially the lower end of the market are particularly vulnerable, while the upper-middle and high ends are far more stable. Defining the value of that stability has been an undercurrent in this magazine from the very beginning: Indeed, we’ve heard countless voices extol the virtues of moving toward custom, higher-end work largely because people with money will still have it when the economy drops a stitch – and they’ll still be interested in spending it.

Those of you who have moved in that direction and absorbed all the principles of design, engineering and construction that are involved in operating at the high end are going to be in a far better position during the months and maybe years to come than are those who have focused on digging as many holes in the ground as possible. That’s not to say there won’t be quality-oriented, midrange companies that will thrive, but with trends rolling as they are now, there’s no doubt that a great many volume-oriented firms will be assessed the back-runner fee – the only question being how deeply it will cut.

OVER THERE

The Big Picture, however, is much more complex than the low-end/high-end phenomenon I’ve just defined: Life isn’t that simple.

To see more of what’s going on, you need to address some key questions: Who will be leading the way in times to come? What will make for success down the road? What are the possible pitfalls? Where are opportunities likely to emerge? Finally and most important, how can my business make the most of the situation?

Helpfully, there are resources at your disposal that can guide you to some of the answers you need, including the aforementioned attendance at trade shows. There’s also paying attention to the news and, perhaps most valuable, watching what recognized industry leaders are doing. But nobody will spoon-feed this information to anyone: It’s up to each and every one of us to explore this territory on our own.

Personally, my partial focus on work overseas makes it valuable (and natural) for me to consider what’s going on internationally.

It’s no secret that what happens beyond our borders can have a huge influence on watershaping here: All it takes is remembering that vanishing-edge pools hit the scene in France big time well before they started appearing all over the United States – and that those here who embraced the vanishing edge years ago were better positioned to ride that wave than were those who didn’t.

That’s just one example, and it’s safe to assume that additional techniques, features, equipment and aesthetic approaches emerging in Asia, Europe and Australia right now will become part of our world in a relatively short time. As a self-proclaimed frontrunner, I want to know what those things are and begin preparing myself so that when my customers start asking questions, I’ll be ready with answers.

At this writing, I’m preparing for a big trip to Germany to meet with leaders of Europe’s watershaping trade organizations. I’ll be representing Genesis 3 with the hope we can establish some sort of international conference, summit or forum for the exchange of ideas on some level. What will happen, I don’t know. My guess is that we’ll confirm that our European counterparts are ahead of us in terms of working in environmentally sensitive ways – but who knows what else I might learn?

It’s likely you’ll hear more about this trip in a future column, but I bring it up here to point out that unless one makes the effort – and sometimes a dramatic effort requiring travel – there’s a world swirling all around us and it’s easy to miss something important when you keep your focus purely on the home front.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

Of course, you don’t have to be an avid follower of current events or international affairs to understand some basic things about the world at large these days.

Yes, a growing fear of leaving home has prompted some consumers to invest in “backyard vacation” destinations, a trend that has helped our businesses a good bit in recent years. Yes, we all know that the planet has its scary parts, but that’s no reason to put on blinders, avoid contact or suppress curiosity.

In fact, I believe that fear of the outside world among professionals will only retard our growth at home, mostly because people in Europe and Asia are sponges when it comes to what’s happening here and embrace all things international in ways we Americans seldom do. The simple existence of the vanishing-edge phenomenon is motivation enough for me and my partners at Genesis 3 to want to engage the Europeans in dialogue, and I think it’s up to us as individuals and as an industry to get involved as best we can with the international watershaping community.

As mentioned above, there’s a risk in remaining ignorant – the problem being that you don’t know what you don’t know until you commit to various types of personal and professional exploration of the world around you.

As curious and engaged as I try to be, there are things that surprise me – including a recent inquiry about the prospect of designing private mineral spas for a new resort. I’ve never given that particular concept any thought at all, but you can bet I’ll be spending a good bit of time getting engaged with the idea in the next little while. Will mineral spas be the next vanishing edge? I don’t have the slightest idea, but I’ll be ready.

Truth be told, of course, it’s unlikely mineral spas will be the next Big Thing and as a result they are unlikely to transform my business. It might happen, but there are some trends and market areas that are far more readily identifiable as hugely important, including the one with which I’ll conclude this discussion – that is, the healthfulness of aquatic exercise and therapy.

In this issue, WaterShapes’ editor Eric Herman offers us all an important article on that subject, and it’s something I think should be at the forefront of our broader thinking in the months and years to come. In fact, the preview he gave me is so significant, so compelling that it might be just the concept that guides us through economic uncertainty to brighter times ahead.

SHINING PROSPECTS

Consider the fact that our population is aging and that Baby Boomers as a category are more health and appearance conscious than any other generation that went before them.

As these Boomers (myself included) collectively get older, it’s easy to see that the benefits of swimming, aquatic exercise and hydrotherapy are going to become increasingly powerful enticements for those considering some type of watershape in which those activities might occur.

As an industry, we’ve begun doing a much better job of embracing this overall issue, and I’d like to give big-time kudos to the National Swimming Pool Foundation and that organization’s chairman, Tom Lachoki, for advancing and documenting our knowledge of these issues with current research and the dissemination of key information we all can use.

As the market tightens, I believe the industry should aggressively embrace information pertinent to the health benefits of swimming pools and spas and shout the news from rooftops around the globe. If I had to back a horse in the race through the downturn and toward a brighter future, I’d jump right on the healthfulness of our products: It may be second to none when it comes to securing projects (or not).

That’s a Big Picture issue, certainly, but it’s not necessarily the only thing out there that we need to know. Perhaps something will emerge with energy efficiency or environmental responsibility or something else I can’t anticipate as yet. What I do know is that if I don’t keep my eyes and ears open, I’m likely to be a follower rather than a frontrunner – and these days I’m unwilling to risk letting trends move forward without me.

How we think about our world is a personal matter, no question, but we do live in an age when information is king and there are plenty of ways of accessing it. In that environment, there’s no excuse for ignorance, no matter how bewitching day-to-day operations may be.

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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