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The Company You Keep
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The Company You Keep



If you ask a roomful of watershapers about the toughest of the basic business challenges they face, there’s little doubt in my mind that a large percentage of them would say that finding, hiring and keeping good employees is near the top of the list.

That always-tough task is complicated by the fact that the vast majority of watershapers need to rely on others to get a project done. Yes, there are a few of you out there who work entirely on your own with the aid of subcontractors, but watershaping is generally a group effort involving combinations of in-house salespeople, office managers and field workers as well as designers, engineers, project managers and all sorts of other possible positions that define our companies.

To a large extent, success in what we do depends on the coordinated efforts of these groups of employees. A prerequisite to that success involves sitting down with a prospective employee, considering his or her background, asking questions, weighing responses, looking a candidate in the eye and finally making a decision about whether or not he or she has the right stuff for your firm.

A twist on the road from hiring to long-term success, of course, comes from knowing that once a new hire has been trained and is now making a positive contribution, eventually he or she may leave to captain an independent ship. That’s a frustrating part of this business, but you can’t escape the cycle – and, as we shall see, there are some steps you can take to keep valuable employees on deck by your side.


Depending upon several factors – the size of your company, its business volume, its focus and how much work you submit to outside contractors – your own approach to hiring and employee management will tend to vary substantially. Regardless of how formalized and structured your procedures, however, the same basic principles apply whether you have a staff of 50 or just five. The plain fact is that you will always begin hiring people one at a time.

It’s fair to assume that, for the most part, water-oriented firms in the landscape, fountain and pool/spa trades are relatively small in size. In fact, it’s a business where a firm with 20 employees is considered to be pretty big. In such an environment, hiring is seen as more critical than in others: The people get to know each other quickly, trust is an important value and each employee is extremely important to the success of the business.

In finding people to fit these specific, significant roles, you can take one of two approaches, either hiring someone with work experience who exactly fits the position (that is, someone with direct experience in the industry), or finding someone with transferable skills who can be trained to do the job you need done. There are advantages to both approaches.

[ ] Hiring experience. When you hire someone from within the industry with experience that mirrors the position, the learning curve will be much, much shorter and less expensive. If it’s the right person who’s making a move for the right reasons, hiring from within the watershaping trades can indeed be a big plus – but there can be downsides to this approach as well.

Often, for instance, people with direct experience have their own ways of doing things, some of which may not align with your own values or some that are simply bad habits. Getting someone to unlearn and relearn under these circumstances can be more difficult than starting from Square One.

I’ve also found that those hired from within the industry are more likely to exit your own firm one day to start their own companies and may see working with you as a steppingstone in their own path toward business ownership. Observing this process can be painful and certainly puts a premium on loyalty, but it’s an inevitable fact of being in business. And the better your business, the likelier it is that good people will see working for you as valuable experience they can take with them when they go out on their own.

[ ] Hiring newcomers. The other approach – hiring and then training – carries more cost up front because the process of bringing a person up to speed does not yield benefits so quickly. If, for example, you hire a salesperson from outside the trade, you cannot reasonably expect his or her numbers to be as strong in the early going as those of someone who’s been selling watershapes for a period of time.

No matter the position, you must have realistic expectations when it comes to those who know little about the business when they show up for their first day on the job.

I believe, however, that the upside potential of hiring from beyond the industry can easily make the cost and effort of properly training these fresh faces worthwhile. First, you open yourself to a much wider prospect pool and will have more choices. Second, you can provide training in specific skills and the needs and priorities of the position and therefore effectively tailor the employee to suit a specific function. Third and perhaps most important, when you start with a blank canvas with respect to employee training, you stand a much greater chance of filling new hires with your own business values.

I’ve tried both approaches through the years, and each has its good points. How you proceed depends upon a number of variables – for example, hiring a designer is different from hiring a project manager or an office assistant – that determine the value of industry experience and the need for flexibility in approaching the hiring process.


As with most everything in business, you need to have a structure in place for your hiring process. You need to know in advance what you’re willing to pay by way of salary and benefits, what vehicles you’ll use in finding prospects, what sort of training will be involved, probationary periods and how you specifically intend to indoctrinate a new hire in the way you do business.

The more clearly you understand what you expect in and from an employee, the more clearly you express clear objectives for the short and long runs and the better will be the chances of your new hire’s success – and your own.

How you find candidates is a major concern. I’ve tried a number of routes, from newspapers and community organizations to job services at local universities. Others have tried the Internet, trade magazines and other creative resources – and they all work fine. But however you slice it, you’ll likely end up sifting through a whole bunch of unqualified (and a few over-qualified) applicants in looking for a select group of strong contenders.

One of my industry friends, Nanette Zakian of Hachik Distributors in Aston, Pa., runs a successful firm with dozens of employees and has had great success in hiring. She makes use of a professional consultant to screen the pool of applicants for all positions in her firm.

I spoke with her as I was preparing this column and she said that by using a professional screener, you’re essentially buying the experience of someone who has broad experience in spotting red flags and is knowledgeable about a range of hiring concerns. You pay for such assistance, of course, but given the importance of hiring decisions, using a professional might well be a wise investment.

She also suggested that the foundation for any good hire is developing a detailed job description as well as an outline of the characteristics you seek for a given position. Doing so helps you organize your thoughts, she noted, and helps you focus on what’s most important rather than becoming distracted by positive qualities in an applicant that you may like but isn’t really the ideal hire.

During the interview itself, she recommends using the same set of questions with each candidate for each specific job. This helps you establish clear, clean cross-comparisons among all candidates.

Another person whose hiring practices I admire is Bill Kent, who runs the Team Horner family of companies out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He has a reputation for hiring quality employees and retaining a large percentage of them for long periods of time, and he does so in part by using a personality-profiling service that gives applicants a simple test that can be used to define key personality traits. (I took one of these tests out of curiosity and was really impressed by how well they pinpointed my main personality quirks.)


The benefit of these sorts of hiring procedures is that they can be used to stack the deck in your favor. But for all the forethought, discipline and analysis you apply in the hiring process, there still comes a time when you must look a candidate in the eye and make a judgment call.

On a certain level, in fact, the hiring process all boils down to personality and the way the person comes across in an interview.

This is unavoidably a subjective process, and I myself make no bones about the fact that I pay close attention to some intangible details. First, for example, I look for someone I believe will be inspired by the job. I’ve always said that I’m not really in this business to make money: Instead, I’m into creating beautiful environments that improve the quality of my clients’ lives. Because of my own value system, I want someone who is similarly inspired by our products and their potential.

On an even more subjective level, I hire people with whom I believe I’d be proud to associate – those who take pride in themselves and care about presenting themselves in positive and engaging ways. This can mean many different things, but I know these qualities when I see them and am not easily fooled: It’s all about personal appearance, confidence, body language and a positive energy and spirit that I don’t think can be faked. I also seek out people with ambition who see working with me as a way to grow personally.

I’ll confess to being turned off almost completely when the first thing out of a candidate’s mouth is a concern about compensation. We all work to make a living, of course, and part of good hiring means paying meaningful, competitive salaries and wages, but I see primary concern with money as a red flag.

On the positive side, I do like people who ask questions, especially when they cut to the essence of what the business is all about. And I’ve always admired people who answer the question “Where would you like to be in five years or ten years?” with something along the lines of, “I’d like your job.” What some might see as naked ambition I take as a sign of someone open-eyed in wanting to develop skills and grow in a chosen field of endeavor.

At the core, hiring is about finding a person with the right qualifications as well as someone you believe will be able to embrace your own core values as they relate to the business. In some sense, you’re looking for clones of yourself – but clones who bring their own strengths to the workplace and enrich it with their individuality.


Once you hire someone good, your next mission is hanging onto them. In fact, I’d say that retaining good employees might even be more important than consistently hiring well because it requires a greater investment of time and energy than does the ad hoc exercise of bringing someone aboard in the first place.

For starters, if you want to retain employees for the long haul, you have to give them both short- and long-term goals. You need to define the roles you’re asking them to fill and you need to set up plans that let them see pathways for advancement. All of this serves to give them a sense of acting in their own self-interest as they simultaneously work in the service of you and your customers. In a sense, this lets them see their work as an investment in their own futures.

Employee benefits and profit-sharing programs can be big keys as well. In Bill Kent’s case, his firm even offers financial counseling to its employees – something that enables him to transfer is own considerable skills in personal finance to employees who might not be as expert as he is at investing money and planning for the future. In doing so, he improves the quality of their lives, wins an amazing degree of loyalty and creates a general belief that everyone in the company is vested in its success.

These days, of course, health insurance is a huge and complex topic and extremely important when it comes to retaining good people, but it’s just one component in a big overall picture. All things being equal, it makes sense that employees will be happiest working for firms that offer good benefits packages.

Another key to retaining employees has to do with the working environment. I’ve always believed in setting up office spaces with nice furniture, interesting and lively décor and comfortable amenities. Some firms take this to a wonderfully developed level with exercise rooms and massage services (a personal favorite), and I’ve always thought creative enterprises in particular need working environments that reflect within the company what should be produced in the field.

I recently toured Dominus Winery in Napa Valley and was amazed by their facility. It isn’t even open to the public, but it’s absolutely stunning in every detail, from the architecture to materials of construction and terrific interiors. The entire place embodies a wonderfully open and warm feeling, and it’s all there strictly to benefit the employees. And it came as no surprise to me that Dominus is a world-class outfit producing a glorious high-end product.

You don’t have to go that far, certainly, but if you want people to feel comfortable, it’s good to create a stimulating and inviting environment. When I look at the drab, utilitarian, cubicle-studded environments in which so many companies house their employees, I want to scream and literally cringe at the thought of working there. Rest assured I’m not alone.


Even more important than the physical workplace, however, is the atmosphere you create.

Company culture is all-important in maintaining long-term employees, especially in a creative field like watershaping. The best work can only happen when your people feel valued and at ease as they work, and I go out of my way to make sure that the working atmosphere around me is friendly, light-hearted and filled with mutual respect.

I see our company as a reflection of my desire to feel as though what I do all day long really isn’t work, per se. We have lots to do and the emphasis is always on getting the job done, but without a liberating spirit of creativity and shared ambition, the experience of being at work can become a burden: When your employees really don’t want to be there, they’ll perform that way.

This is why I’ve always believed that the best employers are those who provide not only a good living for their employees, but also a good life. Our product is about enjoyment, imagination and self-expression, and by reflecting those values in the workplace, I think we stand a better chance of not only hiring good people, but of keeping them around to share and enhance the experience.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A 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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