-old Allen Cooper gets
up at 5:30 every morning to run his business, Pintado Pools in Santa Ynez, Calif. His days are long and busy. He's been
known to answer the phone himself.
Cooper says he plans on
doing this far past the normal retirement age — at
least another 10 years. Social
Security's future is in doubt;
health-care costs are foreboding; projections for the
cost of living comfortably in
old age are ominous.
All true, except those
aren't factors here. Necessity
isn't what pushes Cooper
and his wife, Virginia, out of
bed every morning. It's
Pintado Pools isn't a huge,
nationally known operation. The company's employees
consist of Cooper and his
wife; everything is subcontracted. Pintado doesn't even
have a Web site. But Allen
Cooper has an advantage
most pool builders don't,
one that many envy: "They
have to do this for a living,
and I don't."
Cooper has the unusual twin perks of
financial security and the perspective
gained from his second time around in
the business. He operated El Camino
Pools and Solar Systems from 1971 until
1983, when a brutal U.S. economy —
lowlighted by 20 percent interest rates —
forced him to close up shop.
He went to work for Verizon for the
next couple of decades. By 2003 he was
a mid-range executive, and was offered a
retirement package that promised financial security — along with the freedom
to have some control over his future. "I knew I had to get back into the pool
business," Cooper says. "Even when I
was out of the business, I read trade
magazines, kept some contacts. I knew
that with this chance, I had to do something I loved."
So on Nov. 10, 2003, Cooper retired
from Verizon and enjoyed the holidays
with Virginia. The following January, he
went to the AQUA Show to get reacquainted with the business.
"We wanted to stay for two days but
ended up staying for five," he says. "We
took every seminar we could get into. The AQUA Show is so refreshing in
that it's different every year."
The Coopers were encouraged by people they talked to at the AQUA Show,
but they were under no illusions. They
remembered the financial hassles and
the drains on their time, and were
braced for the increasingly sophisticated
competition, dizzying technological advances, new laws
"I introduced myself to
(Genesis 3 co-founder) David
Tisherman at the show,"
Cooper recalls. "I told him,
'I'm coming back to the
"He said, 'What the
FUN IS GOOD FOR YOU
Fun is as good a reason as
any — and when every decision isn't tied to your financial survival, any endeavor is going to be more
"I can't stress enough the
fun I'm having," Cooper
says. "I've lost 17 pounds,
my cholesterol has been
cut in half, and my blood
pressure is down 20
points. I don't sit well, and
if I'm going to be doing
something, it has to be something I
want to do."
And now, he gets to do it on his
terms: higher-end projects with
clients he can connect with. "I serve
the customers I want to serve, or I
don't do the job," he says. So his relationship with the client becomes even
more important, and has the potential
to be something special if it's the
Unlike most builders, Cooper doesn't
have to worry about making do with an uneasy relationship or an unreasonable customer as the price of
doing business. And as an industry
veteran, he knows pretty quickly
whether he can look forward to a
good rapport with a client.
"The first thing is, in the initial
meeting our personalities must
match," he says. "We must click in
"I've been in sales since I was 19, so
I can read people pretty quickly. I can
tell where I'm headed, whether it's a
bad situation or whether I'm the only
one they talk to. But I have an obligation to be fair with them whether I'm
the only bidder or not."
His second criterion is the client's
budget. How much are they willing to
spend. If the amount isn't realistic in
terms of achieving what they want,
Cooper tries to guide them somewhere else.
"I remember visiting with a retired
sheriff," he says. "They told us they
had $50,000 to spend, but I told
them for what they wanted it wasn't
within the realm of possibility for our
company; that it'd be more like
$75,000. (Pintado's usual price range
is $75,000 to $165,000, though it has
had bids out for $200,000 pools.)
"So I sent them to a fiberglass pool
company, San Juan Pools out of Florida, which had a franchise here. They
were very happy with what they got. It's all part of the mentality of trying
to build that relationship, that we're
all in this together."
Third, Cooper looks for a longterm partnership with a client. "I
want to be able to work well with that
person for the next two to four
months," he says. "I tell people it's
your pool, but my project. I let everyone know that I don't need to build
pools, but I want to."
He's wanted to for most of his life. Allen Cooper began building pools in
1968, when a home swimming pool or
spa was considered a luxury item. Even
as late as '83 — when his first pool
business closed — many builders hadn't advanced much beyond the concept
of a rectangular cement hole.
Without Cooper's innovation, his
first business may have closed sooner. "What kept us in the business was the
solar systems we put in because of the
tax credits that went with them," he
says. "We left the business almost exclusively because of high interest
rates. When interest rates went out of
sight, home prices either stabilized or
went down, so you couldn't use a
home to refinance."
Of course now, buying the backyard oasis is easier and more commonplace, while the business has
grown more complicated. The muchmore-intense competition and sophisticated technology could have
been intimidating for someone who'd
been away for 20 years and was entering his golden years, but Cooper
After all, he had much going for
him: His enthusiasm and love of people hadn't waned; he had a base of
knowledge that would transcend
changes in the industry; and his wife,
a professional artist with a design
background, would be more involved
in the business this time.
Virginia Cooper, Allen's wife of 42
years, has taken design classes at the
University of Santa Barbara and attended the Genesis 3 design schools. Her family has a construction background, and she has experience as a
The first time around, she had
small kids to care for. But now that
they're grown, she's more involved
because she has time to be. "I keep
the books; I do the rendering of designs; I'm a part of the practical and
She says the main differences in
the last 20 years are that "the economy has improved, and 9/11 caused
people to travel less and use money to
remodel homes and get their entertainment closer to home."
Her husband was pleasantly surprised by some of the changes when
he re-entered the industry.
"The AQUA Show in January '04
was my first inkling as to what I needed to learn," he says. "I'd say the
biggest differences in the last 20
years have been advancements in extravagant electronics and displays of
water. It's amazing the amount of
money people are willing to spend on
There were things to learn, but
Cooper was quick to find people willing to get him up to speed. "Steve
Gutai, the product manager for
pumps, filters, valves and water features at Jandy, was a big help," he
says. "My very first pool when I got
back in business last year was a vanishing edge, so I called Skip Phillips
[principle of Questar Pools in Escondido, Calif., and co-founder of Genesis 3]. He not only called right back,
he came up from San Diego and within an hour had me set on the right
course. Ron Soto of Jandy was a
tremendous help in educating me
about the Jandy controls."
Such was the best surprise in the
Coopers' return: "People are nicer in
the industry than they were 20-30
years ago," he says. "They're more
knowledgeable and more professional. It's a better climate overall.
"Really, I'm surprised I didn't miss
more, with all the time I was gone. I
realized what I didn't know. I knew
what I knew and what I didn't know."
He must have known enough. Cooper says the company made
money in his first year back, when he
built eight pools — all referrals. People obviously don't forget good work:
"We're starting a pool now for the
grandson of someone for whom we
built a pool 30 years ago," he says.
The Coopers' goal is to build 20
pools by the end of this year, and he
says they're on target. And they
haven't shied away from the more
challenging, high-tech projects: Almost every one of their pools includes
a spa, and about 25 percent have
water features and electronic controls.
So being a smaller company doesn't
mean it's small on quality and imagination. "Pintado means painted and
colorful," he says. "That's why I
picked the name, because I intend to
do exotic pools."
Reid Creager is a writer based in Charlotte, N.C.