There’s just something about dirt.

That’s what David Owens says captivated him as a kid in the ’70s, growing up on job sites in Oregon. While his dad, Gary Owens, worked on the latest pool build, David kept his eyes on the ground.

“I was always excited about what we would find while digging the pool,” David says. “I was always interested in the rock and the soil, because you just never knew what you were going to find. It was almost like a treasure hunt. And to this day, it still is for me.”

And sometimes, treasure would indeed arise. Old cars would be unearthed. Geological wonders, like crystals, were discovered. And then there’s the time they struck gold.

“Dad was digging a pool in Springfield and found black sand, which has gold in it,” David says. “At the time, my dad had a miner working for him, and the guy’s like, ‘I want the black sand!’ And Dad said, ‘Well, load up your pickup because we can’t tell the owners — if they find out there’s some gold underneath their pool, we’ll never get the job done.’ So Dad loaded up the guy’s pickup and he took it home and panned out four ounces of gold.”

Gary launched his first pool company, Owens Pools, in 1970, the year before David was born. And David has been in and around the pool business ever since — first by digging around in the dirt and playing with the neighborhood kids, then by lending a hand on the job. Now, David owns Owens Pools, and his goal is simple: to carry on his dad’s legacy.

“I’ve kind of lived it my whole life,” he says. “It’s one of those obsessions where you’re like an elephant that grew up tied to a tree. You take the rope off and the elephant doesn’t know he can leave.”

Steeled for Success

Gary Owens launched his pool career by simply building his own. A steel man with a mind for manufacturing, Owens turned to a copy of Popular Mechanics to walk himself through the process.

“In there was a chapter called ‘How to Build a Steel-Wall Vinyl-Liner Pool’” David says. “And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll build one!’”

After successfully building the family pool, other neighbors took notice and asked for pools of their own. Eventually, Gary quit his job as a steel fabricator and pursued the pool business full-time.

“He basically took that hard work ethic he had from the steel business and brought it to the pool business,” David says. “He didn’t really know how to have fun — working was his kind of fun.”

Joining the Team

David was around 14 years old when he started helping his dad on a more regular basis. Together, they did innumerable vinyl liner pools and also broke into gunite, fiberglass and hybrid pools throughout Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Washington and even Hawaii.

“Dad always tried anything new that was coming out; he wasn’t afraid to try the latest, greatest product,” David says.

Gary also had a penchant for pushing the envelope, one-upping himself with new builds that were wilder than the last.

“Dad always had this great mind and would invent crazy things for us to build. He’d say, ‘Okay, this is what I told them we’d build!’ And you’d go out and build it,” David says.

Once such project was a vinyl-liner pool in an old quarry that was transformed into a cave pool, with steps and rails customized for the twin girls who would use it.

“The twins visited the Carlsbad caves and wanted the inside of their cave to look like the Carlsbad caves, so Dad went in there and hand-flicked mud until it sagged down like stalactites,” David says. “That was the first cave pool we ever made, but we made it into a vinyl liner pool, which a lot of people don’t do.”

Gary’s handiwork is also a part of Oregon state history, as he was in charge of building the fountain at the state capital in Salem. And sure enough, David was right there with him.

“I remember running around, watching him build that pool. A week after it was finished, some crazy guy smashed his car into it, and Dad had to go back. He took me with him, and I got to watch him pull out all the bronze pieces and fix the broken concrete.”

Hard Times

Gary and David worked together for 20 years. Each project got better and better, and David fine-tuned his building skills.

But In 2007, Gary wasn’t feeling well. He had suffered a fall and bruised his chest, and while he’d always had a clean bill of health, he couldn’t shake the soreness. After getting checked out by a new doctor, the Owens learned that malignancy had been growing for some time.

“Where he got that injury, that’s where the lung cancer started,” David says. “By the time he was in the hospital, they told him he only had a couple weeks to live. He only lived four days after his diagnosis.”

After Gary passed away, the family had a falling out when David’s stepmother refused to let him have his father’s building equipment, putting the company, then named Holiday Pools, in jeopardy and prompting David to make a big decision. “If I’m not going to inherit my dad’s equipment, which we worked so hard to gain,” he determined, “I’m just going to start over. I’ll build my own company and get my own equipment.”

With only a beat-up pickup truck and a handful of tools, David launched his own company — which he named Owens Pools, in honor of his dad’s first pool company.

Luckily, old customers were more than happy to help David get on his feet. “I’ll put you to work!” they told him, as his father-in-law pitched in to get his start-up rolling.

More and more old names kept coming out of the woodwork, as did old projects. Just within the last couple years, David revisited one of the job sites from his childhood: the home with the black sand.

“I did the replacement liner in that pool, and I said, ‘This is the pool with the gold underneath it!’ I told the people, ‘If you guys can ever turn this into a mining operation, you’ve got gold underneath this thing.’”

The Family Name

Like his dad, David is creative, often walking into someone’s yard and seeing the project before it’s drawn out. But he also admits that he also inherited a penchant for perfectionism, and is reluctant to contract out parts of the job.

“Pretty much every part of the project is touched by my hand. Which is good and bad,” he says.

But workload is an area where the two differ. While Gary was part of a generation that never turned down work, David screens his clients for compatibility.

“I kind of get a vibe from my customers when I go out and look at their pools and bid on them. I can tell right away if I want a job or not. But dad would just take it. He would just take the job, even if those people were a nightmare to work for.”

To that end, David takes on just a couple jobs at any given time, and passes on other leads to his competitors, with whom he’s built great relationships. “If I don’t have time to build a job, I send that job their way. And they do the same thing for me.

Continuing the Legacy

Holiday Pools may have had humble beginnings, but by the time Gary passed away, he was working on high-end projects, even landing a gold and silver medal for his work in 1992.

“He really strived to get into high-end pools. And he was there. He was building them, we’re were getting those high-end jobs, custom fancy gunite pools. So I’m just trying to carry on that legacy,” David says.

And just like his dad, it’s David’s goal that one day, he too will have some medals.

“I think my biggest goal in life is to build a gold medal-winning pool. And I think once I’ve done that, I’ll be satisfied with my career,” he says, laughing. “Sounds kind of funny, but I think that’s what I’m striving for now.

 

The Nestea Plunge

Everyone has funny memories from the job site. Here’s one shared between David and his dad:

We were gunite-ing a pool up in Portland, and Dad had this old aluminum ladder, which he used to crawl out of the deep end after spraying his way out. That’s how Dad liked to come out — he liked to come out of the deep end. So we kept telling him, “Dad, you need to get rid of that old aluminum ladder.” And he’s like, “No, that’s my favorite ladder!’”

So we just got done spraying the bottom, and Dad’s crawling out, and just about three quarters of the way up, the ladder breaks. Dad literally falls backward, doing the Nestea plunge, and I’m not kidding, his whole body sticks to the floor; he’s up to his ears in concrete. There he is, doing concrete angels in the bottom of the pool.

Finally Dad gets out, covered in concrete, and he says, “Yeah, I guess I’m gonna get a new ladder.”

 

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail cailley@aquamagazine.com.

Cailley Hammel is Managing Editor of AQUA Magazine.