The pool and spa industry has a long tradition of recognizing the best builders in the business, offering chances to win local, regional and international design contests. Manufacturers get in on the action, too, by highlighting the equipment and accessories that make these backyard beauties run. But what of the service professionals who work behind the scenes on the thankless job of keeping these pools and spas clean, efficient and safe?
Since 2007, Pleatco, a leading manufacturer of pool and spa filtration products, has been doing its part to shine a spotlight on this segment of industry professionals more accustomed to working in the shadows.
What started out as a local campaign, The Pleatco Perfect Pool Guy Contest quickly turned into a serious nationwide search, and is now an international event. While some of the original entries were light hearted and amusing, most were submitted by loyal customers who truly appreciated the commitment to service at the highest level by their "Pool Guy." The contest originally started as a search for the Perfect Pool Guy, but as the nominations started rolling in, it quickly became clear Pleatco should also be searching for the Perfect Pool Gal.
"Over the past nine years that Pleatco has run this contest, we've learned that being a professional pool or spa service technician is more than a job…it's a passion. Many homeowners treat their service guy or gal like family; it's a special relationship," says Pleatco CEO Howard Smith. "A pool or spa is an integral part of a home – a way to relax – and it's a place for a family to share time together. Homeowners trust their service professional to keep their 'backyard-oasis' safe. The relationship with the homeowner is much deeper than that of the mailman or local handyman in most cases. Essentially, the Perfect Pool Guy and Gal are the unsung heroes of the neighborhood."
With nine years of competitions in the books, the Pleatco Perfect Pool Guy/Gal "Hall of Fame" comprises 20 lucky winners and scores of runners up, all of whom have gone through a long process of nomination, online voting and a final round of judging by a panel before receiving awards. The best of the best are invited to join Pleatco for a heartfelt awards presentation, elaborate banquet and top-notch education from the guys at Genesis and NSPF at the International Spa | Pool | Patio Expo. Tom Cucinotta, owner of Cucinotta Pool Service in Lake Worth, Fla., took home the award in 2012 from the ceremony in New Orleans.
"They flew me out there and put me up for a week. And the party where the award was given was every bit like a wedding," he says. "Honestly, what Howard Smith does for the winners? It's unbelievable. The contest has meant so much to me."
"That enthusiasm and love of the job is a characteristic shared by all 20 winners. That can't help but rub off on the Pleatco people," says Mary Villegas, VP operations for Pleatco and key point-person for the contest each year.
Smith says his company's involvement in the contest is just as rewarding to Pleatco and its employees, and refers to past and present winners as members of the Pleatco family. In fact, when speaking to these winners, one hears the word "family" frequently. Many are even on a first-name basis with one another as well as with the Pleatco executives in Glen Cove, N.Y.
"The Pleatco people should really get an award for creating this award," says Cory Eagles, a 2016 winner from Riverview, New Brunswick. "It's great for the industry, and great for us. It's the top award in the industry and it's really changed things for me."
Another winner, Rich Tarricone, also found the honor life changing both personally and professionally. The ceremony in 2010 was a thrill, he says, but he quickly learned that the Perfect Pool Guy award would continue paying dividends long after he'd returned to Sarasota, Fla., and his Aquatic Pool Systems customers.
"What I've come to learn is that you're never not the Perfect Pool Guy," he says. "It's not just something that happens to you. I'm still the Perfect Pool Guy, and I still get recognized when I walk down the aisles at pool shows!"
For this year's milestone anniversary, past winner alumni will gather in Orlando to welcome a new class into the Pleatco Pool Guy / Gal family at a gala event.
Smith recalls the program's inception. "Battista and I were sitting in the conference room, and we were looking to do some sort of national contest," Howard says fondly. "We knew how integral the service pros were to our industry and we wanted to spotlight the importance of the role they play, and that's where the idea started."
"The turning point was when we looked at the initial responses when we launched the first contest," Chief Marketing Officer Battista Remati recalls. "Nominations were coming in from customers who just loved their pool guys. In a lot of cases the relationships they had were more trusting than even with a family doctor! So the Pool Guy went from this nice little idea and turned into an extremely deep and meaningful contest because of the relationships the pool guys — and gals — have with their customers and communities.
"We even heard from someone who said, 'My pool guy saved my house during a bush fire by spraying water on the roof from the pool!'"
For these everyday heroes, helping customers solve sticky situations or keeping equipment running efficiently is more than a job. "They just love what they do. They love helping customers," Smith says.
When 2015 winner Jamie Gaumond, owner of Valley Spas in Sevierville, Tenn., started in the pool service biz, she admits to feeling anything but heroic. In fact, she spent many nights crying in frustration, wondering if it was wise to join her father-in-law's family business instead of going back to school.
"I didn't think I was that good at it and I didn't even know if it was something I wanted to keep doing," she says. "But winning the award, and getting the Genesis 3 classes and certification as a part of the prize that came with it, all of that has given me self confidence from a business and personal standpoint.
"It kind of gives you a bit of a big head, but it also lets you know you're doing something right."
Another Perfect Pool Gal, Jill Tillett, has a similar story. She won in 2008, the contest's first year, along with Perfect Pool Guy Kirt Kleiner, and says the honor instilled her with a newfound sense of confidence.
"Personally it has been the most rewarding experience of my career," says Tillet, who owns Nags Head Pools, located in Manteo, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. "What inspired me to start in the pool business was being a single mom that had a nighttime waitress job. So I took a part time day job cleaning pools just to make ends meet. The first pool that I was sent to — you know they always give the rookie the trouble pools —they sent me to a swamp pool. It had a cartridge filter on it, and I was fresh out of class and did everything by the book. I was like, 'Wow. This is a mess. I don't know if this is going to be for me or not.' And I went back to the pool the next day — the next day — and it was crystal clear. And I've never had such instant gratification like that. Ever! So I was just completely amazed and I couldn't get enough of understanding how everything worked in a pool, from the chemistry, the hydraulics, all that. I love it. And I love a challenge. So if there's something that I can't figure out I'm determined to find the correct answer by the book and then apply it in the field."
"The service industry is extremely important when it comes to helping owners fully enjoy and appreciate their pools," adds Brian Van Bower, Genesis ambassador and co-founder. "Skip Phillips and I started our careers in pool service and it has always been near and dear to our hearts. We are proud to help honor our hardworking service professionals through the Pleatco contest!"
Of all the benefits of winning Pleatco's Perfect Pool Guy/Gal — substantial vacation and product package, awards ceremony and lavish banquet, an invitation to industry-leading education through program partners Genesis 3 and NSPF and the nationwide marketing muscle winners enjoy — most point to meeting the other winners as the most rewarding part of the contest.
"I've already contacted John [Oldfield] four times this year," Eagles says. "He's got more connections than I have, being in California, and he's a big Jandy guy. So, when I come across Jandy equipment, I can always ask him for advice. I send messages back and forth with Jen [Del Vaglio, 2016 Perfect Pool Gal] and Jamie, too. We all stay in pretty good contact.
"They call it the 'Pleatco family,' and it really is like a family."
Oldfield,who won in 2015, agrees that the connections with other service pros who've won is undeniably the prime perk of being the Perfect Pool Guy.
"I'm not a big business guru, and I'm not good at Facebook or the other types of social media," he says. "My social networking is talking to the other winners, it's talking to Pleatco people, the Genesis 3 guys, Rich Gottwald over at APSP. The last two years, I've got to tell you, have been miraculous. I've gotten such an opportunity to talk to an array of individuals, from big CEOs to the biggest builders all the way down to the guys who are just starting out.
"It's been a great ride, and it's not slowing down. The reason is Pleatco stays with it. They've always told us we're part of the Pleatco family and that they'd treat us as such. And they have."
"We also are fortunate to be the co-sponsor of this wonderful contest. At NSPF we fully support initiatives that keep pools safer, keep pools open, and assure more people can enjoy the water. We recognize the crucial role every pool service technician plays and we are honored to celebrate them," says Thomas Lachocki, CEO of NSPF.
Cucinotta says that each year, Howard Smith connects him with a new winner to introduce him or her to the networking possibilities and to show how he's helped grow his business since winning.
"You've got to think outside the box and take this award for more than just a piece of paper and a plaque, vacation and product package or the G3 and NSPF classes that you get," he says. "Look past all that. It's a great marketing tool, and really there's no other tool like it.
"When potential customers see that I won the Perfect Pool Guy for the whole country, it really goes a long way. It has increased my business tenfold. It's been unbelievable."
If you know an unsung backyard hero, visit Pleatco.com for full information and nomination details.
Just getting into the pool and spa service business? Here's some advice from Pleatco's Perfect Pool Guys/Gals to get you started in the right direction.
"Before I started on my own, a lot of people asked me: Why get into the business if there are already dozens of pool guys around here? My response was, 'I'm not the average person out there.' I've helped out so many people and I never expect anything in return. I've gone out to backyards when people needed a diagnosis and told them what I know. If they then want my services? Beautiful. If not, at least they met somebody that spent time with them and helped them out."
Gil Serrano, Believe Pool Service, Spring Hill, Fla.
"You have to have a love and a passion for this. If this isn't something you can dedicate yourself to, and if you don't have professionalism and customer service, then you're wasting your time. And you have to have the education. That's absolutely key. Take those classes, go out there and learn, follow people, watch the YouTube videos, read the books. No question is stupid. If you don't know it, ask it."
Jamie Gaumond, ValleySpas, Sevierville, Tenn.
"An educated customer is your best customer. Some people will go into Home Depot and buy a filter cartridge and they'll come out to me and say, 'Could you put this in my pool?' And my guys know exactly what to say: 'Mrs. Jones, we're not going to put that in your pool because that cartridge is only going to last you three to six months. The water quality in your pool is only as good as the filtration you use; your filter cartridge is at the heart of your pool. When we show them the Pleatco and they feel it they'll say, 'You're right. I'm going to take this other one back.'"
Tom Cucinotta, Cucinotta Pool Service, Lake Worth, Fla.
"I always felt like I was a woman working in a man's world, even though I know now there are plenty of women in the pool industry. So I'll walk into a backyard with my pink drill — I really do have a pink drill — and some people may stereotype and think that I'm less than capable. But that's not the case."
Jill Tillett, Nags Head Pools, Manteo, N.C.
"When you communicate and provide the customer with what they need, it creates a rewarding relationship between you and your customer. They become so confident in your work, that you become almost part of the family. Many customers have entrusted me with keys for their houses and counted on me to keep an eye on things while they were out of town."
Kirt Kleiner, KMK Services, Pittsburgh, Pa.
"I have made and stayed friends with a few customers over the years. I think a lot of my customers have made more of an impact on me, to be a better person and really get to know a diverse group of people from all over the world! I learn something new every day. That is what I love about this job. It never gets boring!"
Tricia Manley, Dabco Pool Service & Repair, Naples, Fla.