Whether you’re a technician, a salesperson, or the owner of a trades company, you’re probably an entrepreneur in some capacity even if you don’t know it. What you’ll discover is most entrepreneurs go through a very similar process in growing their businesses, and Stewart Vernon, founder and current Franchising COO of America’s Swimming Pool Company (ASP) is no different. If you’re hearing or reading Stewart’s story, you’ll probably notice yourself currently in one of the very steps of Stewart’s journey, and might be wondering where to go from here. Stewart is here to help give you a roadmap to answer that very question!
Stewart knew from a very early age that he didn’t want to work for anybody else. He was washing cars at the age of 15, and by the time he was 18, he had progressed into detailing cars with two employees and what he refers to as “almost a real business” in his hometown of Macon, GA. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was dealing with some high net worth individuals and slowly building his contacts and reputation of someone who worked hard. Stewart went off to college in Charleston where he studied corporate communication in business, all the while continuing to detail and wash cars to help pay his tuition and stay afloat. Although he didn’t know exactly what the future held, Stewart knew this was only a small uptick in his trajectory towards success.
As he was nearing the end of college, Stewart was already considering the next big step in his journey: starting a real company. He stopped by to talk to the president of his local bank, who was one of his car washing and detailing clients. Stewart told him he wanted to start a business, and asked for advice. The timing couldn’t be better, the president told Stewart, as he had just been talking to his partner about how bad the current swimming pool cleaning businesses were and how they wanted to break into the industry. As he knew Stewart would be a great fit to start this business venture, he proposed that Stewart would consider it, do some research, and that he would back him in the endeavor. Stewart wasn’t out of the parking lot before he was sold on the idea.
Stewart immediately got to work, researching the pool business. He called up some competitors and learned that they weren’t even answering their phones, and had a reputation for poor customer service. He was driving around and devoting a ton of his time learning about the industry, how to do pool cleaning, what to charge, and on market research and planning. Over the course of several months, Stewart prepared his new business to hit the ground running. He even took an extra college course to graduate in time to launch. A week before forming his LLC, the banker called Stewart with some terrible news.
It was hands down one of the most impactful moments in Stewart’s life. It only took 2 minutes and 24 seconds on the phone to change him forever. The banker told him that he was a little too young and inexperienced, and they had found someone better to move forward with the business. He was pushed out, and months of hard work had been spent towards what looked like a dead end. Of course, to a motivated entrepreneur like Stewart, that “dead end” was just a hurdle to launch himself off of a la Travis Pastrana in an X Games MotoX Freestyle event.
Stewart called his Dad for advice, and told him he wanted to compete against the banker and his team and start his own pool cleaning business anyway. Like any father, advice against the risk came through the phone—albeit on deaf ears. It didn’t matter that they had more resources and more experience, and after getting his Mom on the phone, Stewart’s parents gave him the $3,000 dollars he had calculated he needed to get started.
With the help of his then-girlfriend and current wife, he came up with the name All Seasons Pool Company (what would eventually become America’s Pool Cleaning Co) and the ASP logo. In Stewart’s mind, he was charging into the lion’s den to go head-to-head with the banker. A few months into the process, he found out the banker never even got the business started. Their plans fell through, and Stewart had a clear road in front of him.
In 2001, Stewart graduated college and started ASP. He was cleaning, repairing, and renovating pools in his local area to great success. He wasn’t making any friends with his competitors, as he was doing the job better and quickly swallowing up market share. After only 3 years, he hit the million dollar mark and had 10 trucks on the road. He was answering the phones, meeting his customer’s needs, and doing all of the little things that the other pool companies had been neglecting.
After 4 years into ASP, Stewart had his sights set on expansion. One of his best employees from early on was threatening to leave, and had grown tired of the business. Stewart offered to sell him quarter ownership in the original location, and to let him run it on his own. That opened the doors to Stewart starting his first franchise location. Shortly after, he had conversations with his brother and a friend of his about how he was making more money than them cleaning pools, how they hated their jobs, and their interest in getting involved. This set off a lightbulb in Stewart’s mind. People in business don’t always care about what the job is, they just want a roadmap to success and the opportunity to succeed. He set off researching how to franchise a service company.
Not only did Stewart have no roadmap, he discovered that franchising hadn’t even been done in his industry before. He only found one swimming pool company that had tried, but had gone bankrupt after a few locations in California. He had no one to use for R&D. Instead, he spent time learning what franchisees do that piss franchisers off, and wanted to do the opposite. His first few franchises were simply friends and family that wanted to do what he was doing in their hometown. The pool business was ripe for the picking because no one was doing it well. Every market they looked at was fragmented, had horrible customer service, and he knew they could outwork them.
5 locations turned into 10, and Stewart sold the rest of his original location to that original employee. Now, the chips were on the table. He had to decide whether he wanted to be a guy who had a few franchises and owned ASP or become a franchisor whose sole purpose was helping others become successful and. He knew he couldn’t wear both hats. It was a big gamble, but the latter would ultimately prove to be the right decision for the company.
At this point, Stewart was stretched thin. He didn’t have enough experience to know how hard it would be, and was taking things one step at a time. The next phase was really bringing in a solid VP. His local attorney at the time, Tom Swift, was doing his legal work and didn’t enjoy it. They had become friends, and Stewart needed to bring in a high value, high-caliber VP to be his right hand man. The problem was that they were really expensive. Tom took the gamble, quit his legal career and came onboard, buying a minority interest in 2008. At that point, he was stretched thin. He didn’t have enough experience to know how hard it would be, and took things one step at a time. The next phase was really bringing in a solid VP. His local attorney at the time, Tom Swift, was doing his legal work and didn’t enjoy it. They became friends, and Stewart needed to bring in a high value, high-caliber VP and be his right hand man. The problem was that they were really expensive. Tom took the gamble, quit his legal career and came onboard, buying a minority interest in 2008. Tom is still with ASP today. This powerful partnership was the step that allowed ASP to handle the operational and legal hurdles needed to grow.
Stewart continued to make key hires a few times a year, building out a great executive team that all members are still with ASP today. ASP had expanded to 15 locations from an organic, friends and family franchisee to the real franchising world. Today, ASP has 115 franchise owners operating in 23 states, 400 cities, with 500 trucks on the road, and cleans about 25,000 pools a week.
Two years ago, Stewart and ASP took another big partnership step and sold to Authority Brands. Tom and Stewart were approaching 75 million in total sales and 100 franchisees, and knew they had something big. They wanted to keep growing, and had to figure what was next. Authority Brands had the vision, and wanted to keep Stewart onboard and running it. It was a perfect match! Together, they set a 5-year plan to double ASP’s size and revenue.
Stewart’s immediate next step after selling his company was a company-wide meeting to let everyone know he wasn’t going anywhere and was getting right back to work. ASP gave out bonuses to everyone based on the number of years they were with the company as a way to reward their hard work.
So, what’s next for ASP? Stewart is focused on continuing to help franchisees grow year after year, supporting them every step of the way. ASP is adding on 10-12 new franchise owners a year to reach their 5-year goal with every intention of continuing to dominate the industry.
Surely, you’ve noticed yourself somewhere in this journey. Perhaps you’re a technician for a small HVAC business who dreams of running your own shop someday. Or maybe you’re an owner ready to branch out to a second location, or interested in franchising your HVAC business. No matter where you are in your own personal growth, you need to make every decision with the next step in mind. Stewart’s advice? Figure out why you’re in business, and what your exit strategy is. When you start thinking about what you want in 1 year, or 5 years from now, your decisions will be made more efficiently, more effectively, and they’ll be made with a purpose. Make your decisions today with tomorrow in mind.
There are three main phases of decision making based on the stage you’re in on your journey. In the beginning, you’re just out as an entrepreneur trying to build a business. You’re small, and maybe have a few employees or perhaps it’s just you. Decisions are relatively easy, and it’s really just about perfecting your craft and growing the business. Then, you’ll transition into an actual company. That means multiple employees and trucks. It’s not just you anymore. The process becomes more complex, and you have to adapt to that as an owner.
If you want to go bigger and make it to the third step, you need a brand. Even if you aren’t franchising, going from a company to a brand is a necessity. People should associate your company name and logo with what you do and why you do it. Which phase are you in, and which do you want to be in?
As an entrepreneur, a lot of times you can look back and realize that your biggest failure or times of tribulations are integral to your current success. If you’re at the point where you need some help, we encourage you to reach out! Even ASP has internal peer groups, regional round tables, and yearly meetings with all their franchise owners. All of the most successful individuals in the trades and in general understand that utilizing their peers is one of the greatest resources available, and it’s completely free. Take control of your journey, use the resources at your disposal, and go out there and kick some ass!