Still Family-Owned After Three Decades, Aquarama Grapples With Its Future
In the beginning, Bob Shearer built vinyl liner pools. The vinyl liner pool was to the pool industry what the Volkswagen was to the auto industry: It created an affordable, easy-to-build pool for the middle class. It was a rectangular shape, came in two patterns, had a pump and filter, a ladder for access and egress, and a diving board. In contrast to the vinyl liner pool there was the concrete pool with a plaster finish, which took more resources and time to build.
Aquarama Pools now builds both the vinyl liner pool and concrete pools in myriad shapes, depths, colors, water features, and finishes. Plaster finishes are gone for the most part and pebble finishes are the prevalent interiors for concrete pools. Slides, fountains, beach entry kid areas, waterfalls, heated water, cooled water, and lights that turn color and are synchronized with landscaping lights are all available. “Smart phone apps can now access almost everything. Pools can be turned on, turned off, heated up, or cooled down from anywhere in the world,” Bennett says.
Aquarama continues to be a family-run operation. It supports not only Karen and Bennett, but also their sons Robert Davis and Ben Frye, Jr., and several others whose sole means of income is derived from the company.
“Actually,” says Karen, “all four of our children have worked in the business either full- or part-time, with two becoming integral parts of the operation.” Robert Davis, the oldest son, has visited pool sites since the age of twelve and now designs pools and oversees their construction. He also supervises the major pool renovations and, when necessary, fills in unwanted pools.
For his part, Ben Frye has been schooled in pool electronics and pool automation and is certified in heat pump installation and repair. When not in the field training new technicians, he’s in the store managing retail and taking customers’ technical inquiries about pool equipment.
“Bennett and I are now grappling with our own retirement,” says Karen. “Unfortunately, like my Dad, we don’t have a clear plan as to the future. We wonder if the boys will be able to work together as partners, will another family member want to come back, and are there enough profits to sustain everyone? And most importantly, what about selling to an outsider?”
The third generation of Shearer family members is in its 30s. They’re anxious about their future, have their own visions, and they want to be in control. “So we’re now in the second year of a three-year plan to come up with a way to transfer the business. Thus far, we haven’t been able to agree on the future,” says Karen.
They are still optimistic, however. While remaining a totally independent company, Aquarama is also a member of Aquatech Corporation, a society of successful pool builders. The organization is member-owned, and quite a few of the approximately three hundred members have a history much like Aquarama, with many now in their third generation of family ownership.
“Each year,” says Karen, “there is a meeting of Aquatech members, usually in an exotic setting, where there are no competitors ... just friends relying on each other for advice, support, information, and fellowship, as well as sharing the ups and downs of the pool industry. It’s really a great network of pool business people who form a vibrant, exciting industry and wealth of information for the new generation of pool builders.”
Aquarama has built pools for entertainment celebrities, sport figures, and local TV personalities. “But the most rewarding jobs are those pools built for a purpose, [like the ones] built for kids or adults who are disabled and need the pool for exercise,” says Bennett.
When Robert Shearer began the business, pools were largely made for recreational purposes. Many pools today are more for the sight and sound of water in the back yard than they are for swimming, diving, or exercise—although lap pools are still a priority for some customers. Regardless of their usage, though, as Bennett points out, “All pools have the same draw: water. Whether it’s to play in, exercise in, listen to, or simply rest one’s eyes upon, the lure of backyard pools is more popular now than ever.”
Over the past few years, “Staycations” have become a popular form of family entertainment amid a retrenchment in consumer spending. Yet economic uncertainty, Karen points out, has actually benefited the pool industry. “People prefer to invest in their homes, save travel expenses, and take advantage of the safety of their own back yards, splashing and playing in their own pools and spas," she says.
So while many companies have done little more than tread water for the past few years as they struggled to survive, Aquarama continues to dive into the deep end and keep swimming successfully, one back yard—and one generation—at a time.