As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread around the world, John O’Brien, founder and CEO of Poolwerx, was in the U.S., one of the business’s key markets. He returned home to Brisbane, Australia, just as borders started to close and social distancing restrictions were introduced.
O’Brien launched the pool service business in 1992, so he has weathered many storms. But nothing compares to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Something like this can define you. Can define your career. Can define your future. Can define your brand,” he told NetSuite’s Tom Hansford in a Zoom interview.
Founded in 1992, Poolwerx is the largest pool service company in the world. A franchise business, it has over 160 stores with over 670 vans across Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. The business motto is “for healthy pool people,” and for O’Brien, this has never rung more true.
“Our first priority is health. Keeping our field and our retail team healthy,’ he said. And for its customers, there is a new level of concern: “Home has become the new place of work, study and play. We have a duty to ensure backyards are safe and healthy."
O’Brien’s leadership has helped the business adapt rapidly in a short space of time. “We have launched six new products in six weeks,” he said. Each one has been designed to ensure the safety of franchisee partners, employees and clients, including storefront water testing (so customers don’t have to leave their cars), and a variety of new delivery and service options. All are contact-free or minimise human contact, while maintaining the same great levels of customer service.
Sink or Swim
Launching new services across a huge network of franchise partners hasn’t been easy, but thanks to video technology, it’s been smoother than anticipated. “Communication is a key thing that we’re doing,” O’Brien said. “We quickly moved to daily video bites from a senior leader.”
The uptake and engagement of video across the business has proven central to the rollout process. “Once a week we (host) a town hall Zoom meeting,” he said. This enables hundreds of partners and employees to interact, share ideas and socialise in a new and beneficial way. “We’re communicating like never before,” O’Brien added.
Supporting franchise partners also means helping them manage cash flow. “It’s an unwritten place that we’re in,” he said. “The cash flow is more critical than ever.” To do this, O’Brien and his team have developed letters, scripts and tools to help franchisees get relief from their landlords or supply partners. “We’ve introduced cash flow management online training for our partners,” he said. “In all but some cases they’ve (the landlords) have given them some relief.”
Looking 18 Months Out
Throughout the crisis, O’Brien has been strategic about supply chain risks that could threaten the business. “A lot of our pool chemicals and pool equipment comes from China,” he said. “We got on this back in mid-February, and we got together with all our distributors and suppliers and we developed a matrix.”
This matrix system has helped the business accurately monitor manufacturing, inventory, and delivery. “If there’s a problem in China, we can see it 6-8 weeks out,” he said. “This happened in one case already, and we quickly pivoted and were able to source from India.”
Poolwerx has also adapted its procurement approach, negotiating with suppliers to take bigger orders, less often, along with extended 90-120 day payment terms.
Always future focused, O’Brien has started to map out the next 18 months for Poolwerx. “Any business should be saying: how do we adapt for now? And also be saying: how do we come out of this to the new norm?” he said. “We have already identified and adjusted a number of things to not only get through this now, but to come out of this as a new refined and better business.”
Watch the full interview with O’Brien and Hansford where they discuss leadership, brand values and preparing for life after COVID-19.
To discover more about Poolwerx, head to the company website.