An entrepreneur’s dream: How John O’Brien grew his pool business into an international franchise giant


Poolwerx founder and chief John O'Brien. Source: Supplied.

When Aussie John O’Brien launched his pool-servicing business, he was never in it for the small time. Now, Poolwerx is a franchise empire with global ambitions, which just opened 40 stores in the US in 40 months.

Having grown up in a family of entrepreneurs, O’Brien launched Poolwerx 25 years ago.

Speaking at Oracle Netsuite’s SuiteWorld 2019 conference in Las Vegas recently, O’Brien said he set out looking for a “whole of industry, not just an opportunity” to take on and disrupt.

He knew he wanted to focus on the service aspect, as “that way, you get a customer for life”.

But he was also looking for something with high gross profit margins and, perhaps most importantly, an industry that was poorly organised at the time.

“That’s like finding a unicorn today,” he says.

“It’s an entrepreneur’s absolute dream.”

Now, Poolwerx has hundreds of franchisees in Australia, as well as 580 of its own service vehicles and 160 stores.

In the last couple of years, it has expanded into the US, where it’s opened 40 stores in 40 months, spanning seven states.

And the entrepreneur is dreaming even bigger. Poolwerx has 15 “hot and rich” countries on its hit list.

Adapt and thrive

According to O’Brien, there are two halves to the pool industry: pre- and post-market. Or, the construction of the pools and everything afterwards.

“We’ve never dabbled in the construction side of things,” he says.

In the post-market half, however, there are five main verticals: retail, servicing, maintenance, remodelling and renovation, and hot tubs.

“We play in all five of those,” he says.

While once it may have been unusual to be both in the retail and servicing space, offering both led to an unexpected win for O’Brien.

Initially a service business, it started opening retail stores to cater to a different kind of customer.

“We thought we were moving from our service business looking after do-it-for-me clients, into retail, or do-it-yourself clients,” he explains.

What actually happened was that do-it-yourself clients “would come in desperately looking to offload the labour”, he says.

“We found our service business grew exponentially by adding a retail store into our business.”

Effectively, the retail store also became a marketing arm for the service business.

Same-store growth is now in the double digits, O’Brien says, and has been for some 19 years.

“Some people say retail is dying,” he says.

“Specialty retail … done well, is definitely alive and well.”

Now Poolwerx is moving into e-commerce, and while others may have struggled to figure out where franchisees sit in this space, for O’Brien, the solution is simple.

It’s “postcode driven”, he explains, with revenues from online sales going to the franchisee in the customer’s area.

“You cannot compete with your customers,” O’Brien says.

“That’s the beginning of the end.”

The right smarts and the right money

Although he hasn’t necessarily been looking, O’Brien says he’s seen “very few” industries that pose as big an opportunity as the pool servicing space did when he started out.

“They still exist, but they’re hard to find. We were lucky to be a first mover.”

However, for entrepreneurs hoping to emulate his success, he does have a few words of advice.

It’s all about being well prepared right from the start, he says. Founders should be well capitalised from the beginning, and be sure to “bring in the right consultancies to advise you”, he says.

It’s about “having the right smarts and having the right money to deliver on the business plan quickly,” he advises.

“Too many franchisors live a bit hand-to-mouth.”

StartupSmart attended SuiteWorld 2019 as a guest of Oracle Netsuite. 

NOW READ: An Aussie in Dallas: Poolwerx founder John O’Brien on what it’s really like doing business in the States

NOW READ: Five lessons from five startups: What this entrepreneur learnt from 20 years in business


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