Entrepreneur has no time to sit by the pool
Low interest rates, cocooning boomers are spurring demand at Piscines Val-Morin

Every spring Quebecers count the days to the hot, sunny days of summer. But few begin checking forecasts earlier than Michel Leblanc, vice-president and co-owner of Piscines Val-Morin.

"We do most of our installations during late spring and summer," said Leblanc. "A few weeks of warm weather early in the season can make a big difference in our sales."

This year, the weather has been particularly bad, and although orders have been strong, the heavy rains of recent weeks have slowed installations and Leblanc is feeling the heat.

"We are working as fast as we can," Leblanc said. "But if we lose a couple of days, it sets our whole production schedule back, and then it's hard to catch up."

As if that weren't enough Piscines Val-Morin, which operates showrooms in Dorion and Laval, is in the midst of a major expansion at its Pierrefonds location, which will increase store pace from 2,000 to 15,000 square feet.

But Leblanc isn't complaining. Sparked by low interest rates and aging boomers who are spending more time cocooning at home, the Quebec pool industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Revenues at Piscines Val-Morin have skyrocketed to $20 million during 2002, up from $3 million just five years ago and there's no let up in sight.

It hasn't always been this easy. Leblanc's parents, Jean-Claude Leblanc and Huguette Boileau founded the company 30 years ago in the basement of their Laval home. At first they did pool maintenance, and then slowly began selling aboveground pools from the back yard of a gas station they were operating.

The couple had three children, all of which were active in the business at an early age. Michel remembers fondly coming into work as a 13-year old boy doing menial tasks such as sweeping the floors and helping out around the office.

During the mid-1990s, the parents began to slowly step back from day-to-day operations, a strategy that left the kids plenty of time to learn the ropes gradually. Today Diane, 44, acts as vice-president (finance) Pierre, 40, is the president and Michel takes care of operations.

The trio works long days, as do many of the company's 160 employees, especially during summer months, when Michel puts in 100 hours a week. According to Pierre Leblanc, the company owes its success to growing demand and a service oriented mentality that customers appreciate.

"The fact that we employ our installers rather than using sub-contractors makes a big difference," said Leblanc. "An employee takes his time doing an installation because he knows that if something goes wrong later, he is the one who will have to fix the problem."

According to Leblanc the company's fleet of 20 vehicles and large maintenance staff means that emergency repairs can usually be handled the same day, a bonus customers put at a premium, given Quebec's short swimming season.

According to one recent Val-Morin customer, owning a swimming pool brings an enormous lifestyle improvement and is well worth the money.

"It changed our lives," said Maxime Gagné, a car salesman at a St-Eustache GM dealership and father of three kids aged 9, 5 and 3, who invested $20,000 in a 13" x 26' in-ground pool and other accessories late last year. "It's like we are on vacation during our free time."

About 90 per cent of Val-Morin customer rely on some form of financing. Gagné made a $6,000 down payment on his purchase, and will be paying the balance off in $170 installments during the next ten years.

The new pool is heated so it can be used longer into the season than conventional models. Last year Gagné's family was doing laps in late September and this year the pool has been in operation for three weeks already.

"It brings our family closer. We are spending much more time together. And we haven't even reached the stage where we are inviting over 50 friends yet." Gagné said. "If I ever buy another house, the first thing I'm going to do is install a pool."

According to Don Method, president of The Independent Pool Group, an organization of pool distributors who band together to get volume discounts from manufactures, Piscines Val-Morin is in the right business at the right time.

"The industry has ridden the coattails of a hot housing market," said Method. "Businesses that are well organized and can keep costs down have been very profitable in recent years, and Val-Morin is a shining example."

Spas and outdoor Jacuzzis have been another key component of Val-Morin's growth. Installations have shot up from 60 in 1997, to 600 last year and the category now accounts for close to 30 per cent of the company's operations said Michel Leblanc.

"Spas are a good investment because they can be used year-round," Leblanc said. "They are also good for us, because they help diversify our sales into non-peak periods, rather than being concentrated just in the summer months."


Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Piscines Val-Morin is a family business that was founded in 1973 by Jean-Claude Leblanc and his wife Huguette Boileau.
o Their kids, Pierre, Michel, and Diane, have been working in the business most of their lives and took over management of the business in the 1990s.
o Swimming pool demand has shot up in recent years due to low interest rates and a long-term trend by baby-boomers toward investing more money and spending more time in their homes.
o Val-Morin accentuates service, handling the installations themselves as opposed to working with sub-contractors.
o Most sales take place during the peak summer months. But the company has been trying to extend its season year round by getting into the spa business, which now comprises 30 per cent of its sales.

Photo caption: According to Michel Leblanc, vice-president and co-owner of Piscines Val-Morin, low interest rates are making swimming pools and spas an increasingly popular investment. As a result the company's revenues have quintupled in the last five years.




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