From big tobacco to pool supplies: finding your niche
Warwick Heathcote started his career in Big Tobacco but, dissatisfied with the job, joined the pool industry. He founded Pool Systems in 1983, where he remained as managing director until 2002. He then continued as a non-executive director and major shareholder until retiring in 2014. He shares his experience of starting a company from scratch.
During my early twenties, I gained valuable sales and marketing experience working for Philip Morris; however, being such a large multinational company there was no personalised service to our customers and little job satisfaction. During the summer of 1979–80, I applied for a sales representative position for a pool chemical company, Abel Lemon. The head office was in Sydney and I was the sole Queensland rep. I was basically given a blank canvas to develop the business. The pool industry was still in its infancy and there were only 10–15 pool shops in South East Queensland, so I was able to offer a personalised service to all my customers. This was before salt chlorinators, so my main role was to sign up pool shops throughout Queensland and the NT for their annual requirements of chlorine (Cal Hypo). My largest customer was going through 75 tonnes of Cal Hypo each year. We also supplied a limited range of American cleaning accessories, test kits and other associated products. I had the feeling we stocked these products reluctantly because we were never asked to promote them and also regularly ran out of stock. There were other chemical and equipment companies who also reluctantly sold these ‘other products’. I thought there was an opportunity to start a wholesale business and not sell chemicals or equipment, but concentrate on these products. I envisaged the pool industry would become a real growth area in the future and if I could gain a market niche I would be onto a winner.
My main goal was to offer exceptional service, fair pricing and always have plenty of the right products in stock. I would load my van every morning and head out to as many pool shops as I could call on between Rockhampton and the Northern Rivers area.
The single biggest change in my time was the introduction of the salt chlorinator. The shift from the daily (and dangerous) chore of chlorine dosing to the sophisticated automation of today’s products is a credit to the Australian pioneers who introduced salt chlorinators to the world market. In the ’80s we were sending out semitrailer loads of 40 kg drums of chlorine. By the late ’90s these same semitrailers were now delivering tonnes of salt for the salt chlorinator market and the chlorine sales had dwindled to a trickle.
I think the key to my success in the pool industry was being first into the market with new ideas. Pool Systems was the first company to: release a colour product catalogue featuring photos of every product we sold; release packaged spare parts with full product ID under the brand name of Aussie Pool Parts; supply packaged cleaning and maintenance products complete with free display stands and counter selling units; provide the retail market with packaged replacement cartridges; have direct sales representation to swimming pool retail stores from Melbourne to Cairns and across to Darwin.
These innovations were well received by retail stores because their sales increased considerably and it improved their service and relationships with their customers.
Aussie Pool Parts was particularly well received because most pool shops at the time were ‘Mum-and-Dad’ operations and usually ‘Dad’ knew all the spare parts but was out doing the service work. We made life much easier for ‘Mum’ by identifying and packing all the difficult spare parts.
What advice would I offer to someone starting out in the industry? Look for a niche market and do your research thoroughly prior to making the commitment. Never take on any project where the only advantage you have is the lowest price — you must always strive to offer unique selling features.
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