Thank Goodness


By Jim McCloskey

I wouldn’t have thought that a bit of Thanksgiving travel could teach me so much about the regional differences among watershapes, but what now seems obvious came as something of a jolt to me.

My youngest daughter has a new job in Philadelphia and couldn’t get away. Someone suggested we should just rent a big house in her vicinity and celebrate there for a change. After some research and lots of discussion, we settled on a place near Fort Washington, Pa., about 20 minutes from her apartment in downtown Philadelphia, and moved from a reliably temperate California environment to one settling in for a long winter.

Once we’d made our decision to go, things snowballed: Two of my sisters, both east coasters, decided to join us with their spouses, then came a couple local cousins, my brother and his wife – and before long there were 17 of us on the guest list, ready to go. I love a good party, and while I was a tad petrified by the thought of cooking a 17-pound turkey in an unfamiliar oven and preparing the necessary appetizers, side dishes and desserts in a kitchen with unknown plates and knives and service amenities, I jumped in and did my best not to put any constraints on the menu.

I arrived at the house early in the afternoon the day before the feast – a good three hours before anyone else arrived – and had a careful look around. I spent enough time in the kitchen to satisfy myself that what we were planning would be feasible, then started exploring what turned out to be a fairly substantial estate set on a promontory overlooking a small river. There was a huge yard with immense porches and deck areas as well as a big swimming pool, and I began wishing almost immediately that it was late spring or early fall so we could all take advantage of the opportunities for indoor/outdoor activities.

Unfortunately, the highs were in the 40s for us this past November, generally with penetrating breezes that made it seem far chillier. So beyond the occasional quick foray into the yard to get away from the hot kitchen, we all stayed put inside.

Beyond the culinary adventures, this was also my first up-close, day-to-day experience with a winterized swimming pool, and I have to say I was both curious about and let down by what I saw. In selecting the house, we’d seen photographs of the pool and thought it was quite nice. But that was no longer the case because of its dark plastic cover and sandbag anchors – not to mention a nasty-looking puddle of cover-top water choked by fallen leaves.

In my own yard, by contrast, winter is the time when our pool looks best: The blue solar cover we use from late-April through October to warm the water and reduce evaporation is in storage, the pool cleaner swings into action daily to keep up with falling leaves, and what we see at all times is a serene reflecting pool that picks up the surrounding palms and fruit trees on its surface. We’ve lived with this pool for nearly 30 years now, and I had always known how beautiful it is beyond swimming season; now I know how much less attractive it might be if it managed to migrate to a more northerly setting.

I was prepared for this sort of observation, basically because I’d noticed the same sort of waterless winter doldrums as I saw the sights in Philadelphia in the days leading up to our family feast:  Most fountains had been shut down for the winter by the time I arrived, and places I’ve known to be lively through warm-season visits couldn’t help seeming a bit bland – uninspired and uninspiring. Water in motion has a magic charm; a dry fountain is just sad, and you can never be quite sure whether it’s been winterized or has simply fallen into disrepair.

I appreciate the fact that my northern colleagues and friends don’t see things the way I do – and I’m glad of it, because watershapes beautify these places immeasurably, if only in season, and I would hate to think so much joy should suffer in reputation or renown because of a brief seasonal hiatus.

I also appreciate where I live a bit more now as a result of this trip, an appropriate thought given the season of the year and the reason we’d gone to Pennsylvania in the first place.  It’s all about giving thanks, in other words, and making the most of what we’re accustomed to in our lives.

I hadn’t expected the trip to be informative as well as fun. And who knows? We may all get together in Pennsylvania again sometime – although I think I’ll push for a more hospitable time of year!


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Breakout or Breakdown?


By Jim McCloskey

I’m freshly returned from the International Pool|Spa|Patio Expo, loaded with memories and impressions and ready to set my course for the year to come. I had the editorial conversations I needed to have, conferred with old friends and new acquaintances and met with multiple suppliers to discuss our working relationships.

All in all, it was highly encouraging and fun – but as usual, it was also a bit exhausting.

Through all of my conversations with designers, builders and suppliers, I came away with the thought that, if the economy holds its course, 2018 will be a turning point – and either a breakout year or a breakdown year, depending upon how you approach it.

Let me back up a bit to set the context: During the lean years of the Great Recession, lots of businesses cut way down on their internal resources, paring away support staff, trimming crews and generally doing more with less no matter what the original head count had been. This put a lot of talented people out on the street, with some of them starting businesses of their own.

The rising tide of the years since 2012 have lifted those new boats along with the old ones, and the result is that everyone has been busy lately – and sometimes too busy.

This is where the breakout/breakdown distinction emerges: Once times improved, the experience of the recession made lots of business owners hesitate when it came to expanding, innovating or staffing up, the not-unreasonable fear being that any additional downturn, correction or shakeout in the economy would punish them for lifting their heads above the weeds too soon.

Those who’ve slowly been re-inflating their operations since 2012 are likely feeling good about now, but those who’ve been conservative know how stressed their businesses have become in simply trying to keep pace with recent growth. This latter group of businesses now has a choice to make: Is it to stay tight and overly busy, or to expand sensibly and start thinking about staffing levels they haven’t been seen or considered since 2008 or 2009?

The way I’m currently looking at things, those who’ve already begun expanding their businesses and bringing in new talent and support are getting ready for 2018 as a breakout year; by contrast, those who are madly busy and still don’t want to risk getting overextended may find 2018 to be a breakdown year.

Consider this: People currently at work on job sites can see the growth that’s happening and will inevitably begin to get ambitious, particularly when they’re killing themselves and the boss lets that sense of being overworked continue. So they start thinking about their own opportunities and maybe start looking for ways to strike out on their own.

If that happens in a small, tight company – one of the conservative entities described above – and, say, an experienced construction manager heads for the exit, the company’s leader can generally step in and oversee the work. That’s fine for this project, but what about the next and the next? Where is there any time to pursue new projects or deal with the need to bring in new people to fill open slots?

No matter the size or scope of a business, that’s a perilous predicament – and food for thought.

So what’ll it be? If the economy holds, there’s every possibility that 2018 will be even busier and more demanding than a 2017 that pushed many businesses to new heights of work and stress and fragility. In those circumstances, you have to choose: Are you poised for a breakout? Or are you heading for a breakdown?

Please let me know what you’re seeing in your own operation by commenting below!


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Genesis Evolution

By Jim McCloskey

When I was a student, it generally upset me when a class came nowhere close to completing its agenda.  This was especially true in college, but it even reached back into high school, when I’d feel almost cheated that the last five chapters of a 25-chapter textbook fell into some crack at the end of the year, never to be seen or heard from again.

I could rationalize it in humanities-type classes, where I perceived that the goal was learning to think critically about a period of literature or history or philosophy:  In those cases, I knew that I could always double back to whatever it was we’d skipped and, without guidance, figure out why it would’ve been cool to discuss this or that novel or era or concept with my fellow students in a classroom setting.

But that was never true in science- or technically oriented courses, where falling 25 percent short of completing a text meant I was 25 percent short of being truly ready to move onto the next level.  And the trouble with these subjects – and in that group I’d include technical education related to watershaping – is that they’re harder to pursue without expert, knowledgeable guidance.

All of this was running through my mind as we came to the end of the first day of “Construction 281:  Major Renovations,” a Genesis University class I sat in on a couple weeks back.  I wasn’t able to stick around for Day Two of the 16-hour course, but the pattern had been set in such a positive way that I have every confidence my impression would only have been reinforced had my schedule enabled me to stay.

I have been a careful, conscientious and all-too-frequent observer of water-related professional education for more than 30 years, and writing as someone who probably should have been an academic, I have to say I was impressed by Construction 281.   To be sure, I have always been pleased by the level of education offered by Genesis:  From the start nearly 20 years ago, its instructors offered something different, informative and interesting – a true change of pace and level from anything I’d observed before.

But as a renegade academic, I was often less than sold on what could best be described as a certain improvisational quality to the Genesis system.  The instructors have always been top flight, no doubt about it, but there was a looseness to the approach, an inconsistency from class session to class session that made me want to crack a whip every once in a while.

This is part of the reason why I hadn’t sat in on a Genesis course for any extended period for many years now:  I’ve stopped in to see what’s going on from time to time – and, as mentioned above, have invariably been impressed by the qualifications of the instructors and their capacity to impart valuable information.  But sit through a whole day?  Not something that appealed to me.

With Construction 281, however, it was about 3 pm on the first day that I truly regretted the fact I couldn’t hang around for the second.  I was learning, and I wanted to know more.  I also have the hopeful sense that the entire Genesis University system now operates with this same lofty set of organizational and structural principles.

It’s funny:  When I sat down at my desk first thing in the morning, I leafed through the thick course text and idly considered how much would be left off toward the back of the sheaf to make the class end on time.  By the time we wrapped up Day One, however, I had every confidence that the whole book would be covered – with time to spare for a healthy exchange of ideas, questions and answers.

I hadn’t intended to write anything at all about this class when I sat down that fine Tuesday morning, but as you can tell, I’m fired up.  As I mentioned above, I’ve always thought Genesis offered something different, something valuable.  Now I think they also offer something structured, something disciplined.

It makes me proud and happy that WaterShapes has been associated with Genesis for so long.  It makes me even prouder and happier that a field to which I’ve devoted 30-plus years of my life now has access to education at this level.

If you’re a designer or builder who hasn’t gotten involved with Genesis yet, do give it a try.  If a hard-bitten lug like me can rise to this level of endorsement, there’s something very good indeed about what’s happening here.

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Please Stop By!


By Jim McCloskey

I have two main objectives in asking you step on over to the WaterShapes booth during this year’s International Pool|Spa|Patio Expo in Orlando:

[ ] First, I want to chat with you about and get your thoughts on the huge set of changes and upgrades we’ve recently unveiled. Your feedback is always appreciated, of course, but it’s unusually valuable right now, while everything we’ve done is still fresh in mind and we can respond to your comments and suggestions more easily than we may ever be able to do.

[ ] Second, and as many of you know already, I’m always on the hunt for articles we can publish in our twice-monthly newsletters and upload to our web site. We now publish much more than twice the volume we did when we were a printed magazine, and our hunger for fresh material is basically inexhaustible. In short, we need your help to keep things rolling on the high level to which you’ve become accustomed. And getting involved is easier than you might think, so please do stop by to say hello!

We’ll be in booth #857 in the heart of the Genesis Pavilion: See you in Florida!


I’m still often asked if I miss the magazine, and the simple answer is, yes, I do. It was a beautiful monthly artifact, a piece of work as palpable and real as a swimming pool or fountain or pond and very much a point of pride for those of us who produced it. But that was then; this is now.

To illustrate, consider just this single point: When we sent out magazines each month, we knew the names and business affiliations of those on our mailing list but never had any clear idea how many of those copies were being opened or which articles were being read and by how many of you. Now, as a digital resource, we can’t be exactly certain what your name is or where you work (unless you’ve volunteered that information), but we know minute by minute what it is you’re reading. That’s quite an odd flip – and believe me, we’re in a much better position now to know what you like to read and use that information to guide us as we pull things together twice each month.

Many years ago, a pool builder asked me why we bothered publishing articles about ponds and fountains in the magazine. These things didn’t interest him, he said, and never would. I couldn’t respond convincingly back then, but if he asked that same question now, I have a clearer response and solid backing for editorial decisions we’ve been making for nearly 20 years.

It makes me proud that we always stuck to our original mission and our commitment to serve the needs of all watershapers. I could only hope it made sense in the past; I know it now for a fact.


We’re about to enter an active period with the WaterShapes Professional Network. Early in 2018, we will begin a new drive to sign people up. More important than that, we’ll be going back to all current members to make certain their own sites are linked to WPN using its official badge and link.

As has been stated many times, if we are to make our collective Internet presence work to the best possible extent, all participants in the program need to be bound up as one, single entity. This is what makes WPN impossible for search engines to overlook when consumers start looking for information.

Watch this space and the WPN Corner of this newsletter for details!

See you in Orlando!


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The New!

By Jim McCloskey

I celebrated another birthday on September 9, and one of the coolest gifts I received was the word that a major renovation of was ready for final review – and would, crossing that hurdle, be ready for public launch alongside release of the September 20 edition of the WaterShapes newsletter – this very day!

It’s our first major update in several years and the first wholesale change since we launched the full site back in 2012.  In addition to a cleaner, clearer, more open look – mostly made possible by widening the template by about a third – there are new type styles and colors to go along with more and bigger images.

It’s an important step for us, largely because the new system is entirely mobile-friendly – a real necessity in modern site management that means even my children might be more inclined to take a look at what their dad does to keep busy.

It’s also another huge step away from the measure of control I had over the way things looked when WaterShapes was a printed magazine:  Now some algorithm or other figures out how things will arrange themselves on the new-fangled mobile page.  I don’t exactly like that, but I see so many advantages in mobile-friendly formatting that I can’t complain more than half-heartedly.

The thing I’ve been told is that any major upgrading like this will introduce some weirdnesses that can’t be anticipated and won’t be spotted until people really start digging through the site using all the many platforms there are across the globe.  Everything can be massaged and corrected, I’ve been assured – but finding some of the subtler deviations may take time, so right up front, I beg your indulgence while we comb through everything.

I also beg your assistance:  If you see something that’s off kilter, please do let me know by dropping me a note at so I can get our team on it right away.


My daughter, who saw the new in preview form, reminded me how tortured the process of revamping the printed version of WaterShapes had been when we tackled that task in early 2009.  We’d gone through the first ten years of publication with no more than some interim tweaks:  When the time came to go whole hog all at once, I was apparently a bit obsessive about getting things right.

Our Art Director did a fine job, of course, but I kept worrying about shaking things up in the throes of a difficult economy and kept wondering whether readers and advertisers would like and accept the changes we’d made.  Yes, I was a bit obsessive:  The new design had been in development for months by the time we rolled it out, and I recalled having the same sorts of feelings and anxieties as when we launched the magazine in the first place back in 1999.  I felt a bit silly then, and I guess I’m feeling a little silly now.

Change isn’t easy, but with something like this, it’s important:  We’re keeping up with technology, which is crucial, but we’re also gaining on the sorts of looks that make web sites appealing these days, and that’s crucial, too.  So give it a look and let us know what you think:  It’s taken us months to get here, and we can’t wait for some feedback!

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Another Look

By Jim McCloskey

Before I walk away from my little series of blogs on big transitions, I want to call attention to renovations, which I consider to be both a generational phenomenon as well as the greatest potential source of projects and market growth through the next two or three decades.

The swimming pools being built when I started paying daily attention to such things in 1986 were mostly primitive by today’s standards.  They were still mostly rectangles or kidneys, still had little more than steps and maybe a bench and were lit by one big 500-watt incandescent bulb.  The coolest ones had spas attached in some way, but these units were generally underpowered and a bit disappointing in the hydrotherapy department.

Thing is, there are millions of these “standard” pools around, every single one of them coming to a point in their existences where something will need to be done.  (I’m focusing on pools here, but I suspect the same may be said of vintage fountains, ponds and other waterfeatures.  I will also stipulate that a whole lot of these “standard” watershapes have been built in the past 30 years and that many of them could use some attention, too.)

In many cases, the “something” needing done will be mechanical and will be about little more than keeping the watershape plugging along; in many more, however, there will also be a call for cosmetic work to help a vessel keep up with the times and, more important, with the elevated expectations of new generations of homeowners.

This is why I’m so happy that my friends at Genesis/NSPF have turned their attention to what’s involved in these projects with a course entitled, “Construction 281:  Major Renovations.”  To my knowledge, they’ve run the class at least once already; they’ll be offering it again – for the first time on the West Coast, where I see most of the opportunities – on September 12 and 13 at Zodiac Pool Systems’ headquarters in Vista, Calif.

Genesis is pulling out two of its biggest guns for the event, with Dave Peterson and Bill Drakeley as instructors.  But far more important from my perspective is the inclusion of a third instructor, landscape designer Kate Wiseman, who will ensure that the focus of the course is broader than exploring ways, for example, to knit new concrete into existing structures.

That technical stuff is obviously important, but in my book, the hay is to be made with a pure aesthetic vision of what can happen in the backyard of someone saddled with an aging kidney-shaped pool.  Take mine, for example.

My own pool was built in 1983, six years before we bought the house.  It was rather hip for its day, with a raised bond beam along the back of the pool and a spa elevated by a quarter-inch or so above the pool’s waterline.  But it is also so standard as to be laughable in this context:  It has a set of shallow-end steps and two deep-end benches to go along with a single 500-watt incandescent light (shining directly at the window of our den, so I don’t recall using it more than once or twice).

It has a narrow ribbon of plain beige decking, red-brick coping to go with the red-brick raised wall and a strange blue-and-brown waterline tile with a white-plaster finish.  There’s a single-point suction head in the deep end, and the same in the spa – a perpetual safety concern for me and a reason I’m extra-vigilant when kids are in the water.  The only thing “modern” about our pool is the equipment pad, which I’ve updated a couple times through the past 30 years.

And the fact is that just about every pool in my neighborhood – and there are dozens of them within an easy walk of my front door – is similar to mine, the big difference being that mine was built in 1983 while most of the rest were installed in the 1960s and ’70s and are in need of even more mechanical and aesthetic attention.

Just about every day, I see a story about an old public pool that’s being closed or demolished.  Much less frequently, I see an item on one undergoing a major rehabilitation.  I would hate to think that there’s a similar proportionality in the residential sector, with more people giving up on their watershapes than are renovating them.

Perhaps those who emerge from the Genesis course will take up the cause and start deliberately, purposefully marketing their services to people with existing pools in serious need of updating.  I see this as an exciting possibility, a lucrative opportunity and, above all, a chance to change the way people think about their existing watershapes – that is, as constantly upgradeable works in progress rather than as static monuments to days long gone.

The before-and-after shots with blank-slate yards are truly satisfying; those with old pools as the starting point can be downright thrilling.  If renovations are a key part of what you do, congratulations – and keep up the good work!  If this is an alien concept to you, please do give it a good look and watch The Genesis course schedule:  If I’m right, it’s going to represent a huge percentage of the construction business for the next 20 or even 30 years.

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Generational Shifts

By Jim McCloskey

Ever since I completed my last WaterShapes World entry – the one on the passing of Herman Silverman and John Kelley, Jr. – I’ve found myself thinking about the coincidence of their having been 30 years apart in age – that is, with a conventional “generation” between them.

It reminded me that I joined the watershaping game in the midst of a grand generational transition, at a time when those who’d built the industry in the years after World War II (including Herman Silverman) had begun fading from the scene and a new group in their thirties and forties was stepping up onto the main stage – John Kelley among them.

I started with Pool & Spa News in 1986 at 30 years old, and I was aware through contacts with industry people of all ages that the transitions then under way were consequential and often painful.  The old guard, which still spoke with the most emphatic voices in the industry (including the one wielded by my boss at the time, Jules Field), had, like my parents, been through the Great Depression or its aftermath and had witnessed World War II in grim detail.

Many of them thrived in the booming postwar environment and built good, solid, profitable businesses through the ’50s and ’60s and beyond.  For all that, however, by the mid-1980s lots of them were feeling marginalized and maybe even disrespected by an up and coming generation that didn’t seem to appreciate all they’d been through in their lifetimes.

Some of the “old timers” I met in my early days in the industry were true pioneers and were probably justified in feeling underappreciated.  But more generally, the new generation saw the attitudes embodied by their older professional associates as outmoded at best and, at worst, as serious impediments to progress.

This sort of intergenerational tension is common, of course – but it’s particularly complicated in industries where there are lots of family-owned and -operated businesses.  Mom and pop are successful and proud, the story goes, but their kids see them as set in their ways and overly inclined to hold onto the reins of authority.  This leaves the older generation with a sense of competition that leads them to resist change and hang on to protect their legacies.

And now, just beyond 30 years of my own participation in the industry, the wheels are turning again.  Some in the younger generation are struggling to be patient if they’ve managed to stay in the family’s business at all.  But lots of them took the good educations their folks were able to afford because of the success of their businesses and put those degrees to good use in other fields of endeavor.  Some have come back, but many never will.

I could go on and on about these cross-currents of change, because I’ve watched the process unfold in countless businesses through the years, no matter whether the focus has been pools, ponds, fountains or some other slice of the watershaping pie.  And now that I find myself in the old guard, I’m starting to recognize and understand the nature of the conflict.  But I also see clearly that the situation is different these days than it was in the 1980s – a fact that gives me great hope.

For one thing (and at risk of painting with too broad a brush), I get the sense that today’s older generation – that is, my generation – is more willing to step aside than was the case 30 years ago.  The Great Recession of 2009 was a sobering experience, but it was no Great Depression.  Sure, it was a shaping event and scared the heck out of a lot of today’s business leaders – and still does – but for all that, it was just a longer-than-usual string of difficult but survivable years rather than the existential crisis experienced by our parents and others of their generation.

As a result, the set of life lessons learned by someone like me is different from the one that shaped my parents.  As I see it, fewer of us Boomers are about gritty survival and endurance, and more of us are about valuing the benefits that flow from skill and success.  We’re still working and will keep working as long as we feel useful, but we also think fondly about enjoying the fruits of our labors instead of figuring out ways to stay at the helm forever.

I hope I’m correct, because it means the current generational shift will be much less traumatic than the last big one.

Whether you agree with me or think I’m out to lunch, please share your own thoughts by commenting below!

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