Over 27 years, John O’Brien has built Poolwerx into a global franchise business, with 576 service vans and 161 stores now in operation. He has a wealth of invaluable advice to offer other business owners.
- Full name: John O’Brien
- Business name: Poolwerx
- Industry: Pool and spa maintenance, franchise network
- Number of employees: 62 staff support team
- Operating since: 1992
What was your first paid job?
I was seven and my parents had a country hotel. My dad paid me two pence per bag of bottled beer collected. I got my mates onto it too and I paid them a penny per bag!
What made you get into your current business?
In the early 90s, I travelled the world looking for a disorganised industry that I could bring order through franchising. I found it in California: the pool industry was a ma and pop set-up worldwide. I set about organising it and bringing professionalism.
How did you get your very first customer/client?
I’ve started four businesses and all the same way. I knocked on doors, introduced myself, discovered their needs and set about satisfying their need. “You’ve got a pool, how is it doing, do you mind if I take a look at it and let you know how it can look and perform better and make your life easier?”
My marketing budget was my knuckles; I knocked on doors.
What has been your biggest triumph in business?
For my brand, it was seeing three of our franchise partners over three different years being awarded best in Australia and seeing our brand awarded best franchise system outright twice.
For me personally, it was launching our brand successfully into the US four years ago. We are now the largest global pool service brand.
Conversely, what has been your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
Too many to mention! Perhaps not borrowing or partnering for equity earlier, and therefore being able to go harder earlier; being a tad too cautious.
What is the best thing about owning your own business?
The incredible self-satisfaction that comes from knowing you raised your family off your own sweat. That, together with the opportunities you personally create for other families.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” Don’t wait, blame or over-analyse — just go and make it happen yourself, now.
If you could change one thing to make life easier as a business owner, what would it be and why?
Create a discipline that once you start to make a profit and free cash, don’t reinvest it all back in the business. Take some and invest outside of your business to limit risk and create a spread wealth portfolio.
Who do you look up to in business and why?
Kerry Stokes, due to his resilience over a long period, but also because he “knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em”. He has confidence and not ego that can lead to wrong business decisions.
What do you do to get away from work?
I simply enjoy the company of family and friends. But to be honest, after 25 years in this business, many of my team are my friends too.
Name a little-known fact about yourself.
My mother put me through boarding school on a barmaid’s wage and then gave me $10 at the end of year 12 and said, “It’s up to you now, son.”
What is the funniest thing you have come across in business?
When my friends who are customers too contact me yet again to say, “One of your pool techs has fallen in my pool.” I just say, “We go over and beyond to inspect [your] pool health.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.