Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director of Composites Australia Inc.
For most of us in business, the Doomsday clock started ticking when Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national pandemic on 27 February and the World Health Organisation a global pandemic on 12 March 2020. Fear was palpable in March. April was bleak. But figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show an increase in expenditure on hardware, building and gardening supplies during the country’s lockdown, peaking at $2.12 billion in May. Pools and spas were amongst the biggest winners. They not only tick the fitness and home renovation boxes, they also offer a safe option for the ‘staycation’ holiday model and business is booming accordingly.
Zel Medak, Regional Business Director (ANZ), allnex shared the company’s early COVID journey: “At the beginning of the COVID pandemic we were extremely concerned by the unknown. Our region, our markets and our business faced a major health and business crisis never previously encountered. The COVID lockdowns had an immediate negative impact on demand coupled with strained inbound supply chains. We activated our crisis management and business continuity plans, we quickly reconfigured our business for a COVID safe work environment and focussed on ensuring supply security to our customers. The message from our customers was clear – security of supply was their major priority particularly given problematic and delayed offshore supply chains.
Surprisingly by the end of May, demand started to recover quickly and by mid-year we observed a significant increase in market activity. Driven by a change in consumer spending preferences, towards home improvement and leisure activity, we realised a significant demand increase from the swimming pool segment. Subsequently the demand for Aquaguard gelcoats has been at elevated levels since the middle of the year. We’re heartened that Australian consumers have chosen to invest in major purchases such as swimming pools – all of which contributes to the health of the nation and secures jobs for Australians.”
Confirming the increase in production, the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded imports of fibreglass for the June/September quarter up 10% on the same period last year – a heartening statistic given these orders would have been placed at the height of the pandemic. An even greater increase is expected for the October/December quarter.
Lynley Papineau, Managing Director at Aquatic Leisure Technologies (ALT), producer of the brands Aqua Technics, Buccaneer Swimming Pools, Sapphire Pools, Quantum Composite and Riverina Pools pools, says: “In WA, consumer sentiment is running very high off the back of the resurgence of the mining, resource and construction sectors. International travel bans have kept people in the state and we dodged the worst of the pandemic. Right across Australia, people are now looking to invest in their homes and lifestyle. As a result we’ve experienced close to 50 percent growth in recent months.” Though cautiously optimistic about the future, Lynley qualifies the growth as coming from a lower base than the eastern states given that the WA pools and spas economy had shrunk over 40 percent since 2015.
Rob Kruber, Managing Director of Summertime Pools – which is also delivering nearly three times its usual production – concurs. “I don’t think this is a bubble. Consumer confidence is real and likely to last for at least a couple of years.” Since featuring on the cover of the May edition of this magazine, Rob acquired Summertime Pools which manufactures in Swan Hill – 350 km north of Melbourne. Leaving a job and purchasing a manufacturing company in the middle of a pandemic may seem counter intuitive, but Rob saw the opportunity. “People naturally cocoon in uncertain times. They spend more time at home and invest in their homes which is usually their biggest asset.”
Australia has the highest rate of pools per capita in the world. Of the usual estimated 25,000 new inground pools built each year across Australia, 65 to 70 percent are now made of fibreglass, an increase from five percent during the 1980s when concrete and/or vinyl liner were the materials of choice. In WA, the market share of fibreglass pools is even higher at an estimate of up to 80%. Raw material volumes mean that the pool sector consumes the most amounts of composite material inputs of any composites sector.
Fibreglass was the original enabling material to build transportable backyard swimming pools that were quick to install and easy to maintain. Most of the industry pioneers founded their companies over 40 years ago with a spirit of enterprise and ‘can do’ resourcefulness. Competition drove innovation in pool shapes and finishes. Maintaining and growing market share necessitated investment in pool shell technology and material inputs for unique pool finishes and colourfast colours. Manufacturing, marketing, franchising, installation and servicing networks were developed in parallel.
In addition to large purpose-built factories, Australian pool manufacturers have built a sophisticated network of well-trained builders and solid dealer networks. Market share, quality and consumer confidence in the industry has advanced through collaboration with state governments and Standards Australia to develop a strict regulated framework for the construction, safety, installation and management of pools and spas. In some states (excluding WA) pool installers and inspectors require a licence to operate. Through Swimming Pool & Spa Association (SPASA), the sector delivers a comprehensive training and certification program for installation, inspection, repairs and maintenance, as well as landscaping and safety. Developed to fortify the domestic market, this comprehensive system is now termed “the Australian model.” A model that is both exportable and attractive to offshore interests, particularly to North America where the market for Australian designed and made pools has been growing steadily for some years.
Lynley Papineau says that every year ALT swimming pools travel thousands of miles to destinations all over the world. Indeed, 60 percent of ALT’s production now leaves WA for either the eastern states or overseas. “The reason for our international success is the quality of our products. Our commitment to stringent quality controls has been recognised throughout the world and is the reason why Aqua Technics is WA’s number one exporter of pre-fabricated swimming pools,” says Lynley.
New Zealand facility grand opening
In mid-2019, Latham Pool Products, North America’s largest manufacturer of in-ground residential swimming pools, made a strategic investment in Narellan Pools. In the same year, Narellan Pools opened a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Hamilton, New Zealand to make pools for the NZ market and the South Pacific. Chris Meyer, Narellan Pools group managing director, projected at the time that the plant would build 500 pools across the North and South Islands over the first 12 months. Established more than 45 years ago, Narellan Pools began as a small, fibreglass swimming pool manufacturing business in Sydney’s south west. Today, Narellan Pools has a network of qualified pool builders over 70 regions across Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with a global presence that extends into the South Pacific, Europe, North America and Asia.
While business is great, the increase in output has triggered a new set of challenges. With supply chains already compromised by the pandemic, additional pressure points include transport logistics, and the ceaseless headache of recruiting skilled workers. Always the pragmatist, Rob Kruber counsels: “Businesses can’t control the circumstances dealt by the pandemic, but we can choose how we react and manage our way through it while at the same time looking for opportunities.”