AVALON - Tom Braun started U.S.A. Pools in Bryn Mawr, Pa., in 1989 and installed pools from the Poconos to Delaware for a dozen years.
The Jersey Shore was his vacation destination then, but as traffic in the Philadelphia suburb made serving his business territory more difficult and the shore seemed like a better place for his family, he relocated both to Cape May County in 2001.
"My wife and I started having kids and we moved down to the shore to get away from the rat race," Braun said.
The move was a success on both fronts, with U.S.A. Pools finding a large market for its high-end, custom cement pools from Cape May to Brigantine. It also helped that a regulation change around that time made it easier for pools to meet lot coverage limits.
After the financial markets and economy collapsed in 2007, his company struggled along with every other seller of discretionary products.
Fortunately, his company also services pools - opening them at the start of the season, maintaining them and then preparing them for winter. And that needs to be done regardless of the economic weather.
"That's a big part of our business and that's what kept me going when the economy got tough," he said.
U.S. sales of in-ground pools peaked at 76,000 units in 2006, then plunged 69 percent by 2010, according to P.K. Data Inc. of Duluth, Ga. By last year, sales had rebounded to 53,000 units.
Braun said this year has been the best for U.S.A. Pools since 2006. He said the company is on track to sell and install just shy of 70 pools in 2013.
"We're really fortunate that in Avalon and Stone Harbor there was not a lot of damage from Hurricane Sandy," he said.
Cement pools offer several advantages, he said, including:
• custom designs that work best with a home and property;
• a durable, lifetime base that can be renewed. "If a pool as been there for 20 years, we can go in and make it brand new," he said;
• and more added to the property value than other types of pools.
Braun begins by studying the property and collaborating on a design with the owner.
The space is excavated, rebar is installed and inspected, and gunite - a cement-sand mix - is applied at high pressure.
His workers - all year-round and full-time - then install tile, coping, underground plumbing (including filtration and heating), and the surrounding concrete patio. Finally, the pool interior is finished with plaster in the color of choice.
Braun said it typically takes four or five weeks, with costs ranging from $30,000 to $50,000.
Shore winters are mild enough that installations can continue uninterrupted.
He said some buyers have the pool started in the fall and then finished in spring, which allows them to spread out paying for it.
While the shore has been great for the business and family, the move hasn't quite worked out the way Braun planned for himself.
"Twelve years ago I said, 'I'll be able to go fishing easily now.' I haven't gone fishing once this year," he said.
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