What can 50 years of business evolution teach us about thriving through disruption?

Albatross Pools has been providing stunning swimming pool designs and construction since 1969, recently celebrating their Golden Jubilee in 2019 and marking 50 years of creating memorable moments for Australian families. Established in 1969 and with over 16,000 pools built, a countless number of SPASA Awards, Albatross Pools is a leading brand in the pool design & construction industry.

We spoke to Peita from Albatross Pools to learn how this Australian family business is tackling and adapting to the impact of COVID-19 and further, what has disruption meant for their business for over five decades.

Hi Peita, first, congratulations on your recent Golden Jubilee marking the 50th anniversary for Albatross Pools. That’s quite a remarkable milestone for your business. Can you tell us a little about the journey of Albatross Pools, I understand the business was started by your grandfather?  

“Yes that’s right. Back in the late sixties the pool industry didn’t exist in Australia with the majority of product being imported from America. My grandfather and his brothers (Dutch immigrants after WWII) realised there was a great opportunity to import and build alternative pool options.

One brother started a pool servicing business, another started a concrete pool building business and my grandfather, Ben Van Der Haar started Albatross Pools. Importing a pre-engineered pool over from Canada, Ben built a display pool in the backyard of the family home in Warrandyte – which by the way, still features pride of place in our display centre today.

People from the local community would visit Ben to go for a swim and he would sell them a pool…it was quite a simple really. The business grew quite quickly with additional display centres and the set-up of manufacturing here in Ringwood.

My father, Michael Van Der Haar (eldest son of Ben) started working in the business from 12 onwards (as too did his siblings) and saw to the development of the manufacturing and export of our system. My husband, Justin and I are now learning the business and look forward continuing on the business well into the future.”

A new business model – a shift towards digital

No doubt your business has faced market disruptions and significant changes over the decades. One that springs to mind is the Internet and how it changed consumer behaviour and commerce for good.  Were you early adopters? Did you establish a business website during the late 1990’s early 2000’s? 

“Absolutely, Michael has a natural business acumen and marketing mind and saw the need to launch a website in the mid-late 1990’s.  Michael also purchased and registered pools.com.au before buying domain names became ‘a thing’ and has been offered a substantial amount of money for it by various businesses over the years. It has become an asset and not one we will be letting go of anytime soon.” 

The impact of a digital world

What impact did this period have on your business given the disruption to traditional offline acquisition of new customers and clients?  

“We opted for a multi-channel strategy and still continued with investing in traditional forms of marketing and advertising in combination with a digital presence. Over the last 15 years in particular we have decreased our investment in print and traditional forms of advertising – currently approximately 70% of our marketing and advertising budget is dedicated to digital. During the ‘cross over period’ we found we were spending a great deal on marketing and advertising and were unable to measure results of each initiative (we just did everything because that is what you did back then)…that is the beauty of digital, you can measure and track almost everything!

We initially struggled with the importance of online reviews and having a presence across social media channels during this period. With every 7/10 pools sold resulting from a referral, it was imperative that we adapted quickly and included digital when working on our referral initiatives.  We stumbled our way through it but learnt a great deal along the way.”

Digital adaptation

Can you tell us about some of the challenges and successes Albatross Pools had during this time with the rise of the web, both for your business and your industry? How would you describe this period? 

“In small business you often wear many hats and trying to stay up to date on the latest technologies relating to online for business was and continues to be very difficult. You rely on your support partners to do this for you. It is crucial the support partners understand your business, understand your target market and share the same passion you have.

Unfortunately we experienced a high turnover with account managers at the previous agency we were with prior to Clearwater Agency, this is however very common in the digital industry…with every new account manager came a new ‘best practice’ and a lack of understanding of our business and our target market.”

How has digital changed customer and purchase behaviour in your industry? I imagine creative elements such as photography, video and animation provided a way for clients to see and feel the experience of purchasing a pool? How has this changed over the past 50 years? 

“When I look through our archives and sort through the scrapbooks my grandmother put together showcasing our print advertising journey since 1969, the focus on ‘why you buy a pool’ has and continues to be the focus. The visual aesthetic was also important back in the 1970s however, it’s importance has grown year on year and in some cases is becoming the primary driver for some pool buyers today.

Photography and video has become more important than ever in our industry (like most industries) and its inclusion in our acquisition strategy has been paramount to our ongoing success. Pool buyers spend a great deal of time on the Gallery of our website during the initial stages of their research. The social media advertising we do which features video delivers the best engagement. It is fair to say, photography and video are very important during the initial stages of research for Pool Buyers.”

Future landscape, opportunities & challenges

How do you see this moving forward? Virtual options for prospective clients? 

“The Pool Industry in Europe and America tend to lead the way in virtual options at the moment and it is only a matter of time until it becomes an essential element in our marketing mix…you can already see it in the residential building market and real estate market.”

Albatross Pools has continued to succeed online, across many digital channels and platforms, how important has digital marketing become for your business and brand? 

“Very but we still feel a multi-channel option delivers the best results at the moment – a blend of traditional and digital allows us to reach a larger target market…the success of this however, is based on consistency in branding and pool buyer experience across every channel. Understanding the options available across the digital space is key and with the help of our support partner Clearwater Agency we will continue to invest heavily in initiatives that are most relevant and effective for our target market and business as a whole.”

Fifty years of disruption

We are currently in another period of disruption, one quite unlike anything we have seen. How has this impacted your business?

“It has been very interesting for our industry and of course our business. Celebrating 50 years last year, we have experienced a number of disruptions to our business (energy crisis in the 70s, recession in the early 80s and another in the 90s, global financial crisis a few years back), but we are very fortunate to be able to lean on the experience and knowledge of Michael and the learnings he has from his father.

Pool buying is not high on the majority of Melbournians agendas at the moment, especially those that have been financially impacted by COVID-19. There are however, many families who are looking to shift the holiday funds into home improvements and adding to their outdoor lifestyle – all you need to do is look at the success of Bunnings during this time.

Our industry body is very much aware of this as too are we and we are focusing on doing the basics well and supporting pool buyers in the best we can during their research phase. We are also connecting pool buyers with an Outdoor Finance business to ensure the can cost effectively finance their investment in their outdoor improvements.”

“Marketing is often the first budget that is ‘cut’ during times like this – this is a very short term view and one we have not taken. If anything, we have ramped up our investment in this area and working even closer with Clearwater Agency to ensure we remain front of mind for pool buyers. Building success online can take some time.

Learnings and gains in social media advertising and web presence can take months’ worth of work and constant analysis…the worst thing to do would be to turn that investment off and undo everything we have achieved to-date with Clearwater. Further to that, the learnings and gains we have achieved in the last 12 months have placed us in a stronger position today allowing us to be more informed and strategic with our digital presence during these current times.”

Ability to pivot quickly

You were one Clearwater’s first service-based clients at the beginning of the COVID-19 period that pivoted rather quickly and decided to incorporate eCommerce into your business. Can you share with our audience the process that took place with yourself and the team? 

“We have always been interested in the idea of an eCommerce option for the retail arm of our business but did not see the justification for it given the logistics involved with pool chemicals (very different to an item of clothing). When things changed we saw an opportunity to trial an eCommerce option. This initiative will help our most vulnerable in the community care for their pool (or spa) although these clients typically prefer the more traditional forms of shopping…this has been a significant shift in retail and one we do believe will become more common place for many people.

The process and mapping out every scenario (of the purchasing journey) and the checkout process was key for our team – if the online experience is not smooth and consistent with the bricks and mortar experience, we were concerned we would lose the customer altogether. Taking a holistic approach and mapping it out on paper was the first step and these notes (on the old-school butchers paper) have been referred to throughout the build.”

Exploring & validating new opportunities

I know our team is excited about the opportunity this presents for you and Albatross Pools. The current challenges and restrictions business owners face have created this opportunity, are there others that you are exploring that you would like to mention? 

“Trying to stay abreast of the economic outlook and planning resources to meet the anticipated recovery is difficult at the moment and is a large focus like I am sure it is for most businesses (particularly those that sell products that are luxury items).

Reviewing our internal processes to ensure any areas of improvement are being identified and explored (and listening to customer feedback and suggestions) is also a key initiative for the business. The opportunity of time is very rare in small business, we now have time to step back and review our offering to our target market – this is bringing about the opportunity to explore alternative products and solutions to meet the needs of the pool buyer of today and the pool buyer of the future…watch this space 😊”

What does this new channel and the potential eCommerce mean for Albatross Pools? 

“It allows us to test the waters (so to speak) and see if this channel is a viable one for the future of our business. We believe it is and we have already begun scoping out the idea of expanding our service offering to all Albatross Pool owners with the addition of a ‘pool valet’ type service. The seamless rollout and execution of the eCommerce channel is imperative to its success and we will wait and see how it progresses.”

Being in business for 50 years is impressive, is there any advice you wish to share with others for business longevity and success? 

“That’s probably a question for Michael, but I am sure he would say to keep things simple and ensure every opportunity and initiative explored delivers a win-win solution for both the customer and the long term success of the business. Michael will often say it is important to not get ahead of yourself, keep the ego in check and stay true to what it is you are good at…diluting your point of difference will only benefit your competition.”

Thank you Peita for taking the time to talk to us about the journey of Albatross Pools, we are excited to be part of your team.

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