From DIY to CEO
by Sheri Kell
September 30, 2012 02:08 AM | 4411 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CEO Karen Shearer Frye is photographed by an in-ground pool at Aquarama, which is located on Powder Springs Road in Marietta. After Frye earned an accounting degree in 1976 and began working in her father’s business full-time, she saw the need to develop the retail and service side of the business to augment the construction side. ‘In order to have the quality employees, I knew we needed to have a year-round business,’ Frye said. <br> Photo by Jon-Michael Sullivan
CEO Karen Shearer Frye is photographed by an in-ground pool at Aquarama, which is located on Powder Springs Road in Marietta. After Frye earned an accounting degree in 1976 and began working in her father’s business full-time, she saw the need to develop the retail and service side of the business to augment the construction side. ‘In order to have the quality employees, I knew we needed to have a year-round business,’ Frye said.
Photo by Jon-Michael Sullivan
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MARIETTA — Karen Shearer Frye, owner and CEO of Aquarama/Aquatech Pools, Spas and Service, was 12 when her father, Robert Shearer, embarked on an ambitious do-it-yourself project of building a swimming pool in their Whitlock Heights backyard in Marietta.

As the saying goes, the rest is history.

A few neighbors liked Shearer’s pool so much they asked him to build one for them, so in 1967, Shearer bought three acres of property on Powder Springs Street, built the storefront and opened for business.

“I was 17 at the time. He drafted my mother and me to help,” Frye said.

While earning her college degree at what was then called Kennesaw Junior College — now Kennesaw State University — and Georgia State universities, she picked up parts to and from class every day.

“In the ’70s, we were building 70 swimming pools a year,” Frye said. “They were very streamlined, ‘package’ pools that cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Having a pool was living the American dream — everyone wanted a pool in their backyard.”

Frye says it was always “a family affair.” Both of her siblings worked there, and many of their friends spent their summers working with them building pools.

After Frye earned an accounting degree in 1976 and began working in the business full time, she saw the need to develop the retail and service side of the business to augment the construction side.

“In order to have the quality employees, I knew we needed to have a year-round business,” Frye said. “We were one of the first companies to establish a separate service department for openings and closings and repairs.”

Previously, her father built pools for six months a year and closed the other six months.

In 1988, Robert Shearer retired and Frye and her husband, Bennett, purchased the business.

“I had already been running the business for 10 years, and we had a lot of debt. It wasn’t a matter of me taking over the business, it was a matter of me saving the business,” she said. “We decided at that point we wanted to get more into the custom designed, high-end pools.”

Frye says it took 10 years to get the debt paid off, and during that time, her own two sons joined the business. She said like many other housing-related industries, from 2001 to 2008, Aquarama prospered.

“There was a lot of money moving in to metro Atlanta, and we thrived along with it,” Frye said.

She said that while most pools they build fall into the $50,000 to $100,000 range, the most expensive pool they have built was a $250,000 job for a local rap artist.

“He wanted the best of everything.”

And when the housing bubble burst, the business she had built around service and repairs allowed the company to survive.

“When other pool companies lost 75 percent of their sales, we only lost 5 percent,” she said.

Another blow came in November 2011 when an arsonist set fire to Aquarama’s building and six other businesses on Powder Springs Street. While it was contained to the show room, the smoke damage was pervasive.

“It was very traumatic,” she said. “My two sons came to me after and said ‘We are construction people, we can renovate and do this ourselves.’”

She let them and in February, received a modern, updated showroom as a result.

Aquarama has 40 full-time employees and has again reached its 2008 high of $5 million in annual sales. Frye says that their revenues and number of employees puts Aquarama in the top 10 percent of companies in the industry.

“In our industry, it’s mostly one guy and a truck,” she said.

Retired Marietta resident Bob Wilder has been a customer since 1984. He said Robert Frye built a pool for his father-in-law in the ’60s, and Aquarama has built two and renovated one for him since.

“Karen is a real hands-on owner,” Wilder said. “The people that work there are great. … They are a reputable business.”

Frye says that while the service, retail and renovation business has remained strong, she is happy to see new construction again.

“We have weathered the downturn, and we are ready,” she said.
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