Art had Rembrandt. Music had Mozart. The high-end pool industry has Mark Werner, a 35-year-old entrepreneur from New Jersey, who builds million-dollar swimming holes for the rich and sometimes famous.
Even in a stagnant U.S. economy, Werner is earning a comfortable living creating designer pools for the wealthy. From waterfalls to elaborate tile selections, no detail is too small. In time, Werner—who credits his training as a Marine for his drive and success—hopes to rank among the top, master pool designers in the world.
For his rich clients, a couple hundred thousand for a pool is pocket change. "This is like 'screw you' money," Werner said. "Instead of putting it (the extra money) in the stock market, let's put it in the backyard" is their thinking, he said. (Read more: More Americans Embrace Entrepreneurship)
No Pool Party for the Industry
Thirteen years ago, Werner started what was a two-man moonlighting operation. The upstart has since flourished into a $5-million enterprise with 26 full-time employees. Caribbean Blue Pools & Spas builds roughly 20 pools a year—enough building to keep Werner working 15-hour days, seven days a week, from March through November.
Despite the sluggish economy, Werner is so busy he doesn't have time for a holiday. "Some days I don't sleep," he said. "I don't have million-dollar vacations; I take a few days in winter, when there's snow on the ground."
While Werner is lucky enough to cater to rich clients who are seemingly immune to the weak economy, the pool industry overall—comprised almost entirely of independent, family-owned companies—has been decimated by the recession and slow recovery. New U.S. pool construction has plunged 70 percent during the last seven years to roughly 50,000 pools annually from about 170,000 pools a year, said analyst Josh Darling, pool practice manager at PK Data, a market research firm.
"The recession has hammered all segments of the market, but it's the middle- and small in-ground pools that are really feeling it," Darling said. "High-income people are still making money, and can afford a pool." (Read more: Crowdfunding Site Gives Startups and Small Businesses a Boost)
Elite Pool Customers
Werner said his customers in the greater New Jersey and New York City metropolitan area include bankers, business owners and a smattering of celebrities. whose names he said he can't disclose.
A basic pool starts at $200,000, ballpark. More lavish options can run up to $2.5 million. Waterfalls and infinity edges are practically standard issue at this high end of the pool market.
The real money, Werner said, lies in artistic additions. Special lighting effects go for $50,000 and up. Grottos can set you back $150,000. Hand-carved rock formations can range from $200,000 to $300,000. Outdoor kitchens, fireplaces and TVs are extra of course.
"We're doing a pool right now that comes off the second floor of a house," said Werner. "The vanishing edge is made out of acrylic like a fishbowl. It has columns with torches. I've never seen anything like it."
Military Training Sparks Entrepreneurial Focus
Werner has been immersed in the pool business since he was a teen, when he worked afternoons and summers at a friend's family pool business. Later after a 4-year stint in the Marines, Werner returned to building pools full-time—but with a new perspective and passion for his work. (Read more: Richard Branson on Beating the Competition)
His military service took him behind enemy lines in Albania in 1998. Before doing military reconnaissance, Werner described himself as a kid going nowhere. "I had no ambition until I came out of the military. You come out, and you think you can take on anything. You strive to be the best in whatever you do," he said. "I was coming out to kill it."
That's when Werner's pool-design brainstorming really kicked in. "I wanted to learn about the pools themselves," he said. "I thought, 'If they're making money the way they do it now, I could do it better,' " he said.
Where Rembrandt looked to Italian painter Caravaggio for inspiration, Werner sought inspiration from modern sources—the Internet. He studied the most elaborate, artistic pools he could find, and set out to take them one step further in his creations. "You'd see pictures of these beautiful pools around the world. At the end of the day I wanted to do something spectacular," he said.
In 1999, Werner began building pools on his own at night with a helper, and after a year, he quit his day job to focus on his own business full-time. His early pools were very simple. "I didn't make money on those first few jobs," he said. "You make mistakes. Once you have five in the ground, though, people come to you."
As Werner's expertise grew, customers asked for increasingly complex designs. No design challenge is too big for him. "You can show me a picture of something you love, and we can replicate it in your yard."
And for many of his customers, no pool idea is too expensive. "Those are the jobs I'm looking for," said Werner, who hopes to eventually attract clients from across the country. "I want to be known as the Picasso of the swimming pool industry."
—Gail Belsky for CNBC.com