Aqua Pool & Spa, a Modesto-bred, high-volume contractor with an excellent reputation and prestigious Manteca showroom, folded this week, leaving several dozen customers with partly built pools and 200 employees out of work.
"We waited years to have this pool built," Modesto's John Llorens said Friday, with his $20,000 swimming pool nearly paid for but only half done. "We felt like we went with a reputable company. Other people love them. Then this happened."
Only nine companies in the United States built more pools than Aqua in 2002, according to a trade journal. The company merged with its stiffest competitor, the Vintage Co., soon after and grew to hire 415 employees, with contracts surging to more than 1,200 a year.
But pool building nearly dried up with home equity in recent times, and Aqua was forced into bankruptcy when a bank called in a $3 million loan, owner Richard Townsend told KCRA-TV.
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Gates to Aqua's high-profile headquarters off Highway 99 were locked Friday. Some customers and former employees, all frustrated, milled about outside.
"The boss didn't say, 'You guys are laid off' or 'we're going to close the company.' They didn't say nothing to nobody," said Hugo Crossway, a six-year pre-plaster employee.
The Bee was unable to reach Townsend or his son, Bryan, and sons-in-law Julio Rangel and Gregg Whitley. Bryan Townsend and Rangel left the company Aug. 9, according to the California Contractors State License Board.
Owner issues apology
The agency's Web site says it's investigating four consumer complaints against Aqua, all alleging low trade standards and exceeding contract amounts, all dated Thursday.
Richard Townsend told KCRA he had depleted company and personal savings trying to keep Aqua afloat over the past three years. He apologized on camera for inconvenience to 50 or 60 families with partly built pools.
Llorens said he wrote a $7,000 check to Aqua on Tuesday for the next phase of his pool, which lacks a pebble finish and filtration equipment. He had paid $18,000 and would owe another $2,700 for a final phase, he said. His bank said the check cleared late Tuesday, Llorens said.
"They took our check and knew darn well what they were doing," he said. His family had saved up, visiting Aqua's impressive showroom every season for a few years.
"We finally went down just to see what they could do for 20 grand, and the guy designed it bigger and better than what I wanted, so I said, 'This is great,' " Llorens said. "We'd heard nothing but good about them."
Aqua started in 1988 with an office on Modesto's West Rumble Road and built pools across the Central Valley with branches in other cities.
Rob Burkett, who owns a Ripon pool plastering company, frequently worked for Aqua before the company began hiring its own construction workers for all phases a few years ago, he said. Aqua approached him early this week for help, he said, but was unable to finish current jobs without cash flow stopped by the lender, he said.
Some Aqua customers already have turned to other contractors, including Cooley's Custom Pools and Burkett's Pool Plastering.
"We're lucky enough to be pretty strong financially, so we can work with people to try to make them whole," Burkett said. "I never thought a company that size would fall. They had a lot of talent there."
Said Sean Cooley, "People thought they were going to be here a long time. But big companies can fail just like little companies."
Showroom called a bad move
Some pool contractors said Aqua took on too much overhead by opening its flashy, freeway-frontage showroom just south of Manteca.
Tom Willard of Swan Pools said Aqua salesmen "would write any deal, whether it was profitable or not, which kind of ground down prices for the whole industry in the valley, making it tough for everyone. Everyone knew this day was coming for them."
Bob Campana sold his Vintage Co. to Aqua about six years ago and now owns the Vintage Gardens and a plumbing business. With hindsight, it was a good time to get out of pools, he said.
"I'm sad for a lot of people who used to work for me who now don't have a job," Campana said. "Trying to find a job in this economy, with that skill set, I don't think it's going to happen."
Employee Crossway said workers were dispatched Tuesday to jobs in the Sacramento area, but were called off en route and told to go home with no other explanation.
A subsequent recorded message instructed workers that they would receive paychecks when they return company vehicles and cell phones, but gates were locked Friday and workers are left wondering what to do, he said.
"Just like that, boom," said Crossway, who supports a wife and four children.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.