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Heir apparent.

Aloha Pools' Scott Girner Assumes Burnett Mantle With Recent Purchase

With his recent acquisition of the late Johnny Burnett's pool and spa business, Scott Girner appears on his way to cornering the central Arkansas pool and spa market.

The owner of Aloha Pools and Spas and Hot Tub Harry's, Girner says he and Burnett locked "tooth and nail" during the last few years in a battle for market dominance. Girner says -- and several people connected with the pool business agree -- that he and Burnett were the major players in the central Arkansas market.

There has been a strange, mysterious turn of events since those days.

Burnett was found murdered Tuesday, July 21, in the bedroom of his Little Rock home. Police believe he was shot some time the previous Sunday evening, but his body wasn't found until several worried friends had a locksmith let them into the home.

Since then, police have been plugging away at their investigation with no arrests. Speculation and innuendo have centered on Burnett's estranged wife, Scharmel Bolling, to whom he was married for a little more than two months before he filed for divorce. The police, however, have never said she is a suspect.

Bolling moved out of the couple's home in the exclusive Riverdale Harbour development near the Arkansas River earlier that Sunday. She had lived in the house during the couple's one-month separation.

Before moving out, she hosted a party to celebrate her divorce and circulated invitations laced with bitterness that chronicled the problems in the couple's brief marriage.

In the invitation to the party held by the backyard pool, Bolling -- in a dig at her soon-to-be ex-husband -- noted that the pool was "now cared for by Aloha Pools."

She quoted herself saying, "They do an excellent job!"

Strange but true, Girner says. He notes that his employees were surprised and a bit amused to get a request to service the pool at Johnny Burnett's house.

Odd Events

Girner is a friendly man who talks enthusiastically about his company. He sits in his former competitor's office, reflecting on the odd string of events that have led him to where he is now.

Since moving into Burnett's former location less than a month ago, Girner says he's made some cosmetic changes in the building but is still adjusting to the strangeness of it all.

"It's real odd coming in here," Girner says. "It's a very nice facility, but ... it's pretty odd coming in here."

Girner is surrounded by small reminders of the man against whom he had bid for many customers over the years.

For example, the office has an automatic door-closing device by the desk. Girner says the gadget fit Burnett's style but not his.

"I don't want an automatic door closer," Girner says. "Somebody comes in |and~ you don't want to talk to them, you hit the automatic door closer. That was Johnny's way of doing it.

"My way of doing it -- if there's a problem, I better get out there and fix that problem quick."

Girner says it's ironic he bought Burnett's business. Not only because they were competitors, but because Girner was scouting property near Burnett's spacious, high-visibility location on Interstate 40 near Crystal Hill Road in west Pulaski County when the pool builder was killed.

"I was fixing to move over here and give him a hard time," Girner says. "I had lots in the works when Johnny's unfortunate death occurred, and so that just kind of opened it up for us."

In a lighter vein, he notes, "I haven't been implicated yet."

Girner bought the Burnett business in North Little Rock, along with the spa inventory from the Hot Springs location, for about $250,000 from S.C. "Sonny" Burnett, Johnny Burnett's father and the executor of his estate.

Apparently because Girner had been Burnett's major rival, Sonny Burnett initially seemed reluctant to sell Girner the business.

"The first time I met him, he told me he didn't like me," Girner says. "Second time I met him, he hugged me. Now he hugs me when he sees me."

Girner says four of Burnett's employees have remained with him -- two in Hot Springs and two at the I-40 showplace.

One of the employees who has stayed on is Jim Blanscet, Burnett's general manager and right-hand man since 1985.

"It's weird, sure," Blanscet says. "It's different. It just takes some getting used to."

Blanscet says Burnett's business had been increasingly comprised of spa sales in the last few years, although the slain businessman usually sold 20-25 "do it yourself" pool kits a year.

In its best year, Burnett's company put in about 90 pools, Blanscet estimates.

Aloha Pools and Spas was a worthy competitor, Blanscet acknowledges, but he says his late boss and friend always viewed the competition from Girner as "a healthy one."

"Johnny never was afraid of competition," he says.

Girner's Path

Girner started in the pool business about 12 years ago and worked literally "from the ground up" digging pools as a subcontractor.

The business grew and Girner went from operating out of a truck to running a thriving home-based business and finally opening a west Little Rock location on Kanis Road about five years ago.

Soon after, Girner bought Hot Tub Harry's and combined the new business with Aloha Pools in The Colonnade shopping center on Bowman Road.

For a while, Girner says he had been planning a move to a higher-profile location with room for a large indoor-outdoor showroom. Girner and others in the pool industry say location and visibility alone play a major role in bringing in business.

Johnny Burnett apparently knew that, too.

According to various sources in the pool industry, Burnett's showplace business and plum location made him a force to be reckoned with even if business was down. By appearances alone, Burnett was the most high-profile pool builder in central Arkansas and maybe the state.

Though he's had a lower profile, Girner doesn't shy away from talking about how good his business has been in the past few years. And though he viewed Burnett as the highest volume spa dealer in the state and his No. 1 competitor in the area, Girner says he has more recently had the distinction of putting in the most and the biggest pools.

He says he built 120 pools last year and 85 so far this year, including two that cost about $250,000 each. One of those was the pool at the city's new War Memorial Fitness Center.

By comparison, Girner estimates Burnett was building 30-40 pools a year and selling about 120 spas a year, compared to Girner's 50 in a good year.

Girner says the profit margin on pools is somewhere in the 10-15 percent range.

"It's a very competitive market," he says. "People shop them hard. One of the problems is there are so many pick-up truck pool builders like I started."

The Smart Pool

"Our claim to fame is really our Smart Pool," Girner says.

Ah, the Smart Pool.

Girner waxes effusive talking about the vinyl pool he touts as having a self-cleaning system that takes the hassle out of being a pool owner.

He has the exclusive trademark copyrights to the Smart Pool, which he says customers can't turn down.

"Your low-maintenance, high-quality, long-lasting swimming pools are going to be Smart, vinyl pools," he says.

"How much did it catch on?" Girner asks rhetorically, really warming up now. "Every single one we sold |this year~ was a Smart Pool, if that tells you anything. Was everybody glad to pay the extra amount? Nope. We gave them an option. You can have a standard pool, which our prices beat the other guy's. Our prices are great. Or you can have ..."

He trails off. Then, he comes back with an analogy.

"It's like buying a Chevrolet for 10 thousand bucks like everybody else, or let me offer you a brand new Ferrari for $17,000," he says. "Which would you buy? I'd get the Ferrari for 17."

Girner says he gives a lifetime guarantee with the Smart Pool, which he can't do with the more traditional Gunite pools, which he's discontinued for that reason.

"The Smart Pool is guaranteed -- blanket -- for as long as you own your home, plus a year to the new home owner just because we're cocky," he says.

Girner would like to add a fourth store to the three he now has with the purchase of Burnett's businesses. He says he's looking at a couple of surrounding towns for a possible location.

But, for the most part, he has no immediate plans to do anything much different. Having built 120 pools last year, Girner says he realized that was about the most his company could handle at this point.

"I don't think we're going to be doing a lot of expanding," he says. "What our priority has been in the past and what it is now is going to be maintaining a quality standard.

"If we had several years where we just kind of planed out, that would be one thing, but we haven't had a year. Probably the last four or five years, we've had 20 percent growth every year."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Scott Girner dominates central Arkansas' pool and spa market
Author:Martin, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 12, 1992
Previous Article:The modern-day kingmakers.
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