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Being a Thought Leader in your Indusry: Its easier than you think

When LA Fitness decided to expand in Florida, it found that “all roads lead to Portofino Pools.” So, the fitness club chain approached the Jacksonville-based pool maintenance company about servicing its facilities. Portofino has since gradually taken on dozens of LA Fitness clubs across Florida.

Renowned for its service, Portofino is also known for its prominent owner. Jack Manilla is a thought leader within his industry, serving on influential association boards, elevating training standards, and advising some of the country’s preeminent companies on pool maintenance. “All my life experience is contributing to the industry raising the bar,” Manilla said.

As Manilla and other local business owners can attest, being a thought leader creates brand awareness, credibility, and opportunities that might not otherwise exist–like LA Fitness seeking out Portofino Pools. In another example, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line sent Manilla to the Asia-Pacific for five weeks so that he could train and certify the officers and crews of its ships on disinfection, operation, and maintenance of on-board pools. While at sea, his fourteen ports of call included destinations in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

Manilla had not solicited the opportunity. Rather, Royal Caribbean approached him after researching the pool maintenance industry. They asked if he would join a small, elite team to train its personnel throughout the world. “They said I had a good reputation,” Manilla recalled. Manilla’s reputation emanates largely from his training programs. After becoming a certified aquatic facility operator, he required his employees to do likewise. Then, he eventually became a certified instructor and launched Portofino University to train his technicians and others. He is now a sought-after speaker and instructor, traveling across the country to address pool maintenance. “That’s all I do. I know pools,” Manilla said.

The Florida Swimming Pool Association has even asked Manilla to author an 80-hour training course as part of its push to require servicers of residential pools to be licensed. “They’re really coming to me as the thought leader in the industry for education,” he said. Manilla has assumed increasingly influential industry positions, serving as a member of national, state, and local boards of directors, including for the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, APSP® Career Institute, and Florida Swimming Pool Association.

Local entrepreneur Haim Ariav has had a similar experience in the photography industry. As founder of Glossy Finish, a six-year-old Jacksonville Beach-based youth sports action photography company, Ariav has gradually become more prominent within his industry, since he first spoke at a national conference three years ago. He spoke to members of Sports Photographers Association of America about the lessons he had learned in creating an innovative business model centered on technology, a mobile photo lab, and an efficient sales and delivery process.  The SPAA invited him back to speak the next two years, as well. Then, based upon strong audience feedback, the Professional Photographers of America asked him to speak at one of the industry’s biggest events, its Imaging USA conference in Atlanta, this past January. “There are people out there who respect what we’re doing and appreciate us sharing information about it,” said Ariav, who is also on the SPAA’s steering committee.

Ariav’s reputation as an industry innovator has helped Glossy Finish land contracts to shoot photographs at some of the most prestigious youth sporting events, and enabled the company to gain experience working with the largest organizers of such competitions. “It helps us open doors and close opportunities,” Ariav said.

Jacksonville-based Seal Shield, LLC has leveraged the reputation that it established as a leading manufacturer of dishwasher-safe keyboards by expanding into other electronics, such as remote controls and smartphones. “People recognize that our mission is infection prevention,” CEO Bradley Whitchurch said. “Our technology makes a difference.”

Whitchurch credits the company’s position as an industry leader partially to lessons that he learned through his involvement in peer-to-peer mentoring groups such as Vistage International. “When you start a company, you have entrepreneurial spirit to go along, but you reach a place where you benefit from having best practices,” Whitchurch said. “As an entrepreneur, those solutions might not be immediately visible to you.”

Whitchurch recommends that entrepreneurs and aspiring thought leaders plug into peer groups so they can obtain more information from outside their companies. “You don’t have to come up with this stuff alone. You can stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.

Brad Hams, founder and president of Ownership Thinking, an international consulting and training firm, recently invited Whitchurch to join a peer group comprised largely of CEOs from Fortune 1000 companies; or, perhaps viewed another way, a preeminent group of thought leaders. “The more outside information you can get, the more you can implement, and the more successful you are,” Whitechurch noted.

 

From Working Class to First Class

Born to a working-class family in a blue-collar steel town in Western Pennsylvania, Jack Manilla has thrived in a white-collar world; but not without getting some dirt and grease under his fingernails.

Told by a high school guidance counselor that he was destined to work in the mill because he was “not college material,” Manilla, instead, spent decades climbing the corporate ladder, leading high-performing sales teams and turning around divisions and companies. The reputation for first class service that Jacksonville-based Portofino Pools enjoys today flows largely from Manilla’s ability to combine his engineering acumen, management experience, and corporate training, with his willingness to do the dirty work that has to be done.

Manilla did not have any experience in building or servicing pools when he bought Al Jackson Pools, seventeen years ago. So, he dove in headfirst. With a single employee, a group of subcontractors, and his wife keeping the books, Manilla set about building pools just like Jackson had been doing since 1956. Two years later, an idea for an alternative business model hit him like a splash of cold water in the face.

In reviewing his financials, he was struck by how relatively little cash was left after building a pool for four to six months. He determined that he would fare better and get paid quicker for doing repairs and maintenance, like remodeling and resurfacing. He also noticed that while there were many pool contractors and builders listed in the Yellow Pages, only a handful of service companies were listed. According to Manilla, the pool cleaners were the lowest of the low in the industry’s view.

But soon, Manilla started knocking on doors, asking homeowners to allow him to service and maintain their pools. Trained as an engineer, he serviced the pools himself until he had 40 homes on a route. At that point, he would hire a technician, train the technician to work the route, and then Manilla would start knocking on doors again.

Portofino’s reputation for servicing residential pools eventually created commercial opportunities. About twelve years ago, the company started maintaining the “world-class pool water” at The Bolles School, and it continues to do so every day. Portofino now services the “crown jewels of northeast Florida pools,” Manilla said, including those at Jacksonville Country Day School, the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, and The Lodge & Club in Ponte Vedra Beach. Portofino also remodeled one of the oldest pools in Florida, at Flagler College.

Portofino’s motto is “We do the work. You enjoy the water.” For a blue-collar worker, Manilla has created substantial enjoyment.

 

Fighting the Good Fight

Right place. Right time. Wrong product.

Such were the origins of Seal Shield, LLC.

In 2005, a study by University of Arizona Professor Charles Gerba found that there were up to 400 times more bacteria on a computer keyboard than a toilet seat. This research generated strong demand for a washable keyboard that Bradley Whitchurch was selling for a manufacturer from the United Kingdom. “My phone started exploding with calls from hospitals that wanted this keyboard,” he said.

Unfortunately, the product did not work effectively, so its potential went largely unrealized. However, convinced by the demand, Whitchurch went on to create Jacksonville-based Seal Shield in 2006. When Seal Shield launched the first dishwasher-safe keyboard and mouse in 2007, it proved so popular among hospitals that the company expanded its line of waterproof electronics to include TV remotes, cell phones, and other advanced washable antimicrobial solutions.

“When we came out with the waterproof keyboard, we had to evangelize it,” said Whitchurch, CEO of Seal Shield. “Now, just about everyone is using it in some capacity.” A shift in hospitals’ approach to infection control has helped. In the US, 1 out of 20 hospital patients incurs an infection. At an average treatment cost of $57,000, hospitals have sought alternative infection prevention solutions, according to Seal Shield. At one time, hand-hygiene stations were the popular form of sanitation used, but hospitals have also come to address the threats of environmental contamination, such as bacteria-ridden keyboards. Seal Shield has expanded its products, as hospitals have sought new ways to prevent infections. “Anywhere there are hard-to-wash electronics that are exposed to contamination, we’re going to make a solution,” Whitchurch promised.

Right place. Right time. Right product.

 

Imitated But Never Duplicated

Not only is Haim Ariav a thought leader, he’s also a “disruptive thinker.” Increasingly associated with innovators, the latter term suits Ariav, if it applies to anyone. “People see we’ve definitely put the industry on its head,” he said. A pioneer in youth sports action photography, Ariav’s Jacksonville Beach-based Glossy Finish has introduced such concepts as the mobile photo lab and an application that allows customers to view and order pictures from their smartphones and tablets. Glossy Finish also quickly prints photos, posters, and similar memorabilia so that customers leave the fields with their order in hand.

“It’s more than printing on site. There’s a whole model around it,” Ariav said. For example, customers must place a deposit if they want a photographer to shoot pictures of their young athlete. This allows Ariav’s photographers to get the best shots possible and helps the company maintain an above average sales price. “I see others trying to replicate us, but there is a cost to entry,” Ariav said. “There is also a lot of process that money can’t buy.”

Glossy Finish has worked more than 350 events since Ariav launched it six years ago. He and his team have learned much from working some of the country’s biggest youth sporting events in that time, including regional tournaments and national championships. They have honed their methods for such vital tasks as tracking photos and processing orders, while shooting millions of images. Ariav insists, though, that he is just “trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

While Glossy Finish is as close to a market leader as any company in the highly fragmented youth sports action photography industry, it faces fierce competition from “weekend warriors.” No longer content with just team photos and posed portraits of their young athletes, parents armed with smartphones and digital cameras often shoot the action themselves, instead of hiring photographers. “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we can do to be different and unique,” Ariav said.

That’s a common trait for thought leaders and disruptive thinkers alike.

 

By Jim Molis

Jim is an contributing writer for Advantage Business Magazine. He can be contacted at jmolis@creatwoodpr.com

 


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