Paula and Jack Manilla
Photo courtesy Jack Manilla Paula and Jack Manilla

Sometimes you’re faced with a split decision that can change your life and define who you are.

It was just such a decision that eventually brought Jack Manilla to the pool and spa industry 20 years ago. He was in his mid-50s. He and his wife, Paula, had already raised four adult children who were doing pretty good for themselves. He’d had a career working for Westinghouse, first in elevators and escalators, then in office interiors. “Ultimately I became national sales manager of that business group, and we rose from a nominal $15 million to over $100 million in about four or five years,” said the President/owner of Portofino Pool Services & Outdoor Living in Jacksonville, Fla. “It was rapid growth. [During] those 15 years, I was transferred all over the country,”

After years of this, Manilla began his second career in Tampa, Fla. It also involved office furniture, but rather than being a staffer for a Fortune 500, he was an entrepreneur with a partner.

That chapter became untennable for Manilla when he realized his partner was participating in some fraudulent dealings through their business. Manilla had to choose his path. “After confronting him, I resigned on the spot,” he said.

In the movies, these kinds of decisions tend to come with musical crescendos in the background. Not so in real life. “I ended up losing all wealth accumulation in my life to that point in time …” he said. “Just my ethics and integrity... ”

The next 18 months were some of the hardest Jack and Paula Manilla endured. But this period also helped define them. They lost their three residences. They had to set up a home in a cracker bungalow in an orange grove to live and get some perspective. The Manillas were trying to figure out the next phase of life.

“During that 18 months, I interviewed a number of corporations for senior management roles, none of which came to fruition,” Jack Manilla said.

Turning point

Finally, an old friend of his introduced him to Don Girvan. Now the technical consultant for Haviland Pool and Spa Products, he then owned the Girvan Company, which originated the Proteam Chemical line that Haviland eventually acquired. After meeting Jack and Paula Manilla at his Jacksonville, Fla. Girvan asked the Manillas how they felt about owning a contracting business. Girvan didn’t have any positions available, but he knew that local builder Al Jackson was approaching 80 years old and was struggling to find a suitable person to take over his 40-year-old company.

Upon meeting the Manillas, Jackson asked Paula how she felt about running the office and suggested Jack could lead the sales and construction teams. “I said, ‘That’s all well and good, but we don’t have any money,’” Manilla said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about the money. Let’s see if you’re the right fit first.’”

It turned out to be a good fit, so Jackson and the Manillas worked out an agreement: The Manillas would take out a loan on the company’s assets, then signed that over to Jackson as a down payment. Then, for the next 10 years, the Manillas would make one payment a month for 10 years.

“So with no money down, broken, penniless, we became owners of Al Jackson Pools,” Manilla says.

“It was providential.”

Manilla renamed the company Portofino Pools. This year marks the 20th anniversary since that arrangement was set — and 60 years since the original Al Jackson Pools opened its doors.

Before long, Manilla also changed the company’s emphasis. Al Jackson Pools had been a construction firm, but Manilla kept getting calls for service and repair. The very first homeowner to call him needed a pump motor replaced. “I went back in the shop, grabbed a bag of tools and went to the supply house, bought a replacement motor and installed it,” he said.

Manilla built pools for a couple years, but the life of a builder consumed so much of his time, running construction during the day and making sales calls at night. On top of that, their were so many other builders in the market, so pricing was too competitive. “Everybody was chewing each other up for the lower price,” he said. “I looked [in the Yellow Pages] under the service section and there was a handful of contractors.”

He shifted gears and became a one-man service company — for the time being. Whenever he landed a new account, he went door to door to sign on other homeowners in the area. As the business grew, he would hire other technicians until he became one of the largest companies of its kind in Florida.

Over time, Manilla realized how much it was costing to pay for his staff to train for certifications, including room and board while they attended courses, so he became a Certified Pool Operator instructor himself, teaching his own crews at his facilities. When word got out, others in the industry asked to attend classes, as did local government officials hoping to better understand pools and spas. Manilla formed Portofino University to meet this need and has been retained as a consultant, traveling to places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Australia and New Zealand. Three years ago, he helped the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Sports to set pool health and safety standards, in addition to training their pool operators. He is set to teach his second class in the island nation — this one an advanced version. He also is helping the island nation establish its pool and spa standards.

By Manilla’s estimate, he has taught a couple thousand professionals since he began 10 years ago. “That’s kind of a personal avocation ... like paying it forward to the industry,” he says.

New Administration

After having served on the APSP board for about eight years, Manilla takes over as APSP chairman Oct. 31.

His lasting impact on the association has already taken hold. This year, as chairman-elect, he played a key role in the expected merger of APSP and the National Swimming Pool Foundation, working with NSPF Board President Scot Hunsaker to choose the consulting firm that will guide the groups through the process.

In his single-year term as chairman, Manilla plans to see the organizations plan the merger. His varied background will help, he said. That includes earning his bachelor of science in industrial marketing and business organization, with a minor in accounting, from Youngstown State University; a masters degree in management from Aquinas College; and the executive program at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Manilla also hopes to lay the ground work for international expansion for APSP.

Whatever he accomplishes down the road, Manilla will looks back at the time in the bungalow and his rebounding as a defining period.

“It was an absolute pit of despair,” Manilla says.

It required some self examination, but ultimately he had his revelation. “What I came to grips with is the basic thing: Material goods, etc., do not bring ultimate happiness,” he said. “I came to grips with that, versus trying to grasp what is life all about. … I have taken on a broader view that I believe in eternity, so my purpose in life in terms of here is short-term, and ultimately I’m looking for that eternal life.”

He’s given talks and is working on a book called The Pink House to share realizations that have stayed with him. “We’re all faced with making a lot of business decisions,” he said. “So ... one of our [business’] core values is stewardship and living a balanced life in terms of work, community service, and family.”