POOLCORP's Sr Director of Human Resources Luther Willems discusses the company's response to the COVID-19 crisis

ASK THE MASTERS: Here on Ask the Masters and the Pool Pro podcast, we have a very important person. This is kind of a different update than we’ve had… We've got Luther Willems from POOLCORP with us today. And Luther, thank you so much for joining us. We are basically just trying to gather the information. Can you just introduce yourself and tell us what you do over at POOLCORP?

LUTHER WILLEMS: First, thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to speak a little bit about this. It’s definitely an unprecedented situation for all of us. I think the more information we can share, the better. I'm responsible for human resources at POOLCORP globally, so right now, that has to do primarily with the COVID-19 situation and adopting policies and procedures to help folks stay safe.

ASK THE MASTERS: We’re excited to speak with you because we haven't had anybody from HR on yet. So, I'll have some other questions for you maybe towards the end of this. But first and foremost, we’ve been talking about how we're allowed to stay open, the different regions across the country, who's allowing us to stay open, what the different states are saying. It's one thing to stay open, but if we can't get materials, that's another thing entirely. So, can you talk to us about where POOLCORP is as far as being able to support the industry and where you guys stand as far as distribution?

LUTHER WILLEMS: The good news is that in our interpretation, we qualify under the exemption for essential businesses, because we're providing chemicals on the pool side that are essential for preventing continued public health issues related to untreated water. And on the landscaping/Horizon side of the business, we're dealing with some essential services in terms of fire prevention, flood, and runoff, and some other related issues, too. So, we are still open, and we have had no issues or challenges in that regard.

ASK THE MASTERS: Are you getting any pushback in any of your local municipalities as far as being pressured to shut down?

LUTHER WILLEMS: There have been a few questions from local enforcement officials, whether it's police or other kind of local legislation, that just don't understand what the pool industry involves. I think that they may be thinking that we're only selling floating pool toys or something, and that's the extent of it, and they're not thinking through the potential health consequences. Once that is explained and we have those conversations in response to an inquiry, then we haven't had an issue.

ASK THE MASTERS: OK, wonderful. Yeah, it's good to know. Different companies have different structures, and I wrote a blog about that this morning on Facebook. Actually, I want to come back to that. One of the things that my local branch manager out here put out this morning, which I thought was a brilliant post, was talking about POOL360 and how he was encouraging everybody in Southern California here to start utilizing POOL360 to allow your teams to be able to do more social distancing and have the orders ready when they get there. So, I hadn't thought that through, but that sounds like a great idea and a great thing that you guys offer.

LUTHER WILLEMS: Yeah, actually, you just hit on probably one of the most important things that we can do to help protect both our customers coming in, as well as our staff in the branch, because you're right – you can put that order in online. It'll go through. We will pull it, write a ticket, and get it ready for you. And we can even have it ready outside waiting right at the curb for you when you get there. So there doesn't have to be any person to person contact, so we can demonstrate to officials, and to our employees, that we're taking the steps we need to in order to stay safe.

ASK THE MASTERS: Luther, are you anticipating any issues with liquid bleach or the perishables? We know that there's a large demand on items like bleach, because it's a disinfectant, and utilizing it in the home.

LUTHER WILLEMS: That's a great question, and I'll give you a bit of an answer (but need to defer to folks smarter than I am as a humble HR guy here to answer some of that). I do know that our supply chains to date have no disruption. So we are able to carry and supply the product that we need across the country. We've even had municipalities and other people reaching out to us to ask if we have bleach available. And we had zero issues for either existing customers or those new municipalities reaching out.

ASK THE MASTERS: Awesome. That's great to hear. One of the reasons why I was excited to talk to you in HR is we just want to talk a little bit as far as the lockdown and that, there's not a whole lot more lower that we can go in many places in the country, especially here in California, and through the Northeast. I want to kind of shift the conversation a little bit and start talking about the people – the impacts to our employees and really, the hardship that this is placing on some of them. And so I would love to get an HR perspective on this, because I've heard the gamut from different people saying they're ticked off that certain employees don't want to come to work, and then the other end of the spectrum is that they're mad at bosses for being open. So can you talk to that from an HR perspective?

LUTHER WILLEMS: Yes, definitely. And that, of course, is my number one concern – making sure that we're taking care of our people. And quite honestly, keeping the business open so that we can continue to be successful in hiring people, and providing jobs, and employment opportunities for thousands of folks across the country and the world, actually. So right now, it is absolutely a scary time. We have taken a few steps within the last couple of weeks to help improve safety related to COVID-19 in every single branch. That includes really enforcing some of the social distancing.

In some of our locations, you're going to see taped off areas where we'd like customers to stand. You're going to see reduced numbers of people working in the branches in order to just provide more physical space between people. As you mentioned, we're going to encourage POOL360 quite a bit to try to limit the interaction of people coming in the store. And in our NPT showrooms, we're actually going by appointment only, so that we're taking one person at a time so we're not getting a crowd of people milling around in there, which we normally love, but right now maybe isn't the smartest, right? So we're taking those and many more steps.

On the benefits side, we're also taking care of people with new benefits related to paid sick time and family care leave. If, say, your kids are out of school you don't have backup childcare during the week, what do you do? So we're providing additional paid time for that, as well.

ASK THE MASTERS: Awesome. Yeah, the impact is – I'll even back up a little bit. What I see is a lot of people is trying to minimize the impact that this is having. I'm fortunate that my wife gets to stay home and she does not need to come into work, because I've got a kids that are at home now and potentially going to be home for the rest of the year. And with so many single parents in the workforce, just the ability to modify and to be able to work with our staff is just so important in this time.

LUTHER WILLEMS: I agree 100%. We continue to evolve our practices and our policies as the situation changes. So we try to take a minimally invasive strategy. We want people to be at work and by and large, most of our people want to work. I am not getting flooded with phone calls from people trying to not work. I'm incredibly proud of the people we have. They want to figure out how to make this successful. We're moving forward and we're doing what we need to do to make sure that people can stay safe and keep bringing home a paycheck.

ASK THE MASTERS: Luther Willems, we want to thank you for coming on today and explaining to us what the supply chain looks like and for keeping us full of supplies so that all our trucks can keep going. Distribution is still in full swing. We certainly want to mention pre-ordering through POOL360. Utilize that the best you can. Luther, Thanks so much for the update, and we look forward to talking to you again if we're seeing any glitches out there.

LUTHER WILLEMS: All right, thank you very much for having me. Appreciate it.