PICTURE TAKEN APRIL 24, 2019
Remembering Gene Wells (1940-2019)
Pool industry pioneer and award-winning builder, Gene Wells, passed away on the morning of July 17th after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 79.
I heard the news the following morning and in the days since I’ve taken time to reflect on Gene’s legacy and the impact he had on me both professionally and personally. I was a little shocked when I realized I knew him for almost 50 years. The following is the product of those hours of grieving and remembering the decades of experiences and friendship we shared.
Gene was founder of Aquarius Pools, a trailblazing Northern California builder and multi-year winner of numerous design awards. He was a prominent industry figure and a highly competitive, innovative and successful businessman. My personal memories of Gene start all the way back in the early 1970s via the pages of an industry trade magazine, about six years before I would meet him in person.
Back then the most successful automatic pool cleaner was the iconic Arneson Pool Sweep, which had gained widespread market acceptance and traction as a viable, revolutionary new product that eliminated countless hours of manual pool cleaning drudgery. A start-up pool construction company in Sacramento, Aquarius Pools and its forward-thinking founder named Gene Wells, had already embraced the new technology and was including the Arneson Pool Sweep in their pools. Pool Sweep founder and industry pioneer, Howard Arneson had recognized what Gene was doing and seized him as a testimonial pool builder “face” for his revolutionary product.
Arneson started featuring Gene as a pitchman in Pool & Spa News and other magazine advertising, turning Gene into something of an industry celebrity. I was still in my teenage years working for my dad’s company, Larry Gelhaus Pool Supply, a retail store in Lafayette, Calif. when one of those ads caught my attention. For some reason, Gene’s image really stuck in mind. Even in those staged photos he projected confidence and charisma. Little did I know back then that a few years later I would end up moving to Sacramento and eventually meeting “that handsome face.”
Over time I would forge a relationship with Gene, a friendship that has lasted through the rest of my career in the industry.
Gene was very much a visionary and a dreamer. He could visualize something and then articulate his thoughts into a design. He eagerly tried new ideas and concepts. Like all creative people, some of his ideas failed at times, but he was adept at learning from failure to make an even better product or pool from the lessons learned. Gene’s big personality translated into every thing he tried and he always expected a very positive outcome. He hired and trained hundreds of employees, many who became master technicians within his company, and others who went on from Aquarius Pools and started their own companies.
Gene wasn’t always the easiest guy to work for because he had such high expectations for quality, a professional standard that translated into everything he did. He was a tough to “sell” and extremely loyal to those who delivered what he called “value add” in a business relationship. I know this first hand because I tried selling him products as a distributor, but the distributor he aligned with in the 1970s had a very tight business relationship bringing value to Aquarius Pools. I admired his loyalty and never gave up trying to prove myself to him, and ultimately provide enhanced value as a distributor for Gene and his outstanding company.
Our relationship also grew through our involvement with the Sacramento Chapter of NSPI. I had to earn my stripes with Gene, gaining his trust. We shared the common goal of improving the pool industry with a more professional image and consumer outreach. Gene also became deeply involved with NSPI’s national organization and helped the early development of NSPI’s Construction Standards. He worked on several standards committees in the 1980s and his name was eventually published as an advisory board member in many of the early NSPI Certified Standards Manuals in the 1990s.
He did groundbreaking work as an early advocate for safer pool and spa pump suction side plumbing design; long before entrapment deaths became a public safety concern. Way back in the 1970s, Aquarius Pools was on the forefront of pool and spa combination design and became an innovator incorporating attached spas in a majority of the company’s projects. Gene was always problem solving and wanted to eliminate entrapment risks associated with early plumbing configurations. His team at Aquarius started splitting main drains and suction points, an innovation that is at the heart of suction entrapment prevention in the 21st Century.
He also worked with Arneson Pool Products on a new combination flush-mounted main-drain leaf trap and safety drain design, which was also far ahead of its time. As fate would have it, Arneson pool cleaners technology lost ground to Polaris Pool Vac, which didn’t require a main drain or leaf trap to gather leaves. As a result, that Arneson main-drain product project fizzled. All these decades later, I find it amazing that main drains and related suction lines have come full circle and returned to those safety design features Gene was part of developing years prior to the era of the Virginia Graeme Baker Act.
On a more personal note, a “Gene experience” that still resonates with me happened when I tried building my very first “owner builder pool” at my first El Dorado Hills home in 1987. The pool site was on a steep grade with difficult sloping. I got in over my head and needed structural engineering for the footings for the multi-level retaining walls. Plus, I was having trouble with a few of my subcontractors. I called Gene and he came to the rescue.
His timing was perfect. It turned out he was working on a concept for sculpting pools after being “turned on” by the Hyatt Regency Pool at Kanapailli Beach on Maui. My project was the perfect canvas for Gene and his master carver “George” to practice techniques; coloring and shaping rockscapes that look like mountain formations with streambeds and waterfalls, cascading into the main pool. It turned out beyond my expectations and boy did I ever learn about pool construction. Seemed like I was always enhancing my knowledge with Gene’s personal hands-on help.
Both Aquarius Pool and my company, General Pool & Spa Supply flourished through the 1990’s. I remember the “bonus trips” both of our companies earned through sales achievements primarily with Polaris and Pac Fab, among others. Those were great events, most of which took place in tropical climates during the winter months. What memories!
I attended many if not all of the international trade shows during this time, as well, where I watched Gene and Aquarius Pools consistently win numerous pool design awards. Gene’s success bringing home the hardware inspired other Sacramento pool builders including Geremia Pools, Quality Pools by Dalpino and others to up their game. That competition had some amazing results and for a long time, Sacramento builders became the envy of builders and designers around the world during the roaring 90s.
After he finally sold Aquarius in the early 2000s, Gene spent the last 20 years of his life filled with travel and other new ventures outside the pool industry. I stayed in touch with him from time to time, randomly running into him at luncheons around the Sacramento area. He was always enthusiastic in those chance encounters, always full of energy, new ventures and ideas.
About six years ago Gene was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I had lost another very good friend during that time and knew the odds of survival beyond a year for Gene was around 10%. During that time, I celebrated and hosted my 60th birthday with Beatles-themed party coordinated by my daughter, Ciara who invited Gene. He was not well but bravely came anyway.
He really had a great time reuniting with many of our mutual friends who were there. He told me that night he was going to beat this cancer and sure enough he put the full Gene Wells energy into his recovery. He succeeded – go figure. In his fight to win the cancer battle he proved to me his love of life and all it had to offer was core to his being and he was defiant to the end, intent on beating all odds. That was Gene being Gene with that sparkle in his eye that was unmistakable.
Despite those long odds, he had five more years of quality of life.
This past January, I learned that Gene’s health was deteriorating as the disease took its severe toll on Gene’s vital organs. In April on a “good day” after several tries to get together I finally met Gene in person for the final time. We talked for about three hours at his beloved Loomis home, where he lived of over 30 plus years. The conversation was all about the illustrious past we shared together. We enjoyed lots of laughs and memories, mostly reminiscing all the battles, wins, loses, and all the exceptional people we encountered, and their fates good and bad.
That last day I brought Gene two pool books, knowing he was an avid reader. Even though he was physically nearly immobile, his mind was fresh and full of hope. Still I think we both knew his battle would have an ending that wasn’t far away. We didn’t dwell on any of that, instead we just kept the energy and talk positive. I then told him about another book I had read that chronicled the years we went through in the pool business and all the innovations that was part of our journey.
The book is called the Father’s of Invention by Andrew Pansani III. It’s about a family of inventors as told by the former CEO of Jandy Industries. The book chronicles the early days of the pool industry and how the original Pansini family businesses, in which the author’s grandfather established the world’s first paid parking lot back in 1918, and how that later set the stage for Andrew Pansini Jr.’s move into the industry and the invention of the first automatic pool cleaner – with the help of Howard Arneson, who had featured Gene in those ads all those years prior.
I told Gene it was a must read with many parallels to our conversation that day. Many of our past acquaintances were interviewed or referenced in Andrew’s book and the story of Pansini family seemed to bring many of our shared experiences full circle. I sent Gene a copy and talked with him a few days later and exchanged a text messages to follow up with our kibitzing. That was the last time I communicated with him. In many ways, Gene was also a “father of invention.”
The passing of Gene Wells is a loss to all of us, but in Gene’s new afterlife I can only imagine that party going on right now.
Gene was single at the time of his death. He is survived by his daughter Aleta and son Rex, his brothers, Tom and Rex, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
To all the good times and great motivation Gene passed on to me I am forever grateful that fate brought us together in my life’s journey. Farewell but not ever forgotten, ever, my friend, Gene Wells!
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