“My parents had instilled a work ethic. Working 70 or 80 hours a week was normal in my mind.”

Manuel Perez de la Mesa, president, director, and CEO of Louisiana-based Pool Corporation, is old-fashioned—there are no big secrets to his success. He’s learned that hard work, long hours, and pure drive alone can get you somewhere in this country. Of course, a good example, like the one set by parents, and a solid education don’t hurt either. Heading the largest wholesale distributor of swimming-pool supplies in the world, with $1.8 billion in last year’s sales, Perez de la Mesa shares with HE how the simple ethic of hard work instilled by his parents have paved the way to prosperity.

"As president and CEO of Pool Corporation for 13 years now, I’m available to everybody from eight to five. And then before eight or after five is when I do the rest of my job."—Manuel Perez de la Mesa

My parents started with nothing in this country and began to work progressively to build a life for themselves. They were among those who sought asylum in the United States after the revolution in Cuba. I was four years old. Fortunately, my mother was bilingual, so therefore was able to get employed quickly. My father started working in automobile sales, and then both of them moved into selling real estate in the 1960s and did that for the better part of 40 years. They retired several years ago when they were well into their 70s. It was the national story of hard work and of the tremendous opportunities that are available to everyone—whether you’re black, green, blue, white, whatever—in this great country.

I was really cognizant of the sacrifices they had made, so right when I finished high school I started working full time—I didn’t want to be a drag on my parents any longer. I basically earned my bachelor degree in business administration in three years, in night classes. My kids say that’s impossible. But, you go to class from 6 to 10 [p.m.] Monday through Friday; you get home at 10:30; you eat; you study until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning; you get up at 7; and you go to work at 8. It’s not a big deal. My parents had instilled a work ethic. Working 70 or 80 hours a week was normal in my mind.

As president and CEO of Pool Corporation for 13 years now, I’m available to everybody from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. And then before 8 or after 5 is when I do the rest of my job. Being available means I’m meeting with the management team, employees, customers, and suppliers to understand them and their needs better, and also trying to see what opportunities there are to grow. I essentially travel 45 to 47 weeks a year. This week, for example, I started the week on Sunday in Chicago, then I was in Louisiana, then I was in Texas. It’s just par for the course.

When I joined the company, we invested in people. We instilled a management-development program with extensive training, something that had not been done in this industry at all, and then complemented that with a program where we recruit kids out of college every year and put them through an eight-month training program to enable them to move to professional-level positions within the company.

Another major agenda item is technology—online, phones, business-to-business, business technology, as well as having system stability and recovery programs in place. Back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and our headquarters were about an hour north of New Orleans, Louisiana essentially shut down. But, we kept operating at 100 percent; we didn’t miss a beat.

You are always learning. You learn from your people that work in the business. You reach out to your employees in every area to try to understand what their challenges are. You do that with your customers, putting yourself in their shoes to understand what they need to succeed in their businesses. You sit down with suppliers and understand their needs. You’re constantly striving to understand everyone and then, from there, figure out a solution that makes things better.

I monitor things in terms of progress. We can always be better. Our objective is to continue to get better every year in every facet of our business. I try to be an example of learning every day, trying to get better and be more effective in everything I do every day. I think that spirit and culture exists throughout the company.