TRAVERSE CITY – In the age-old question of what comes first, employment precedes the Sentry Covers business.
When Tom Straub took over as vice president of sales at TentCraft, it didn’t take him long to realize that his previous job at Latham Pool Products would follow him from upstate New York to upstate Michigan.
It was during his initial tour of the store with TentCraft President / CEO Matt Bullock when Straub turned to his new boss and came up with a new business venture under Craft Holdings.
“You’re in the tent business, but you’re sitting on a gold mine,” Straub recalled, telling Bulloch in early 2020.
Straub joined TentCraft after working at Latham, one of the leaders in the $ 180 million automatic pool cover industry. Straub quickly saw that TentCraft had the equipment, capacity, and trained staff to join the industry.
The manufacturer of custom tents and event constructions also managed to add something else to the equation.
“They also had something else that the rest of the industry didn’t have: the ability to print,” Straub said.
After researching and experimenting with a prototype for a year and a half, Craft Holdings formed LLC for Sentry Covers about a year ago. The company launched more than a month ago and the website is expected to launch later this month.
Sentry Covers has sold five custom pool cover systems in the past month, Straub said. One was a system for covering pools with an American flag on it for a client in Utah, sold through Pacific Pool Covers in San Jose, California.
“I’m really excited,” Bullock said of the diversification. “It’s different from the tent business.”
“We’re working pretty hard this year,” said Straub, who said Sentry was set to sell 300 systems from now until the end of the year.
Straub said TentCraft has vinyl to make pool covers for Sentry. “One of the biggest challenges is the ability to supply raw materials – aluminum and stainless steel,” he added.
TentCraft has added a “pool lab” to operate and test its pool cover system. The company is also about to sign a lease for a 20,000-square-foot facility on 1732 Barlow Road for storage and production. Founded in 2007, TentCraft operates a 66,000-square-foot facility on 2,662 Cass Road.
“I think this will be a really nice addition to the tent and outdoor advertising business,” Bulloch said, citing working with a value-added trader compared to the current approach directly to consumers. “We will be able to build these custom order systems when they arrive.”
Sentry – named to reflect Bulloch’s status as a veteran, as well as the connotation of guarding or guarding a swimming pool – will carry out these orders at a time when the event business is shrinking. Bulloch said November to January is often a slow time in the event industry, which is still recovering from the pandemic but is busy for the much larger pool industry.
Straub said there was also a “two-year delay” in installing the pool. So TentCraft may be able to sell tent installers for the process.
“Sometimes when you want to do something, providence opens up in ways you didn’t realize,” Bouloch said.
Sentry Covers will also need to hire more staff. TentCraft currently works with about 80 employees, growing to about 95 in the summer with students, Bulloch said. Straub said Sentry Covers currently has an engineer, administrative staff and four production workers dedicated to it.
“There will be up to 8-10 at the end of this season with the expectation that if we assume that we can provide raw materials from the source, in the end by the end of the year you will be 20 to 25,” he said.
The average automatic pool cover system costs between $ 13,000 and $ 14,000, according to Straub. A custom printed version will cost between $ 15,500 and $ 16,000, he added.
But he added that the automatic system would also provide increased safety and cleanliness and expand the pool system.
“It pays off in about three to four years,” Straub said, citing reduced chemical use and maintenance.
Increased safety is the biggest factor in the industry. Straub said the covers for Sentry meet US National Safety Standards Institute regulations and can keep two adults and one child on the cover over the pool. He said his family of six was on the cover.
“It’s a product you can put on a pool and it makes it so you can’t get in,” Straub said. “It’s like an automatic garage door.”
Some states do not require fencing around an indoor pool with an automatic system, which is also a significant cost savings. Poolside Inc. in Traverse City confirmed that Michigan – with proper approval and certain conditions – is one of those states.
Straub said an automatic pool cover system like the Sentry could also extend the seasons by 30 days in the spring and fall, which is important for the northern states.
With about 5 million land pools in the United States, there are reportedly many opportunities for Sentry.
“(The industry) is growing at a rate of about 15 percent – and in some parts of the country – by 30 percent a year,” Straub said.
In addition to custom printed covers, Bulloch and Straub said Sentry has other aspects of the industry.
Bulloch said Sentry Covers has a metal component alignment kit that allows the company to supply 8-foot components. Straub said some trucking companies would not ship traditional 22- to 24-foot components, plus shorter lengths require only one installer on site instead of two.
Bulloch added Sentry also has universal connectors, as well as a motor for opening and closing the lid, which can be mounted on the left or right side.
“As a new entrant, these are three kinds of scattered, unique things that we can present as a fresh start,” Bulloch said.