TRAVERSE CITY — In the age-old question of what came first, employment preceded the enterprise at Sentry Covers.
When Tom Straub took the position of vice president of sales at TentCraft, it didn’t take him long to realize his previous employment at Latham Pool Products would follow him from upstate New York to northern Michigan.
It was during his initial walk through the shop floor with TentCraft President/CEO Matt Bulloch 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 recalls 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 TentCraft had the equipment, capacity and trained personnel to join the industry.
The manufacturer of custom tents and structures for events was also able to bring something else to the equation.
“They also had something else that the rest of the industry didn’t: The ability to print,” Straub said.
After researching and experimenting with a prototype for a year and a half, Craft Holdings formed an LLC for Sentry Covers about a year ago. The company launched just more than a month ago and a website is expected to go live later this month.
Sentry Covers sold five custom pool cover systems in the last month, Straub said. One of those was a pool cover system with an American flag on it for a client in Utah, sold through Pacific Pool Covers in San Jose, California.
“I’m really excited,” Bulloch said of the diversification. “It’s different from the tent business.”
“We’re running this year out pretty strong,” said Straub, who said Sentry is on track to sell 300 systems between now and the end of the year.
Straub said TentCraft has the vinyl to manufacture the pool covers for Sentry. “One of the biggest challenges is being able to source the raw materials — the aluminum and the stainless steel,” he added.
TentCraft added a “pool laboratory” to work and test its pool-cover system. The company is also about to sign a lease for a 20,000-square-foot facility at 1732 Barlow Road for storage and manufacturing. Founded in 2007, TentCraft operates a 66,000-square-foot facility at 2662 Cass Road.
“I think this will be a real nice complement to the tent and outdoor advertising business,” said Bulloch, citing working with a value-added reseller compared to the current direct-to-consumer approach. “We’ll be able to build those systems for custom orders as they come in.”
Sentry — named to reflect Bulloch’s status as a veteran as well as the connotation of standing watch or guarding a pool — will be filling those orders at a time when the event business wanes. Bulloch said November through January is often a slow time in the event industry, which is still recovering from the pandemic, but busy for the much larger pool industry.
Straub said there is also a “two-year backlog” for pool installation. So TentCraft may be able to sell installers a tent for the process.
“Sometimes when you want to do something, providence opens in ways that you hadn’t realized,” Bulloch said.
Sentry Covers will also need to hire more employees. TentCraft currently operates with about 80 employees, growing to about 95 in the summer with high school and college students, Bulloch said. Straub said Sentry Covers currently has an engineer, administrative staff and four production workers dedicated to it.
“There will be as many as 8-10 at the end of this season with the expectation, assuming we can secure raw materials from the source, ultimately by year end you’ll end up with 20 to 25,” he said.
An average automatic pool-cover system comes at a cost of $13,000 to $14,000, according to Straub. A custom-printed version will run $15,500 to $16,000, he added.
But he added an automatic system will also deliver increased safety and cleanliness, and extend the pool system.
“It pays for itself in about three to four years,” Straub said, citing decreased use of chemicals and maintenance.
Increased safety is the biggest factor in the industry. Straub said Sentry Covers meet the American National Standards Institute regulations for safety, being able to hold two adults and one child on the cover over a pool. He said he’s had his family of six standing on a cover.
“It’s a product that you can put on a pool and makes it so you cannot get into it,” Straub said. “It’s like an automatic garage door.”
Some states do not require fencing around an inground pool with an automatic system, which is also a major cost savings. Poolside Inc. in Traverse City confirmed Michigan — with proper approval and certain stipulations — is one of those states.
Straub said an automatic pool-cover system like Sentry can also extend seasons by 30 days in the spring and fall, important for northern states.
With about 5 million inground pools in the United States, according to a release, there are plenty of opportunities for Sentry.
“(The industry) is growing at a rate of about 15 — and in some parts of the country — 30 percent a year,” Straub said.
In addition to custom printed covers, Bulloch and Straub said Sentry also brings other aspects to the industry.
Bulloch said Sentry Covers features an alignment kit for the metal components, allowing the company to ship 8-foot components. Straub said some freight companies won’t ship the traditional 22- to 24-foot components, plus the shorter lengths require only one installer on-site instead of two.
Bulloch added Sentry also features universal connectors as well as a motor to open and close the cover that can be installed on site on either the left or right side.
“As a new entry to the market, those are three kind of splashy, unique things where we can be postured as the new upstart,” Bulloch said.