It started with a glance through the classified ads in 1962 and has evolved into one of the most successful businesses in the Rochester area. Pettis Pools & Patio was founded by the late Lawrence '53 and Erma Ornce Pettis '53. The company operated out of the couple's garage for the first few years but is now anchored in two locations with as many as 75 employees during the busy summer months. It's also the impetus for The Pettis Pools Entrepreneurship Award, which was created in memory of Larry and Erma and will be presented annually to a Brockport student beginning in 2013-14.
Despite the passing of Larry in 2003 and Erma in 2012, family still runs deep within Pettis Pools. Two of their three children are vice presidents, including Julie Pettis. She has memories of her mother putting her in a swing while she was waiting on customers in the garage in the early days of the company and refers to the store as her babysitter.
"Usually when people ask me how long I've been in the business, I say 'since the womb' because literally I was born into it," says Julie.
Larry and Erma met while students at The College at Brockport and married in 1952. The relationships they built while at the College remained strong for decades, creating a close-knit group of friends.
"When my mom was planning the 50th reunion, she was just so happy," Julie recalls. "She lit up to do those things. She worked on newsletters and raised funds. She often remarked those were some of the best years of her life. And of course she met my dad (at Brockport), and that started everything."
Both went on to teach after receiving their Brockport degrees. As the family grew, Erma took on the role of full-time mother. However, both Erma and Larry were always working hard and looking for additional ways to earn money - especially during the summer months when he wasn't teaching. Infused with an entrepreneurial spirit, they were looking through the newspaper one Sunday morning for opportunities when they came across an ad seeking a local distributor for a line of in-ground swimming pools. Something about that ad spoke to Larry, and even though they had to borrow money to buy into that distributorship, Pettis Pools was born.
Julie says many, including her mother, thought the idea of getting into the in-ground pool business in Rochester in the early '60s was crazy. At the time, it was thought such a luxury was reserved primarily for the wealthy.
"They really believed in themselves and their strength as a team that they could do it," she says.
It didn't take long for Pettis Pools to take off and outgrow the founders' garage. The first store opened in Hilton. After graduating from St. John Fisher College in the late '80s, Julie oversaw the opening of the company's second location in East Rochester. She looks back with great fondness on what her mother and father built and how it thrives today.
"My parents were very modest and humble people. They were never ones to call attention to themselves," she says. "Losing your parents, it changes you. Not that we're a huge company, but 51 years in business from a mom and pop store that started in their garage? I was really proud of that, and I wanted to do something to honor them. That's how the award came about."
The structure of the endowed award involves a student or group of students making a proposal to start a new business and ultimately having the opportunity to "make their pitch" to a selection committee. The recipient will be able to use the award to put the proposal in action.
"I didn't know what it should look like or what I wanted to do, but I felt this needed to do something to honor my parents' memory and the type of people they were and I wanted it to be centered around Brockport because everything started there," says Julie.
One can't help but notice the similarity between the way Pettis Pools began and the structure of the award that now bears its name. It's easy to imagine a young Larry Pettis pitching his proposal for an in-ground pool dealership in an effort to obtain funding to get the company off its feet.
While the Pettis name has remained a constant in the business since its inception, so has the College of Brockport within the family. Julie notes that her niece will be a senior in 2013-14.
"My mom absolutely felt that Brockport was instrumental in building her life and what her life became. If she had not gone to Brockport, who knows what would have happened."
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