Nevadan at Work: With heart and his own hands, pool builder prospers

Joe Vassallo Sr. held one end of a tape measure and extended the tool to measure a backyard. His son, Joe Jr., stood adjacent to him, grasping the other end.

In the beginning, this is how Vassallo ran Paragon Pools and built his business -- by completing the work himself, with his son's help. Since the recession, this is how he's surviving.

As he's celebrating the 10th anniversary of his company, Vassallo is adjusting his longtime business model to better reach more customers. Besides completing the new residential pool designs that previously made up the core of his business, Paragon has expanded to include commercial pools, renovations and repairs in his product mix.

"You have to go where the market is," Vassallo said.

At its peak, Paragon was building about 150 custom pools annually from the ground up. Today, the company averages about 30 new pool build-outs each year.

Since 1988 when he was hired as a designer for Tango Pools, Vassallo has shown a knack for the craft. He landed the job when he decided to have a pool built in his own backyard.

"When the designer came out to design my new pool, I started saying, 'No, you really should do this, you really should do that.' I pretty much moved him out of his drafting-table chair and sat in it myself," Vassallo said.

A short time later, Vassallo began his 10-year career for Tango Pools, where he worked his way up to director of sales and marketing. While there, he once held the company record for selling 100 pools in one month.

From Tango, Vassallo went to Paddock Pools, where he was hired as general manager. He felt as if he wasn't being paid properly for the responsibilities he was expected to carry out.

"I realized I was doing all the work an owner would do and really not being compensated to the point that I felt I probably should be," Vassallo said.

So, in 2001, he left to open Paragon Pools. Ten years later, the company is surviving despite hard times.

At its peak, Paragon employed 12 people, most of whom were friends and family. The average pool contract was $50,000. Today, Vassallo and his son are two of three employees, and the average contract is $30,000.

To reduce expenses, father and son are back to holding the tape measure for each other. Vassallo estimated that he lost about 75 percent of his business because of the economic downturn.

"When this happened and I realized that I'm now the guy, I come to work in my pickup truck rather than my Lexus," Vassallo said. "I'm the guy that has to crawl down into the hole and check it and measure it. At 64 years of age, that thought was almost horrifying to me. Once I started doing it, the enjoyment and fun and all the things I liked about it when I first started, came back."

Question: What is your life like now?

Answer: Now, finally, I'd say we're in a better place. Businesswise we're OK, we're making money. Our lifestyle has changed for sure. It's kind of like the calm after the storm.

Question: What was it like for you when you had to lay off your staff?

Answer: It was a very, very tough thing, to make those decisions. Most of the people who worked for me were friends and family. So you tend to try to be more optimistic that things are going to turn around for the better. When that doesn't happen, and you have to let some people go, it's terrible. There isn't anybody in my industry or any related industry who doesn't have the same story. I started to make more decisions with the heart than hard-core business decisions. In the long run it took its toll on me. I probably could have been in a better financial position than I'm in now.

Question: Being that architecture was your passion growing up, what was it like for you when you were able to focus on it?

Answer: There's no better feeling in life when it comes to, you know, your occupation and making a living, and doing it the way you want to do it and living the dream, so to speak.

Question: What sticks out to you now from the early days of your pool-design career?

Answer: I once had a woman and her husband who moved here from Lake Tahoe because of business. The wife didn't really want to move away. She wanted her backyard to look and remind her of Lake Tahoe. I took a copy of a map of Lake Tahoe and designed the shape of her pool to resemble the shape of Lake Tahoe and I put the spa in the same spot as Emerald Bay would be. In the landscaping we included pine trees and plants that would come from the north.

Question: What are your thoughts 10 years after opening Paragon Pools?

Answer: My very first pool that I sold was this tiny, kidney-shaped pool. I got such a kick out of seeing it come to fruition. That never stops. Many a day I look at my office and say, "Look how far we've come."

Question: You mentioned your favorite poem is "If" by Rudyard Kipling. Why?

Answer: I used to carry a 2-inch by 3-inch piece of paper folded up, of that poem. I used to carry it in my wallet for years and years until it literally disintegrated. I think there's a lot to be said in that poem. It's kind of a rule book for life in those few verses of that poem.

Question: What has been the most memorable project for you?

Answer: My first gold medal award was a pool in Queensridge. That was the biggest pool we had done to date. It was on two levels, had a waterfall, a diving board and a slide. It had an infinity edge on both sides. It was very, very cool.

Question: What was your most original design?

Answer: We've been credited with creating the use of fire in residential pools. I made a combination of water and fire in one device, and we called it the WetFlame. I've gotten calls about it, one from a guy in London, wanting to know how I did that. I couldn't patent it, because I used parts from other people's products.

Question: What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment in the last 10 years?

Answer: For a little company in a little place like Las Vegas, I sit on the board of directors for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals. I represent all the builders in our organization on the board of directors, which is probably about 3,000 people.

Contact reporter Laura Emerson at or 380-4588.