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Jumping into the Deep End of the Pool

jamie-and-kathyJamie and her mom, Kathy

After the tragic death of her dad, Jamie O’Brien Graf (BSBA ‘2008) stepped in to take over the family pool business.

In high school, When Jamie O’Brien Graf told her dad that she planned to pursue a career in the fashion industry, he suggested she earn a business degree because it would be more practical.

So she did.

At the time, neither one of them knew she would apply those business skills to her role as president of O’Brien Swimming Pool Service, the company her dad Kevin started in 1985. 

After earning her degree from the Cook School in 2008, Jamie’s career began with a fashion internship at Tommy Hilfiger in New York City. There, she organized and styled shows for product launches and worked at a Macy’s “shop within a shop,” gaining valuable in-store experience.

Next, she was hired by Saks Fifth Avenue to run one of its shops within a shop for Rivamonti, a brand owned by Italian fashion brand Brunello Cucinelli. She had the opportunity to design the shop, style mannequins and participate in buying meetings for Saks’ spring 2009 product line.

But she also had the misfortune of being in New York during its most serious economic downturn in decades.

“It was a rough time to be working in a luxury business. I was struggling financially and I was missing my family, so I decided I wanted to come home,” Jamie said. “Even though I felt like I was giving up on a dream, in hindsight, leaving New York was the best thing for me because I got to spend an additional year with my parents before my father passed away.”

Though Kevin had been diagnosed with melanoma prior to Jamie’s relocation to New York, his annual PET scans had remained clear, even up until his most recent medical examination in February 2010.

But that summer, he began not feeling well, which the family initially attributed to rampant colds that were making the rounds at his office. Unfortunately, however, the cancer had returned.

Kevin was admitted to the hospital in August 2010 and passed away a month later.

“We knew he was sick, but we thought we’d have longer than one month,” Jamie said. “We thought it was going to be a slower progression of the disease.”

She was 23 at the time.

 

Stepping into Leadership

my-dad-and-i-2-copyJamie and her dad, Kevin

Jamie’s decision to take over the business was not easy or immediate. “My dad did not want to talk about the end, so we had very few conversations about what might happen,” she said.

But he did entrust his daughter with a list of names of individuals he thought might be suitable leaders of the company.

“My dad knew that leading his company was not my plan, so he would never have asked me to bear that burden,” she said. “He wanted to give me as many options as he could, while also hoping that he could continue to run the business from behind the scenes.”

As Jamie considered potential options for the future of O’Brien Swimming Pool Service, the best alternative became obvious: she would take over the company.

“My parents’ home and everything they had worked for was in this company,” she said. “Who else could I trust to be responsible for my mother’s future for the rest of her life?”

She informed her dad of the decision when he was home from the hospital for a few days. “He told me, ‘You can do it. I did it when I was close to your age, and everything will be OK.’

That was reassuring. But I had no idea I would have to take over in the next couple of weeks.”

Kevin passed away on a Thursday. And both O’Brien and her mom made a deliberate decision to report for work the following day. “I didn’t want any of our employees to be worried about their families or their financial future,” she said. “I wanted them to know that I was serious about being here to lead the company.”

Because Kevin died during the middle of the busy pool-closing season, the O’Brien family scheduled his memorial service on a weekend so their employees could attend without missing work. 

“Some of our customers came to the service as well. We have some pretty amazing people who work with and for us,” Jamie said.

 

Making Her Imprint

Leading the company was challenging on a number of levels, not the least of which was the fact that Jamie didn’t know much about pools at the time. She also had to contend with fellow business owners who underestimated her ability to run the company.

“I just took that on as a challenge,” she said. “At the same time, a lot of them were extremely respectful because of the man my father was and how much of a difference he personally made to the industry.”

To position the company for the future, Jamie has had to make a number of difficult decisions about staffing, the leadership team and the overall business culture.

“I’ve learned a lot along the way and I feel like I’m getting to the point where I have the right people in the right places to make effective changes,” she said. “Culture is a daily practice, and it’s always going to be evolving.” 

Thinking back on her childhood, Jamie says her parents groomed her well to be her own boss. “Problem solving is a way of life for me,” she said. “I’m chief problem solver, always trying to figure out a better way. I think that’s what the president of any company does.”

Her vision for O’Brien Swimming Pool Service is crystal clear. “I would like to be the most sought-out company to work for in St. Louis. I want to have the reputation that we treat our people well and that we also have fun,” she said. “I am not looking to be the biggest pool company, I am just interested in providing the best service to our customers and the best environment for our employees.”

Under her leadership, O’Brien Swimming Pool Service has decreased operating expenses by 33 percent and grown its bottom line by 94 percent.

But she’s quick to share the credit with her fellow employees and especially her mom, who continues to work at the company as an assistant. “My mom is a huge support system for me. If we didn’t have each other, I don’t think we could’ve done this,” she said.

Jamie also participates in Vistage, a networking group of local CEOs, and relies on a large support system of friends and allies. “I really believe that God put the right people in front of me when I needed them to guide me,” she said. “In no way is my success or the company’s success because of me alone. There are always great people surrounding me.” 

 

Reaching Out to Help Others

Giving back has always been important to Jamie, and she’s always seeking out opportunities to help others. She’s particularly drawn to young people who are disadvantaged, impoverished or struggling in any way. 

“I just feel like they are stuck in situations they did not create and cannot control,” she said. “Maybe a part of me recognizes a piece of that in my own life. I did not create the burden I bore with the death of my dad, but I do have control over my situation now. That’s why I like to find different ways I can help create opportunities and open doors for other people.”

In October 2014, she traveled to Haiti as part of the Haiti Orphan Project, an initiative of the Keane Charitable Group. “It was the most rewarding and eye-opening experience I have ever had,” Jamie said. “To visit a country so financially poor but so rich in love and generosity was life changing for me. To this day, my most moving church experience was in Haiti, in a concrete building, spoken in Creole, and filled with more love and adoration than I have ever encountered.”

She hopes to return to Haiti, but this time with her new husband, so that he can share the experience and better understand why it’s so important for her to give back. 

Jamie also sponsors three children through World Vision, a global relief organization. She recently led a Bible Study for high school students so they can benefit from a young person’s perspective on spirituality. 

In recognition of her positive business and community impact, the St. Louis Business Journal selected Jamie to its “30 Under 30” list of influential business leaders for 2016.

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