Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tyrants Have Pool-Builder's Number

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- When Ethem Erkoc decided to go into the swimming pool business nearly 15 years ago, he had no idea that he would one day be known as pool-maker to tyrants. It just turned out that way.

"I'm nowhere near the biggest, but I'm at the top end," Erkoc said at his cramped Istanbul office, which is decorated with photos of pools he has built around the world. "I use the newest technology and engineering concepts, which naturally makes my pools expensive. My clients have to be people who want the best and can pay for it." Erkoc said it is not true that he recently built a pool for the headquarters of Russia's spy agency in Moscow. "That one was for a social club that I understand is used by KGB officers," he averred, "not for the KGB itself."

It is true, however, that he built a pool in Baghdad for the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. His most faithful client is the Libyan strongman, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, for whom he has built four pools and who has ordered six more.

Asked how he assembled such an unusual client list, Erkoc said he assumes that authoritarian leaders chat about things like swimming pools.

"Maybe it's not an official club, but they communicate," he said. "When they get together, one might say to the other, 'Nice pool, who built it for you?' Ego is involved. When guys like this see something that's better than what they have, they want one, too." Erkoc, 43, discovered the pool business almost by accident. After earning university degrees in engineering and management, he started in the plumbing business but found it unrewarding. He had been a competitive swimmer as a student, and when a swimming club he belonged to asked him to find a contractor to build a new pool, he was surprised at what he found.

"This was a very new industry in Turkey, and no one was doing it well," he said. "I started doing research and realized that this could be a great new challenge for me."

Until a generation ago, people in Istanbul and surrounding areas swam regularly in the Bosporus and adjacent Sea of Marmara. By the 1980s, however, those bodies of water had become polluted and unappealing.

This was also a period of spectacular economic growth in Turkey. As the newly rich traveled abroad and saw swimming pools, they came to want their own. Tourism was also booming, creating a demand for pools at new hotels and resorts.

About a third of the 300 pools Erkoc has built are in Turkey - a few in private homes, others in housing complexes and many more in sport clubs. "We're very happy with what we have," said Adnan Demir, director of a club near Istanbul where Erkoc recently built a pool. "It sure was expensive, but we knew it was going to be the best. The water is almost as pure as drinking water, because the pool is made with special techniques that work against bacteria. Kids can go home without even taking a shower.

"The pool even has water-massage features, so if you don't want to train seriously you can come here just to have fun."

This pool and the club it was built around cost Demir's club $1 million, of which about $185,000 went to Erkoc's company.

Erkoc's biggest client in Turkey these days is the army. He is building three pools at a new military training complex in Ankara. One is Olympic-size, another is nearly 12 meters deep and designed for training scuba divers, and the third has the capacity to simulate rough waves and other adverse conditions.

"This company is very interesting and unusual," said Mehmet Bilen, editor of Havuz, the journal of the Turkish pool industry. "Buying one of their pools is like buying a Jaguar. Every one is very special and beautiful.

Erkoc is also one of many Turkish entrepreneurs who have cashed in on the huge business opportunities that came with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the growth of private business in its former republics.

For most of the last decade, Turkish companies have been hard at work in these countries. The main supermarket chain in Azerbaijan, for example, is Turkish-owned. A Turkish company built the new international airport in Turkmenistan. Others built hotels in the capitals of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In the mid-1990s, the government of newly unified Germany offered Russia a multibillion-dollar package of incentives to withdraw its troops from what had been East Germany. Part of that money was used to build living complexes for returning officers, who wanted their complexes to have pools.

Erkoc won first one contract and then another. He wound up building no fewer than 50 pools in Russia and Ukraine with German subsidies, by far his largest project.

One of Erkoc's pools was ordered by Chevron for a complex it has built for workers at the remote Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan. Another, filled with luxury features, is in the western Siberian city Tyumen.

"It's for the top 20 people," he said. Which top 20? "The top 20 in the state or the mafia or whatever you want to call it," he shrugged.

Undoubtedly Erkoc's quirkiest client is Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, who reportedly allows favored camels to bathe in his pools.

"He used to come and inspect the pools while we were building them, but I never saw him," Erkoc recalled. "When he was arriving, the soldiers would shout an order, and we had to drop everything we were doing and run away immediately. You aren't even allowed to look back. The first time it happened, I got really angry, but the six more pools he's ordered should pay for the humiliation."

During one of his visits to Libya, Erkoc met a German contractor who had been warned that he would not be allowed to leave the country if his project was not judged satisfactory. After that, Erkoc decided not to return.

"The advantage of a company like mine is that we're small and willing to take risks," he said. "But I'm at the point now where there are some risks I don't want to take. I send representatives instead."

Recognizing the volatile reputations of some of his clients, Erkoc demands full payment in advance.

"The only time I lost money was with Mubarak," he said, referring to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. "He wanted a pool, and we did the design work. Then his people took the design, gave it to another company, and didn't pay me."

Erkoc is looking forward to the rest of this year, not only because of the lucrative projects he is overseeing for the Turkish army and Gadhafi.

"I'm finally going to do something I never had time for until now," he said. "I'm going to build a pool for myself."