Nov. 23 2010 12:00 AM

What makes Manny run? Is it a need to succeed or is it in his DNA? Or just maybe he is one of those people who loves what he's doing and doesn't consider it work. Whatever it is, Manuel "Manny" Perez de la Mesa has been running all his life.

Perez de la Mesa was born in Havana, Cuba. His father owned a few small businesses, and as a hobby he would race cars both in Cuba and internationally, on what is now the Formula One Circuit; his mother was a working mom. But Cuba was in turmoil, and during those turbulent years, Fidel Castro took control of the country. In 1961, the Perez de la Mesa family moved to Miami, Florida. At that time, Manny was four years old, with two younger siblings.

In Florida, his father sold used cars and his mother worked in retail. It was during these formative years that Manny learned a special work ethic. It seems he’s had a job from very early childhood. During high school he was active in sports—playing football and baseball. After practice, he found time to get a job—any kind of job as long as he could bring in a paycheck.

Following his high school graduation, he took a full-time job and attended the University of Miami, and then Florida International University in Miami at night. In 1977, Perez de la Mesa graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and he did it in three years while holding down a full-time day job. He was 20 years old.

This work ethic should have given anyone that knew him then a glimpse of things to come.

Perez de la Mesa landed a full-time job with Sea-Land, a company owned by R.J. Reynolds Industries. When he was transferred to their New Jersey headquarters, he enrolled at St. Johns University in New York, where he attended classes at night and received his MBA. After his stint in New Jersey, he was transferred back to Florida to become a division controller for Sea-Land Americas.

In 1982, after declining two previous job offers, Perez de la Mesa joined IBM. He spent five years with IBM, when RJR (then having acquired Nabisco and renamed the company RJR Nabisco) courted Perez de la Mesa to return, and after much deliberation, he rejoined RJR in their Del Monte Division. “It was the toughest career change decision I ever had to make,” said Perez de la Mesa.

He joined Del Monte on the fresh fruit side where, after a year involved in re-defining the strategic direction, he was put in charge of production operations in Latin America. He moved to Costa Rica, where he lived for two years, then on to Santiago, Chile; finally, in 1991, he moved back to Florida, where he became vice president of operations. During this period with Del Monte, RJR Nabisco was purchased by KKR for $29 billion, in what was then the largest corporate transaction ever. Fresh Del Monte, in turn, was sold twice in 1990 and again in late 1992. Late 1993 seemed the perfect time to make another change.

At that point, Perez de la Mesa was 36 years old; he had moved nine times over the course of 17 years. It was time to settle down.

Watsco was a manufacturer of refrigeration controls who partnered with Rheem to purchase a heating and air conditioning wholesale supply company, with sales of $60 million annually. Perez de la Mesa was offered the position to run the distributorship. During the next year-and-a-half, the distributorship grew substantially. The chairman of Watsco then asked Perez de la Mesa if he thought there was room for more company growth through acquisitions and organic growth.

Perez de La Mesa told him it could be done.

Watsco bought out Rheem’s position in the distributorship, eventually sold off the manufacturing and concentrated on acquiring and growing the wholesale distributorship business. Perez de la Mesa was content working at Watsco. He settled down with his family in Florida and was beginning to enjoy watching his children grow. He got involved in their sports—even helping as an assistant coach.

But time waits for no one; he was again being courted and recruited to head up a public company, but he kept turning down the position. The chairman of SCP was retiring and Perez de la Mesa agreed to look at the position again. In 1999, he took over as president of SCP. By the time Perez de la Mesa left Watsco, they were doing $1.3 billion annually. SCP POOLCORP is a wholesale distributor for pool components and supplies, and its volume was $450 million annually.

Manny Perez de la Mesa had his work cut out for him, but his experience told him he could grow the business. With only a small percentage of the population having pools, he saw an opportunity for growth. In the 11 years that Perez de la Mesa has been at the helm, SCP POOLCORP grew to $1.9 billion at its peak. Since the recession, sales have slid a little, but it’s still a $1.6 billion company today.

In addition to growing POOL- CORP, Perez de la Mesa was looking at businesses in other fields. He saw that wholesale irrigation distribution was similar and had the same characteristics. In 2005, SCP POOL- CORP acquired Horizon Distributors, a Phoenix-based irrigation distribution company.

Perez de la Mesa saw opportunities in the irrigation business, and Horizon as a platform for an acquisition base. “But it’s more than just stores,” said Perez de la Mesa. “It’s having good people in position to move the business ahead. We’re fortunate to have these great people at Horizon.” Horizon has grown to 57 locations, from Arizona to Colorado to Utah to Washington to Oregon to Idaho and California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.

Perez de la Mesa envisions lots of synergy between POOLCORP and Horizon. “In the outlying areas, where irrigation distributors are few and far between,” says Perez de la Mesa, “we can put both company operations in one location and serve both markets.”

Married to Ana for the past 28 years, they have three children: Rosario, 25, who is going to Columbia University for her MBA; Manuel “Max,” 23, a school teacher, and Christina, 20, who is a junior at college.

Manny Perez de la Mesa has been on a fast track for many years. The companies he has been with have derived the benefits of a man who is driven and passionate about what he does. Said Jim Ross, president of Horizon, “I’ve never met a harder working executive. More importantly, his contribution to the people he works with and his family is second to none.”

Keep running, Manny.