Aqua Spas & Pools' Cindi Blechschmidt Talks About The Hot Tub Industry

Cindi Blechschmidt is the owner of Aqua Spas & Pools, in Gig Harbor, Wash. She and her late father bought the business in 1991, bringing expertise from the aerospace and banking and stock brokerage industries. We reached her recently and asked about the company's early days, and about how it's been faring more recently.

When you started out, were you looking to get into a business, or did you target spas and pools specifically?

Did we target it? Hell no. (laughs) We were actually looking for a manufacturing business. That's where his expertise was. Mine's in sales. But the amount of capital needed — especially during a difficult economy — was pretty high. We kept looking and looking for something, and then our broker brought this business to our attention. It was profitable, and we couldn't imagine why because it was in pretty bad shape, aesthetically. We thought, if we can make this better, we'd have a pretty good business here. And it was in the community we both lived in. We just thought it would incorporate our areas of knowledge, and be something fun.

Did you guys remodel after buying?

Not at that time. We just bought the business as-is. The building wasn't the best one in the world, but we did what we could by painting, putting in new carpeting, new signage. After a couple of years, though, the property was taken by eminent domain to put a new bridge in. Our building was in the way, so the state of Washington was kind enough to move us, and that's where we are now. It's a beautiful facility and it's served us very well. Aesthetically it's light years from where we were.

Tell us about the first days in business. Were you just learning everything on the fly?

Well, my dad being an engineer, from the service side of things we were in good shape. He was a rocket scientist, and in this industry, the equipment is not rocket science. So we were able to hire some techs and learn that side of things rather quickly.

My side was sales, and I was used to selling something intangible, so selling something tangible is considerably easier. So it was just about putting good business knowledge to use and putting the systems in place that needed to be there — the point of sales systems, the accounting systems — that we needed to be able to operate at high efficiency and to serve our customer base really well.

Ignorance is bliss sometimes. We didn't have any specific preconceived notions about the business when we came in, so we approached it very much from a business and service aspect. So I think our approach was a little different, and in fact our customers have often commented that we do things a little differently than other companies they've had experience with.

Can you give us an example?

From a sales perspective, coming into the industry initially, what we saw was a lot of how-low-can-you-go, sales by the limbo method as opposed to relationship building, determining what the customer's needs and desires are and selling to that. We didn't play the established game well. I came from a situation where we never got into that mentality, and we still don't play that way.

We deal with customers in a very straightforward way. We're in a very high-end, but smaller bedroom community outside of Tacoma, and people here expect to be dealt with straight up. So we do what we say we're going to do, meet their expectations, and hopefully exceed them. We want them to be not just somebody who buys something and goes away, we want to know their names, their dogs' names and their kids' names. And we do. That's served us well from a referral standpoint, as well.

Tell us about the competition in the Tacoma area. Do shoppers stay close to home or do they also shop for spas in Seattle?

There are enough quality dealers in this area that customers typically stay close to home. Some go up to Seattle, and some buy from places like Costco. But our attitude toward customers who buy elsewhere is perhaps different from what they would find at another store. We respect their right to choose whatever product they're going to buy, but if we can't sell them their spa, we want to be their chemical source, we want to be their information resource. We really want to serve them in any way that they'll allow us to do so.

What types of salespeople do you look for?

We've always been really lucky — with a few exceptions along the road — with the people we've hired. One of our technicians has been with us for 19 years, for example. But we've always hired from outside the industry, because we don't want those preconceived notions being brought into our company and clashing with our philosophy. I look more at the raw product, and I feel confident in my own ability to teach anyone sales so long as they have the personality and integrity that I'm looking for. We have never wanted any of the slick salesperson types, because that just doesn't fit our personality. We want to be known as the people who know what they're talking about. We do have very high expectations, and for the most part they meet and exceed those expectations. We're really lucky.

How has the economy changed the way you do things?

Well, we saw the economy changing early in 2008. We knew it was happening, but we didn't make a lot of changes right away. Unfortunately, my dad, who was a private pilot, died in a small aircraft accident on September 6 of 2008. Twelve days later the economy hit a wall. So I was not only crippled by the economy, but I was also crippled with grief. To lose someone in a violent accident is hard, but when it's your father and business partner, that was tough. My husband, who comes from the forest products industry, and had joined us in about 1994, was an immeasurable help in getting us through that period of time while I was somewhat absent.

But we had to do the things that any business had to do. We reduced staff, although most of that was done through attrition, and we had to analyze our expenses and make cuts. We reduced the size of our retail space, we took salary cuts ourselves and we worked harder. We did what we had to do to keep the place going, and it's been a tough go, but 2011 is looking OK. It's been pretty darn good for us. I think all of the things that we did — we went through everything with a fine-toothed comb, albeit a little slower than we could have because of the personal tragedy, but it got done, and it looks like we're coming out OK on the other side.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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