Leapfrogging: Bullfrog Passes the Torch to New CEO

Cailley Hammel Headshot
photo of David Ludlow, Former CEO Bullfrog Spas
David Ludlow, Former CEO Bullfrog Spas

It was early 2011, and the then-CEO of Bullfrog Spas, David Ludlow, was with the board of directors. They had been courting Jerry Pasley, Jacuzzi's then-Executive Vice President of Sales, for a move to Bullfrog. The interview process was in full swing, and everything was going smoothly — until Ludlow said something even he found surprising.

"Maybe," David said, "we should hire you as the CEO."

After joining the industry in 1975, developing the patented JetPak Technology in 1989, founding Bullfrog Spas in 1996 and serving as its CEO for 15 years, Ludlow was ready to move on — and thought Pasley would make the perfect replacement. And that's how it worked out: Pasley began his tenure as CEO in February 2011 while Ludlow moved to his new role as president. Ludlow has since retired, but retains a seat on the board of directors.

We spoke with both Ludlow and Pasley about the transition and Bullfrog's past, present and future.

David Ludlow

You built Bullfrog from the ground-up. Why leave?

When I founded Bullfrog, never in a million years would I have envisioned leaving. Ever. I would be there until my last working breath, past normal retirement. Several years before we brought Jerry Pasley on, a couple of things happened. One, I noticed the company got a little large for an entrepreneurial person. I'm a little impatient and I love to innovate, create and build, and I kind of like to move quickly and always have something new. I found myself on occasion getting bored with the slow pace of change. Once we got it built into a big, stable ship, I realized I had that urge to go build something else.

I'm now out working to build a new business in the spa industry with some partners. It'll be seen in another year or so. I started several other businesses in the last few years; that's just kind of who I am.

The second thing that happened was, one of my partners and I bought a ranch in the mountains. Just a beautiful ranch up in Utah's National Forest. I fell in love with it, and the honeymoon didn't end.

How did you end up with Jerry Pasley as your new CEO?

It's interesting — I never hired Jerry to replace me in the beginning. Jerry and I became friends about six or seven years ago in industry meetings we would attend together. We kept in touch and developed a level of trust and friendship. For years, I pushed our board of directors to hire Jerry as our vice president of sales and marketing. I pushed and pushed and pushed, but the problem was that Jerry wasn't ready to move on from Jacuzzi/Sundance. But one day, an opportunity opened up.

I quickly got our board together and we started to negotiate, and by the beginning of 2011, we were ready to sign the paperwork. And while he was here in Utah for an interview, out of the blue I said, "You know what, Jerry, maybe we should hire you as our CEO." And I would never have done that, that's just something CEO's typically don't do.

What pushed you to make that decision in the moment?

I have a great family, and I was there for a lot of things, but in the early days I neglected my family having to be at Bullfrog day and night. In August 2010, I dropped my daughter off to college in Boston. On the last day, I pleaded with her to come back to Utah and go to school close to home where I could be close to her. I said, "I'll pay for your entire education. I will sell all my stock at Bullfrog, I will buy you a business, I'll be there for you everyday." And she said, "Dad, I'm doing what my heart is telling me to do." She's a very accomplished pianist.

I bawled all the way home. And I was so emotionally hit that I lost my daughter after being away from her so much that I was willing to walk away from Bullfrog. That's really what started it.

All of those ideas: wanting to innovate again, the ranch, my family, I had thought about it for the past couple years, but all those emotions really hit me in just a few days.

What does Jerry bring to the Bullfrog team?

Jerry's brought to Bullfrog what we didn't have: He brought his experience working with a very large spa company. And he had the experience doing sales and marketing. There's where we had a need at Bullfrog: We had a great product, we just needed to get better at selling it. So those two things were key: his sales expertise and his business expertise. And he had industry relationships because he had been in the industry so long. We thought those were three really good reasons to put Jerry in that position.

Did you have any goals for Jerry to carry out as the new CEO?

I said to Jerry, "I started Bullfrog and ran it for 15 years. Now you're the guy for the next 15 years." Him being about the same age as me, 15 years will put him at retirement age. I said, "Your challenge is to double or triple the size of the company over the next term."

Jerry Pasley

photo of David Ludlow, Former CEO Bullfrog Spas
David Ludlow, Former CEO Bullfrog Spas

David told us it took years for you to consider joining Bullfrog. What ultimately changed your mind?

A couple things. One would be timing. The timing in one's life and what you're trying to achieve, and timing in the business and industry. I think it was a great opportunity for Bullfrog and for the technology to move to the forefront of the industry. It's been around for 16 years, and I think there's a great nonfiction story to be told there. I think the industry was ready for a great, fresh company with awesome high-tech technology.

You took over as CEO in February 2011. How have things been going so far?

They've been great. In light of the headwind of the economy and the downturn in the industry, we have had double-digit growth for the last two years. So we're very pleased with the progress we've made, and we're very excited about the future.

What other accomplishments have you enjoyed so far?

I would say one of my accomplishments has been the implementation of best processes and practices so that the team becomes more aligned with the long-term and short-term goals. They're clearly identified, and the team is working with that goal in mind. I think beyond the double- digit growth we've experienced year over year, more important is that sustainable process that's in place and elevating the product. And when I talk about elevating the product, I mean not only elevating it in terms of innovation in terms of JetPak, but in design, in function and quality, and most important, to meet the needs of the dealer who is selling the product for us and that very valuable consumer who is going to use and love the product.

David built Bullfrog from the ground-up and served as CEO for 15 years — how did you feel about filling his shoes?

I think it was a great transition. For me, there's nothing more fun than coming behind a man like David who has this amazing entrepreneurial spirit, passion and drive to take an idea and make it a reality, and be backed by proprietary patents and design — that piece in itself is exciting.

You initially went through negotiations for the vice president of sales and marketing position. Then, David dropped a bomb and said Bullfrog should hire you as the new CEO instead. How did you feel when you heard that?

First thing, you're always honored when someone has confidence in you to turn over the reins. When a former founder/president/CEO turns over the reins, they recognize it's time for the company to move into that next era. I felt honored, but most importantly, what I've learned over the years is that if you truly want to make an impact, there's times when you need the reins. And if you have the reins, you can build a very solid team and an organization.

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

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