Q&A With Richard Annis

photo of Richard AnnisRichard AnnisOwnerOhio Pools & SpasNorth Canton, Ohio

Ohio Pools & Spas has been selling backyard recreational products since the Eisenhower administration to its countless customers in Northeastern Ohio. The company has been recognized by this magazine as an AQUA 100 winner and by its spa supplier as its international dealer of the year.

How are things in Ohio?

In 2010 things kind of stabilized and they're starting to come back a little bit. We had a little bit of growth last year and the traffic we're getting seems to be a little more serious about purchasing. The start to this year makes it look like that's going to continue. I don't think things are going to come back by leaps and bounds, but it looks like things will gradually improve here as we move forward.

You won an award from Hot Spring, so clearly you're doing something right.

Previously we'd been six-time territory dealer of the year, and this last year we were the Locksin Thompson Dealer of the Year. For that we were chosen from among 725 dealers worldwide. It was the only way we could think of to top being the regional dealer of the year.

Do you have some secrets?

The main thing is having a good staff that's committed to making it happen. As a company, what we focus on is our customer service and providing a pleasurable shopping experience. As a result we've been able to count on 30 percent of our pool and spa sales coming from referrals. And that's a nice position to be in when the economy is down, money is tight and customers are doing more research. Getting these referrals goes a long way.

We also get lots of referrals from people we've got business relationships with, like contractors, landscapers, etc. They'll send business in our direction because they know they're not going to get any negative backlash because we'll take care of that person.

What about your sales staff? Is there a certain kind of person you look for?

They really need to understand relationships with people, because people buy from people. I want them to have a lot of product knowledge and to be good at sales, but I really want them to act more as a consultant, to find out what the customer's needs are so they can direct them to the product that fits best. We're a company, as I mentioned, that serves the customer before, during and after the sale, and that's something that the salesperson can sell with confidence.

Also, integrity is a huge factor. If you're a person with integrity and you're working for a company you know is going to back everything you say and what you're presenting to your customer, that's a real winning combination.

Are customers different now than they were four or five years ago?

Right now, the market is a little bit smaller and the people that are shopping are doing a lot more research — probably because it's a lot more readily available online, but also just because expendable dollars are fewer and harder to come buy.

A number of years ago, our tent events would produce a lot more sales. People were more apt to pull up to a tent at a busy corner somewhere, and if they recognized your name and you weren't just someone breezing through town, they might make a quick purchase. But now they're doing more homework, they're more savvy. They're still buying, but they're a little more cautious.

Are there any ancillary product categories that you found to be successful last year?

Nothing really stood out last year. In the past billiards came in and flew out, then poker tables picked up and that was real hot for a while. So nothing really took off, but we were happy just to see things stabilize a little bit and to see growth in most areas.

Maybe saunas would be the biggest surprise. We've seen an increase in interest every year from those.

How have your competitors held up in recent years?

We service a wide area, from central Ohio to the Great Lakes and all the way over to the Pennsylvania border. A couple of the smaller companies in that area have gone by the wayside, but the major players are still active in this market area. They're all hanging in there.

Another interviewee said he thought the dealer network was too fragmented and under capitalized. Is that too broad of a generalization to make?

Well, it is the smaller businesses that I have seen struggle more. I'm guessing that if you don't have as much product out in the field and you don't have the referrals that you can count on every year when things get tight, you could have a hard time. Again, going back to what I said previously, when you can count on the amount of sales from referrals every year that we do, it really helps; but that can only come from years of being in business.

Financing has been harder to come by for dealers and customers. Has that been a problem there?

It's only been a problem in regards to the amount of time you have to spend nurturing the relationship. After the banking crisis in 2008, I think the banks turned to over-compensating for the errors they'd made in lending that led up to the crisis. They just went too far in the opposite direction, and that put undue stress onto a lot of businesses. This is the first year since the downturn that banks are actively pursuing my business, and I assume other businesses. I assume that's because they can see we've weathered the storm, and they have to get business from somewhere. Or maybe they realized their tightening was overkill and they're lending more freely across the board. But in general, it's been more difficult because of all the new requirements they've put into place.

What is the biggest challenge facing the industry?

Probably people not being in the financial position they need to be in to buy our products. People don't want to give up fun and relaxation, so our products will always be wanted and needed. It's just that there's less money coming in our direction. So we're challenged to maintain financing options for those that are in a position to finance and for the industry to continue to build market and create more interest in the products. We need to remind people that the products we offer are a great way to spend family time.

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