Spa Broker Benchmark

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Your business isn't in a great location. It doesn't have much product diversity. Your attempts at expansion haven't worked out so well, and you don't plan on trying it again.

Sound like a struggling business? Not if you're the Spa Broker in Chico, Calif., which recently celebrated its 25th year in business and did $1.3 million in sales last year while selling 224 spas. Steve Bokulich, the company's original owner, says its longevity is proof that attention to courtesy, quality and expertise still translates into success.

"Say we're waiting on a customer who's buying an item," Bokulich says, "even if it's only for $2. If the phone rings, we won't answer it in the middle of helping them. Someone else has to get it, or the recorder picks up.

"That irritates me when I take the time to get into my car to go to a store, and then right in front of me they wait on people who call on the phone. It seems an obvious thing not to do, but a lot of businesses do it.

"I told my wife when we opened the store in 1979 that every customer who comes through the store, even if they wanted just a small item, would be treated the way I would want to be treated."

Bokulich says it's a matter of keeping the focus on core company values: Respect for the customer. A long-running relationship with a proven manufacturer — in this case, Watkins Manufacturing. Selling spas and gazebos only; no stretching yourself too thin. A huge inventory of parts and accessories, even for those who bought elsewhere. And of course, honesty.

All of this plays big, even in a city that isn't: Chico, a college town with about 65,000 people, doesn't even rank in California's top 100.

"Jonathan Clark, who is now president of Sundance Spas, told my wife 20 years ago that there should be no way we sell the number of spas we do for this area," says Bokulich, 64. "It's not an ideal location, not near a freeway. In fact, I would have preferred to move to Redding (which has about 20,000 more people) when we started out. But it has worked out well."


There have been some trials along the way, especially at the start. Bokulich recalls February 1980 — nine months after he opened for business — when he sold one unit the entire month. "It was a guy in Willows. He was having trouble with his leg and wanted it for the therapeutic benefits. He put it in his garage, and it worked for him."

During those slow days, Bokulich could have been excused for wondering why he gave up selling large appliances at JCPenney for this. Or why his wife talked him into buying a spa, which started all this in the first place.

"I'd been in Chico since '73, working for Penney," he says. "In 1978, my wife brought a newspaper clipping on a spa she liked and talked me into buying it. I bought a shell and piping equipment, then contacted a few people who would help me install it.

"But as I talked to them, their ideas didn't seem to make sense. I decided I was going to install it myself " — he had a carpentry background — "and I did. Someone at the house one day saw it and liked it, and I installed one for him just like mine. Another friend heard about it and liked it, and it grew from there."

Business eventually picked up during those first couple of years, to the point where Bokulich decided to expand in 1981. He opened locations in Paradise and Yuba City but closed them in late 1982. "I figured business was going well in the original store, and I could just do the same things elsewhere and the results would be the same," he says. "But it was a big mistake.

"The help that I had to get from other cities wasn't good enough. When I was there, they worked hard; when I wasn't, they didn't. We were making money, but weren't doing as well as I'd hoped — and I was spreading myself too thin. So I closed them both." He gave expansion one more try in 1991 — again, in Yuba City — but closed that store in 1995.


As Southern California's growth exploded in the late 1980s, Bokulich was doing brisk business when he made another big decision in 1987. This one turned out much better. He and his wife, Ann, decided to take on longtime acquaintance Bill Bradley and his wife, Helen, as partners.

"I'd known Bill since '73; his aunt worked with me at Penney," Bokulich says. "He had been a manager at a plumbing supply company and was ready to retire. Helen and Ann said, 'Why not have Bill work with Steve."'

Bradley's retirement lasted three days. He and Bokulich quickly found they shared many of the same low-key, customer-friendly philosophies and became fast friends. "In 17 years, he and I have never had an argument," Bokulich says. "Several years ago, I told him, 'Heck, I should have married you.'"

Bradley, 75, says he handles much of the advertising and sales, and Bokulich handles the books. The split is the perfect combination for both.

"Steve was putting in a lot of hours, working seven-day weeks, when I came on," says Bradley, also described by his partner as a workaholic. "He didn't have time to do anything, to enjoy himself. This gave him a break. Plus, I wasn't enjoying my job when I left. It was like I was in prison. I got tired of what I was doing.

"But this is fun. Your work should be fun, invigorating."

Bradley's plumbing background and contacts have helped Spa Broker become known for its large parts selection. "We have people come from 80 miles away to buy parts from us," Bokulich says. "We go out of our way to help them, and people remember that. Pretty soon it doesn't make sense for them to go anywhere else."

Bokulich and Bradley agree there's a fine line between being attentive to a customer and badgering him or her. Both speak of high-pressure tactics with near contempt.

"We try to make this a very comfortable place to come into," Bokulich says. "We don't have two or three people 'working' each customer, and people respect that. In our 25 years, some people have bought four or five spas from us. That's a big reason."

Word of mouth spreads quickly when customer service is that much of a priority. Bokulich says because advertising isn't expensive in the area, "we'll go on cable TV, which also hits the surrounding areas. And we do little newspaper ads in nearby towns at different times of year."

This doesn't mean Bokulich and Bradley are staid and unimaginative. For their 25th anniversary celebration on May 1, the two made use of Bokulich's work with the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation — an organization that cares for unreleasable wild animals — to put together a unique gala that featured a white tiger and a snow leopard. There was also music, courtesy of a man who handles spa deliveries for the store, and a live remote by a local radio station. Not to mention lots of balloons and refreshments.


So when the partners do something, they want to do it right. The same holds true for what they sell — spas and gazebos only. "We want to focus only on the best quality, our best expertise," Bokulich says. "We tried selling other things in the past, like patio furniture and other recreational components, but we found it took up a lot of floor space and that they usually involve the kinds of buyers who go to other places to see if they can save money on those things.

"We determined that we can do better by just selling spas and gazebos. We concentrate on just that, and we feel it gives the customer more time and attention."


When asked what advice he'd have for anyone starting out in the business, he says: "First, investigate the manufacturer, and pick a good one to sell like we did. Then, I'd say to learn as much as you can by going to shows, taking classes, learning as much as you can on water chemistry. A lot of salespeople don't even know how a spa works.

"I was taught, back in the old days, by a guy named Ira Welch. He started out with Jacuzzi, taught me about hydraulics and how a jet works. If you can tell customers these kinds of things, it impresses them and gives them more confidence about buying."

Though they're faithful to time-honored selling models, Bokulich and Bradley understand the importance of keeping up with innovation and technology. Bokulich says he and Bradley prefer manufacturers that proceed in a cautious and responsible way that mirrors their way of thinking.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to honesty, either. "I had a customer come in not too long ago who had bought a spa from us," he recalls, "and he had a moving jet from a Hot-Spring spa. It was broken, and he needed another one. I told him no problem, it was under warranty for five years.

"He was surprised. He told me I didn't have to tell him that; that I could have just charged him for a new one. He mentioned that his brother was looking for a spa, too, and that he'd be sure to tell him about us. And I sold a spa to his brother."

With anecdotes like these, it's not surprising that Bokulich and Bradley say they have no immediate plans for big changes. At some point, they'll pass the business along — probably to family — and the old saw, "location, location, location" will continue to take a backseat to treating the customer right.

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