Like many, Ben O’Connell watched sales plummet the first week in March and thought he’d go out of business. O’Connell has been in the spa industry since the late ’90s, working for his friend Wade Spicer at Strong Spas in various roles, as a rep and even previously owning a retail store. But Clearwater Spas of Colorado had only been open since August 2019, and O’Connell had taken his retirement out of the stock market and poured it into the business. The pandemic was not well timed for him and his family.
O’Connell and his wife Melissa vacationed in Vancouver, British Columbia, in January 2020. They traveled through the Seattle airport, and by the time they arrived home, they were both very sick for weeks. Although they were never tested to confirm they had COVID, they suspect it. At the end of January, their 26-year-old son, Alex, died unexpectedly. The couple were so sick they struggled to put a service together. Then came the state-issued “safer at home” orders, closing nonessential businesses. While his business was allowed to stay open, they still felt hopeless after all they’d endured.
Sitting by the fireplace in February, with nowhere to go, it struck O’Connell that it wouldn’t take long for people who were doing the same to go nuts. Plus, he was hearing from industry friends about manufacturers and suppliers being shut down. “I started ordering millions of dollars’ worth of product on the gamble that A) it was going to get busy and B) there was no memo sent out to all my competitors. No one said, ‘Hey, order your tubs now.’ ”
It turned out to be prophetic. “By the third week of March, we were busy,” O’Connell says. “By the fourth week of March, we were really busy. April increased, May was huge, June, July, August…. We’re running at a 12x multiple than we were pre-COVID. It’s just insane. I think we went through 11 or 12 truckloads last month.”
The original plan was to be a small spa store, with the hopes of one day expanding. “We were going to have a salesman and a part-timer at the counter — we now have 25 employees,” O’Connell says. On October 31, O’Connell celebrated not only his 50th birthday and eighth wedding anniversary, but also the grand opening of the company’s new 25,000-square-foot facility, which in addition to hot tubs and swim spas, will offer a bevy of other home products like billiards, theater systems, games and home furnishings. “We retailed 126 [spas] last month and wholesaled another 40,” he says.
O’Connell has the good, and rare, fortune of having a steady flow of spas coming into his store. “We’re offering typically, guaranteed 72-hour delivery,” he says. The company has added several new trucks, and instead of doing single SpaDolly deliveries, now puts four to five spas on a trailer to deliver in a day, averaging seven or eight spas delivered a day. “Believe it or not, my biggest challenges right now are trash management, pallet disposal and logistics coordination,” he says.
Unlike many, O’Connell hasn’t struggled to find new employees to help him scale as quickly as his hot tub sales. He hired most everyone from one of his favorite local restaurants while it was closed, including Aaron Trujillo, who started off doing deliveries. Now Trujillo is one of the company’s top salesmen; he bartends at the restaurant at night now that it has reopened.
“We’ve been fortunate [that] we’ve found good people,” O’Connell says. He has hired for positions he never planned on, like a logistics coordinator to manage deliveries, a service coordinator and service teams. “I thought maybe in five, or six years who knows where we could grow to, but 90 days?” he says. “Ninety days and the whole world changed.”
The key to O’Connell’s success has been planning and buying. He ordered so many tubs at the time that it was as if he “ordered future money,” he says. “I figured by the time the trucks get here, we’ll have tubs, and the tubs will turn into cash and the cash will turn into tubs, which has been a self-fulfilling prophesy for us. It’s been a blessing.”