Don Smith, owner, Backyard Pool & Spa

Backyard Pool & Spa

Back to retail basics

Don Smith came to the hot tub industry from enemy territory.  Unlike so many others, he didn’t start out servicing hot tubs, working weekend home shows or selling spas out of his garage. Instead, Smith came big-box store. Out of college, he went through the management-training program for Kmart, which he says gave him not just a peek behind the big-box curtain but also a deep knowledge of retail operations.

After Kmart, Smith worked for a pool and spa business and says selling backyard products people enjoy drew him further into to this business. In 1993, he opened Backyard Pool & Spa in his hometown of Aurora, Ontario. That first store was 2,500 square feet; this spring, Smith opened a brand new 13,000-square-foot facility.

Smith says relationships with suppliers, landlords, employees and customers are key to his business, which has remained open in good times and bad, he says. The company has partnered with its main manufacturers, MAAX Spas and Mursatt Chemicals, for 23 years. “That’s how we built our business,” Smith says. “We stay true to those.”

In offseason months during the recession, Smith worked with his landlord to reduce rent when cash flow was low and paid more when the season picked up again. “If you have a relationship with those people, they’re going to look after you,” Smith says.

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Smith learned customer service basics from his father, who worked in retail and was the first president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. “He’d get mad if [he went into] a Tim Hortons [restaurant] and they didn’t say please and thank you,” Smith says. “That eye contact when [customers] first come in the store is huge — no matter how busy you are — and that please and thank you.”

Smith says that attention to detail can only be accomplished if there’s a good team to back it up, and he has it. Besides key team leaders and technicians who have been with him for a long time, his two sons and sister also work in the business.

Backyard Pool & Spa, Aurora, Ontario

Not everyone would associate customer service with a big-box store, but Smith has taken aspects of his time there and brought them into his small business. For instance, customers can return almost anything, no questions asked.

“You build your business around the 99 percent of your good customers, not the 1 percent who may try to take advantage,” Smith says. “You have to be nice about giving that money back, and usually it comes back to you again: That customer comes a year or two later and buys a new hot tub.”