Amy Barto and her brother Jeff Barto worked in the family business off and on for most of their lives. Their “larger than life” father, Alex Barto — he was 6’3” and more than 400 pounds — inherited the business from his father, who started it as a coal and fuel company in 1929. In 1970, they began selling pools and picked up their first hot tub line in the early ’80s.
Amy Barto began running the business at the end of 1997. She had grown tired of butting heads with her father at the family business and had moved out of state for awhile, putting her MBA to use in the corporate world. But when her mother, Elaine, who ran the day-to-day operations of the store, was out for an extended period of time to have her hip replaced, the business struggled.
“We were a couple weeks away from not making payroll,” Barto says. “Nobody was running the company; it was just kind of floundering. I pulled my dad aside when I came home for Thanksgiving, and I said, ‘Here’s the deal. I will take over the company, but here are the conditions.’ I made him put it in writing and sign it.”
Barto began settling up with suppliers and trying to save the store.
“I knew we had a lot of digging out to do,” Barto says. “It’s almost like going through bankruptcy. [We were telling suppliers], ‘We’re writing this off, take it or leave it.’ That was hard because it wasn’t personal — it was what I had to do to get us out of the hole, which took many years. Some of those suppliers I work with to this day, and it’s nice to have rebuilt those relationships.”
In 1997, the company was down to $600,000 in sales. Within a year or two, Barto says she was able to get it up to $900,000, and by 2003 they hit $1.3 million.
- Sponsor -
“My first year in charge, we went from selling 15 hot tubs to 75 with Marquis,” Barto says. “We won their most-improved dealer award. That was exciting to have tangible achievement and be recognized for it.”
Barto, who has equal partnership in the business with her brother, Jeff, has slowly been buying shares from their parents over the years and now own the majority of the business. Amy manages retail and Jeff the service department. “He knows hot tub service in and out, and he’s been fantastic running the service end,” Barto says. “Family businesses are difficult. Even though Jeff and I try to keep things separate and we have separate departments, there is definitely overlap.”
To make it work, the two have spent time in couples counseling. “People think that I’m joking when I say that, but I’m not,” Barto says. It helped, and while they aren’t immune to the occasional blow up when things get busy and stressful, they’ve learned to handle each other better.
Even though it’s taken hard work and lots of hours — the store is open seven days a week and on most holidays — Barto says the struggle was worth it.
“I actually like getting up every morning and coming to work,” Barto says. “I used to hate dealing with the public, and I really enjoy it now. I’m not sure where my mind-set changed on this, but at some point when the economy went south it made me realize how important customer retention is. I found out that I like it because making people happy is nice.”