Eric Neel, owner, Clearwater Pool & Spa

Clearwater Pool & Spa

Driven by faith

After two hours with a bankruptcy attorney, Eric Neel had decided declaring bankruptcy wasn’t for him. He had a variety of businesses at the time, including a hot tub and pool retail business, an excavation company and a real-estate development firm, which had all been booming before the economy crashed. But in 2008, he found himself $3.3 million in debt, had negative funds in the company checking account and was losing $80,000 a month. Trusted advisors helped him devise a survival strategy; they recommended the bankruptcy lawyer.

Clearwater Pool & Spa, Manchester, Tennessee

Neel, who is a devout Christian, developed his own strategy, which was to trust God with the finances. This year the company, and the Neels personally, became 100 percent debt free. “We paid every person, every bank, every vendor that we owed money to,” Neel says. “We paid them in full. We’ve been a cash-operated business for four years and we’re on track to do about $3.6 million in revenue this year and have everything — inventory, warehouses — completely paid for, including our home.”

To accomplish that, Neel and his wife Katie sold everything they could, including their homes and equipment from the other businesses. “Every day we got on our knees and said, ‘Lord show us what to do today,’ ” Neel says. Each day they would collect receivables, and what they brought in met the immediate financial needs of the company.

His new approach to running his business and his life restored not only his finances, but also relationships with his vendors, customers and employees. Neel had sold Dream Maker Spas for more than 10 years, but in a great year would sell only 15 to 20 spas. “There were years that we wouldn’t sell five,” Neel says.

His longtime Dream Maker rep, Gibb Teel, came to the store. “I had never given Gibb the time of day,” Neel says. “God struck my heart and said, ‘You start respecting the vendors that I send into your office, and you start building relationships with them.’ ”

That day, Neel started down a path that lead to Clearwater becoming the exclusive outlet for Dream Maker’s blemished spas. Any hot tub that has some kind of a shell defect comes to Clearwater.

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“We sold 60 in our first three months,” Neel says. The following year, it sold 117; the year after that, 162. This year, it’s more than 400 year-to-date.

Often Clearwater sells out of the spas before Dream Maker has more to deliver. To remedy that, Dream Maker offered to let them sell its AquaRest Spas online nationwide.

“There are five [websites] that do it,” Neel says: Home Depot, Wayfair, Hayneedle, Overstock, “and us. We’ve become one of the largest independently owned retailers of spas and hot tubs in the nation and it’s simply because God has built these relationships.”

Neel would say prayer was the biggest factor in turning around his business, but they made other changes as well. “Nothing was off limits,” Neel says. “We started getting counsel from anyone we could find who was better than we were.”

It developed a social media presence; Neel got a Facebook page for the first time. They improved the website, began building concrete wall vinyl-liner swimming pools and started maintaining pools. Neel also meets with mentors who keep him accountable in all aspects of his life, including a longtime staffer to help ensure he is serving his employees well and being a good leader.

Neel is not shy about his faith, no matter who he is talking to — and he doesn’t worry if that rubs some people the wrong way. “People listen,” he says, “if you have their best interest at heart.”