End of an Era

Longtime Watkins president steps aside after 40 years at the helm

As of January 1, Steve Hammock retired as president of Watkins Wellness, shifting into an emeritus position until his last day on April 1, 2022. Hammock says it’s time.

“I’ve been at this for 40 years,” he says, “so whether we are at the top of our game or somewhere else, it was my time to end. Twenty-five years as the president of a publicly traded company is a lot. You’ve got to be in the chair every day.”

The initial plan was to retire a couple of years ago, but with pandemic upheaval he was asked to stay a bit longer. “It was fine because, obviously when you get into a firefight, that’s when you have to be a leader,” Hammock says. “Your own plans have to be shelved somewhat because you’re in new circumstances. I’ve been there for such a long time that there was a tremendous amount of reliance on me. The good news is, I started recruiting my successor back then as well.”

The industry has already met VJ Teenarsipur, who stepped in as executive vice president for Watkins when Mike Dunn retired from that position early last year. Teenarsipur has now moved into his intended position of president, and Steve Stigers has been promoted to executive vice president. Watkins is accepting applications for Stigers’ former position as vice president of marketing.

“When Mike announced his retirement, it allowed me to put VJ into [Mike’s] role, which, in retrospect, was a great opportunity,” Hammock says. “It worked out beautifully. And, to VJ’s credit, he’s done a fantastic job of integrating himself into the company.”

Hammock leaves the company in good hands, but also in a difficult season, the likes of which he says he’s never seen. “It’s a shame that we might be having our moment in the sun after all these years of chasing demand,” he says, “and now suddenly supply is what is causing us grief.”

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But based on the company’s past and the continued growth — Watkins is building its sixth factory — he’s not too worried. “We’re bullish on the industry,” he says. “That’s the important message. We’ve all been grinding away at this for 40 or 45 years, but the numbers have always been small in relation to population and how much opportunity there is out there. It feels like [the spa industry] is one of those groups benefiting from all that’s going on, like we’ve just been discovered.”

He’s also proud of the company culture he and Dunn have created at Watkins. Hammock says he’s worked to treat every employee with respect. “All of our values are excellent, but the one I would put my finger on is transparency,” he says. “We are honest about our situation with our people every day. I’ve told everyone, ‘If you think there’s anything you need to know to do your job better, then I’ll stipulate that you do. And if you’re brave enough to ask the question, we’ll give you the answer. If there’s something you need, ask for it and you will have it.’ And that’s just how we’ve always rolled.”

Hammock’s advice for the industry as he parts is to be careful; he acknowledges the “feeding frenzy” of hot tub demand, and suspects manufacturing costs will level out but may not go back down. There is an opportunity for the industry to take advantage of both, but Hammock warns against it.

“Price doesn’t really matter; people are willing to pay,” he says. “But we reap what we sow. We need to keep our eye on winning the war and shouldn’t be taking advantage of the situation [with inflated prices]. The long game needs to be part of the thinking when decisions are made: Is what you’re doing now shortsighted? Will it recoil on you?”

While Hammock and Dunn appear to be retiring in unison, Hammock says their decisions aren’t connected. “It’s just been a long time, so why not get out while you’re still young enough to enjoy a little life?” Hammock says. “That’s what we’re doing. And it really has nothing to do with [where the business is]. Forty years is forty years. Go live. I haven’t second guessed myself at all, and I’m ready to do something else.”

He’s not looking for a different job, but says he’s considering serving on a few boards and experiencing new things in his retirement. He’s always told people he’d one day try surfing: “I live next to an ocean, and I’ve never tried it.” There’s also a lot to experience with his family. Hammock and his wife have five grown children. The youngest is 21 and in college, and the two oldest are getting married this year. “Life is going to be changing a little bit for the good,” he says, “so we’re just going to take it easy and see what comes up.”