BonaVista has a legacy that dates back 50 years. Founder Bob Brown started in the pool construction business in Toronto, Ontario, with a pool service department soon to follow. His children grew up around the industry and two of them, Melissa and Peter, took over in 2002 when their father retired.
Brown’s eldest, Jennifer Gannon, worked for the business for a few years after university, but left for 13 years to work in marketing and communications. In 2008, she came back to the family business to open a retail location; BonaVista LeisureScapes opened in the middle of Toronto, with Gannon as owner.
Gannon says her time away from the industry taught her to pay attention to what it feels like to be an employee. The trap of staying in a family business for so long, she says, is that “you sometimes only come at it from an employer mindset.” Opening the retail store, she says, was a nice opportunity to do something new, employ more family members and reach a different audience.
BonaVista as a whole had no retail store before Gannon opened one, so she says they had to learn quickly. The No. 1 lesson: Building strong vendor relationships.
Gannon does most of the company’s purchasing from about five companies and says the reason the company has improved profitability over the last few years is due to being selective about the things it brings into the showroom and the product lines it commits to.
“We’re really careful about not offering too much,” she says, “so we can be strong and focused in terms of what those companies offer, the service we get from them and the warranty coverage.”
Creating something saleable
While the retail store is a division of BonaVista Pools, it’s a separate entity and a part of a Canadian cooperative group called LeisureScapes, which consists of approximately 400 North American retailers.
“It helped us roll out with more presence than a little independent mom-and-pop shop,” Gannon says of joining forces with the cooperative from the start. “It helps us with volume buying, a lot of training and leverage in terms of purchasing power. When we get together at the conference every year, it’s a bunch of like-minded people who are facing similar challenges: employee retention, succession planning, brand training. It’s interesting for those who have a collective mindset versus an independent mindset.”
The cooperative members continue to be sole owners of their businesses but pay an annual membership fee. Gannon says she is working to make the company saleable through LeisureScapes’ assistance, because it’s not necessarily the industry her children want to get into.
The three siblings running BonaVista’s businesses have 14 children among them, all under 21; another Brown sister is a nurse practitioner who lives with her family in Idaho. “While some of them work for the business in the summer, none have expressed interest in taking over to create a third-generation business,” Gannon says.
“If you’re not going to pass it down to the third generation, [you have to] create something that has more visibility, more professionalism,” Gannon says. “[LeisureScapes provides] a lot more efficiencies. You have something that has more presence, like a franchise concept but without being a franchise.”
The company recently saw how marketing efforts through LeisureScapes resources are working, winning three awards at the annual Hydropool dealers’ conference in December: highest sales for hot tubs, highest sales for swim spas and best showroom.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve been at the top in terms of sales for Hydropool’s retail network in Canada and the United States,” says Rob Irvine, store manager, who previously worked as a rep for Hydropool and joined BonaVista LeisureScapes in 2013. “We’ve got a lot of experience here and we do things the right way. We really strive for that customer experience. At the end of the day, it’s not just buying a hot tub, it’s buying a lifestyle.”
Gannon and Irvine moved the showroom to a new location two years ago, so receiving the best showroom award from Hydropool — known as the Magic Formula award — was an especially proud moment. The store first opened in 2008 in the heart of Toronto, in the midst of the bustle of city life. But when the city began building a subway on the same street, that location became challenging due to re-routed traffic.
“Suddenly your beautiful storefront on one of the biggest roads in the city is being avoided by a lot of people,” Irvine says.
The new location, however, has garnered a 20% increase in sales since the move. There’s good parking and no construction issues, Irvine says, and it’s easier for customers to find. “We’ve seen people we hadn’t seen in many years at the old store finally coming back,” he says, “because it’s more accessible.”
With the new location came more focused efforts on the products offered. Previously, Gannon says, the offerings were too broad, almost like a décor store. “Now we’ve just become much more water focused,” she says. “The more you stick to your niche and say, ‘We are experts in this category,’ the easier it is to be really successful at that.”
This change also gives Gannon and Irvine more opportunity to be out in the field as well as in the showroom, so they can be certain the customers are happy. “We run a really lean business, so you need somebody who isn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves,” Gannon says. “I’m often in the field, and I set the pace a little bit in terms of what we’re doing. We’re not a dainty bunch. We’re hardworking, very practical people who are prepared to get out there when we need to solve problems.”
The company takes a careful approach to service after the sale. “Jennifer and I are not above having to get out to the sites and making sure the projects get from start to finish as easily as possible,” he says. “I’m a salesperson, but I can put my technician hat on and we can be very fluid in what we want to do based on the customer and project. And that really helps provide that customer experience we want to give every single time.”
Generating leads through digital marketing is also a focus for BonaVista LeisureScapes’ success. Looking toward the future, Irvine sees it as a viable way to grow. “It’s making sure that all those efforts [new location, customer service and digital marketing] end up driving traffic to the store because, when people walk-in the store, that’s where the magic happens,” Irvine says. “It’s trying to keep up with the times. And that’s how we can grow this business even more.”
“When I think of backyard space, I think of water, fire and outdoor dining. I find that complement of water and fire to be quite popular.” Jennifer Gannon owner, BonaVista LeisureScapes