Firm Foundation

The Sundance Spa Store opens its sixth location in Ontario

Photography by Steven McNeil

Bill Elliot, co-owner of The Sundance Spa Store, did not expect to still be selling hot tubs.

After living in California for 20 years and selling various hot tub brands, when Elliot moved back to Canada, he decided to leave the industry. That is, until around 2003, when he spoke with a school friend of his, Greg Pieczonka. “Greg was looking to start a swimming pool business and I said ‘If you’re going to open a business, hot tubs would be better,’ ” Elliot says. “I contacted some old colleagues in California and managed to secure the Sundance brand and, before I knew it, we were off and running. I guess I wasn’t done with it.”

Soon after, Elliot and Pieczonka brought on another friend, Scott Coombe — who was managing car dealerships at the time — to head the sales department. And, in just over 15 years’ time — with Pieczonka handling administrative tasks and Elliot the day-to-day — they will open the sixth Sundance Spa Store this month, in Hamilton, Ontario.

Elliot says the three of them are still somewhat surprised by the company’s success. “We keep going back through our files and can’t see anywhere that we planned to open this many stores,” he says. “It just kind of kept happening.”

Elliot says the company’s first year was very successful. “We had a great trajectory so we thought ‘Let’s just keep going,’ ” he says of opening the second Oakville location in 2006. “We had a business model at that point and didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just continued with what we had already started, and everything worked out in the next location. The neighborhoods responded, the city was there and the sales were there. We opened up a significantly bigger store and it was worthwhile.”

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, The Sundance Spa Store certainly felt it, Elliot says. No expansion occurred for several years, as the three owners took a frugal approach to running the company so they could keep all their employees. “After about a year and a half, we started seeing light at the end of the tunnel and we thought that if we can live through that, we can live through anything,” Elliot says. The third location opened in 2010; two more followed over the next eight years.

Elliot attributes the company’s continued success and growth to a multitude of factors, starting with finding a niche. The three owners chose Sundance hot tubs because the brand wasn’t in the area at the time, and they believed in the craftsmanship of the products and appreciated the supportive dealer network. Since then, they’ve made a point to stick with only that brand. Even when it comes to hot tub service and maintenance, Sundance Spas are the only ones the company works on. “We feel that you can be a jack of all trades, but an expert in only one,” Elliot says.

The people, Elliot adds, also make a huge difference in the success of the stores. “My partners and our employees, everybody has the same desire, passion and work ethic,” he says. “We’ve got 15 or so employees right now, so we aren’t huge, but 80 percent of those guys have been with us for multiple years. There’s definitely is a team spirit here.”

Everyone is so involved in the success of the company that there are no store managers for any of The Sundance Spa Stores. Instead, every employee rotates among the six locations. “It mixes things up,” Elliot says. “The sales guys are fresher. They’re not stuck in the same store day in and day out —  there’s always something new and different.”

Customers like this employee diversity, too. “When they have multiple good experiences with anybody they speak with, they start to see a pattern with our company,” Elliot says. “It doesn’t matter who customers speak with — all our employees have the same method, which is friendly and helpful.” That includes the three owners, who also traverse between stores regularly. “We’ve basically got our laptops and wherever we are is our office.”

Elliot says it’s simpler to add a second location than most think and also encourages expansion, since a new location creates a bigger market share and ultimately more money. The pitfalls, he says, are the same in every business and start with the fact that you live and die by your staff.

“When you first open, you have a small group [of employees] and the owners are running the business,” Elliot says. “When you start to have multiple locations, you really do rely on quality staff. Are they likeminded? If they are, that makes challenges a heck of a lot easier.”

He says you know it’s time to expand “when you’re not pulling your hair out anymore and realize you can handle more — more deliveries, more service calls, more leads.”

Most importantly, Elliot says, is to lay the foundation before expanding. “You don’t say, ‘Hey, our marriage isn’t working, so let’s have a baby and see if that helps,’ ” Elliot says. “If your business is struggling and you think you need to open another location to get your sales up, that’s probably not the way to go into it. You can’t grow until you have your ducks in a row and a foundation in place. Because, if that’s rickety, the rest of it’s not going to hold.”

Elliot warns not to gamble what you’ve already created for the sake of expansion. “If that second location doesn’t work, it can’t take the whole operation down,” he says. “The second location needs to be able to stand on its own.” Looking toward the future, Elliot says he and his partners intend to “follow the trajectory that we’ve either been gifted or we’ve created, which is to continue to grow and try to maintain control of our business through good customer service, happy employees and a paycheck at the end of the week.”