These owners of multiple hot tub locations have found the courage to step away — sometimes very far away.
By Sarah Protzman Howlett
While technology has made it easier than ever to pull off, being a commuting owner — be it a 90-minute drive down a mountain or a 3,000-mile flight — isn’t a simple setup. Here, four proprietors share what it’s like to be back and forth between multiple stores, and how their employees have risen to the occasion.
Just a Plane Ride Away
Scott Clark didn’t need it to be easy to own stores in two states, but he sure was curious how it would pan out.
For 15 years, Clark, owner of the Spa & Sauna Co., has called Reno, Nevada, home and runs three hot tub stores in the area, and as of last year also travels about six days a month to his two newest stores in the Bay Area of California. Those locations, two longtime Hot Spring stores, are about 45 minutes from each other — and 200 miles from the Nevada stores. It’s a minimum four hours’ drive or quick 45-minute flight from one set of stores to the other. “If you just want to be comfortable,” he says, “this is not the lifestyle you want.”
Clark mostly flies, preferring to work in the terminal and on the plane and land ready to go. Sometimes he takes the 6 a.m. flight out and the 8 p.m. flight home. (“Then I can sit in my hot tub and write an email and I’m in my own bed.”) To save on overnights, Clark approached a local hotel manager and reached an agreement for a fixed number of nights a month at a discounted rate.
When he chooses to drive, he’s often on the phone to other dealers, manufacturers or reps — but when he’s breaking the news of yet another operational change to staff at his California stores, he prioritizes being there in person. There’s definitely pushback from long-serving employees — “We’ve always done it this way” a common refrain — but Clark tries to be sensitive to his “stepparent” status, as he calls it.
While some of these issues would apply even to store acquisitions that have proximity on their side, Clark says the solid team in California is a major reason he can handle five locations in two states. “I still have kids at home and a great wife,” he says. “I do not want to be gone for months at a time. If you’re purchasing an existing business, make sure you’re not just buying yourself another job.”
International Family Man
For Brian Wasik and his wife, Kennetta, raising children internationally was always the plan. Wasik lives in the Dominican Republic most of the year where his wife works as a local school teacher, acting as primary caregiver to his 2-year-old and 5-year-old, while also helming two Spas of Montana stores and a Spas of Portland location.
Wasik started in sales and bought his first store, in Missoula, about five-and-a-half years ago before adding a Helena store. His Montana stores are two hours apart, and the south Portland store, which he acquired in March 2019, is an eight-hour drive from the Montana locations.
He has only lived in the DR about 18 months, but he’s on a schedule for the 3,000-mile commute — trips in October, November and March — that’s working for him. Kennetta’s teaching schedule allows the family to spend Christmastime and summers in the Pacific Northwest, where they stay with friends while Wasik makes the rounds among his three stores. (In early January, he was also in the process of buying a small pool store.)
But for Wasik, he is quick to note that his biggest obstacle isn’t the travel — it’s the time zones. The Dominican Republic does not observe daylight saving, which means Wasik is up for hours before he can reasonably call his employees. It happens at night, too: “When I put kids to bed, it’s prime selling time of 4 to 6 p.m. in my stores,” he says. It’s such a struggle that he’s considering hiring a GM to do more day-to-day tasks; Wasik already spends five to six hours a day on the phone.
While some employees have been with him anywhere from 12 to 20 years, Wasik recently had to hire someone he hadn’t ever met to run a store on Fridays and Saturdays. He also mentions anecdotally that he believes most dealers who run stores remotely have dealt with theft, himself included. He has cameras in his stores that he can watch from home.
Wasik says any owner considering running stores remotely should plan on losing money at first, or breaking even at best. To carve out the life his family wanted, Wasik took a pay cut and endured a 20% loss, mainly due to additional hires. “You have to also still pay yourself something,” he says. “You can’t just go get another job.”
Moving Among Mountains
For two decades, Michael Swartz owned a single store, Heavenly Times Hot Tubs & Billiards, in the mountains of Dillon, Colorado, a town of about 950 that boasts easy access to several ski areas. About 18 months ago, however, Swartz shook things up with the launch of a second location in Wheat Ridge, outside Denver, where the population has grown 20% since 2010. Denver is a great market for hot tubs, Swartz says, and credits the ease with which he’s been able to manage both stores to “phenomenal” staff.
Swartz spends about as many workdays in the Dillon store as he does in Denver, making the drive between stores every three or four days. He passes the 90-minute, one-way drive listening to podcasts and music, and has become highly skilled at avoiding traffic: He makes a special effort to drive the opposite direction of ski traffic and travels midday to avoid rush hours. He also enjoys his dogs’ company on the commute.
Swartz bought a home in the Denver area when he was in the process of opening the new store, and his mother-in-law recently moved into an assisted living facility there, so getting to see her more is a big plus, Swartz says. But even with more on his plate than ever, he insists that doubling his store count has been pretty breezy, preferring to stay hands off with the employees he trusts so much.
“I let them do their job,” he says. “They are making the decisions, hiring staff, they’re at the forefront of the business. My employees are my first and foremost, and I want to take care of them even better than my customer.”
Cory Jones moved to Denver to manage the Wheat Ridge location, which allowed another staffer, Derek Meredith, to move up from sales manager to store manager in the Dillon location. “I was looking forward to it and ready for a change,” Jones says.
Swartz advises owners to tread lightly when considering this lifestyle. “Your existing store needs to be on autopilot,” he says. “If you think you can leave town for a month without any connection to your store, and it did almost as well as if you were there, you can open another.”
Commuting by Camper
Blaine Budke, owner of two Hot Tub Brokers locations in Nebraska, opened a second location last May, in Grand Island. He lives in McCook where the original store is located. The drive between them? Two-and-a-half hours. The mode of transportation? Camper. He goes between stores every 10 days to two weeks.
When it’s not too cold, Budke rolls into a Grand Island campground Thursday or Friday, having spent the earlier part of the week in McCook. If it’s freezing, he’ll opt for a local motel, where he’s worked out a deal with management. Budke credits a smooth transition from one store to two to reliable staff, like his bookkeeper Jody, who has been with him for a decade, and Nic Smaha, 22, who manages the Grand Island location.
“It’s huge peace of mind to know everything’s going to be taken care of,” Budke says, adding that Smaha is doing a great job and will be running a couple of home shows by himself this year for the first time.
Like Wasik, Budke has also dealt with employee theft and now uses cameras to monitor the stores remotely. He’s aware of exposure to such risks in his absence but refuses to micromanage and consistently works so that his stores can operate without his physical presence. “I always tell the fellas,” he says, “that we want to fine-tune this machine so it can run with or without me.”
Before an owner can approach the idea of a sizable commute between stores, Budke says it’s essential to find a good manager. For him, that’s Smaha, who says Budke is like family to him. “Blaine trusts me a lot,” Smaha says. “I appreciate that he lets me run his store, and I guess I’m doing a pretty good job. It makes you want to go to work every day.”