Location, diversification are priorities for Virginia dealer
Photography by Ryan Feister
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Ohio State University, Bob Davis took to the range as a traveling rancher. The self-proclaimed cowboy hung up his spurs in 1982 to get married, settle down in Bedford, Virginia, and work for a pool company. After two years working for individuals he wasn’t fond of, Davis abruptly quit on a Friday in June 1984 following a heated discussion with his employers.
The next Monday, Davis loaded some tools into his single-cab ’76 GMC pickup without air conditioning and went into business for himself as Aqua Pros. “I thought if I could build some swimming pools, I could make some good money,” he recalls.
In 1985, Davis and his wife, Mary, began selling hot tubs by trailer, but the touring-spa method didn’t always work. “People would just make fun of the ‘big bathtub,’ ” Davis says. In spring 1986, the first Aqua Pros retail location opened in Bedford to make selling hot tubs and chemicals easier.
With time, Aqua Pros grew in popularity. When Davis noticed customers were driving from Lynchburg — 30 miles away — to buy chemicals from Aqua Pros despite a local competing chemical store, he saw an opportunity. The Lynchburg location opened in 1996, followed by a third store in Madison Heights in 1997. The fourth opened in Salem in 2014. In 2019, the original Bedford store moved from its 900-square-foot starting location to a 5,000-square-foot renovated Cracker Barrel.
The ‘Going Home Route’
Davis hasn’t prioritized a cohesive look with all of the Aqua Pros locations. Instead, he’s prioritized customer access. For Davis, location is everything. The first thing he considered with all of his stores was whether it was a good drive-by location in a good part of town. The Salem location, which was originally a run-down convenience store on 3 acres, is in a 35-mile-an-hour zone on a four-lane highway.
“[The Salem store] is on what I call ‘the going-home side of the road,’ ” Davis says, adding that it’s a good fit to entice people who drive by the store every day.
The new Bedford location is located off one of the busiest highways in the area, with traffic constantly running from Danville through Lynchburg, on to Bedford and Roanoke. “It costs me more rent than my old Bedford store did, but shoot, it’s a great billboard,” Davis says of the size and location. “That’s worth the [extra] $1,000 a month right there.”
Instead of renting commercial property and there being no benefit for him or the company other than a storefront, Davis owns the real estate for three of the four locations and Aqua Pros pays him rent.
“If I’d been a really smart guy, I would have gotten a business degree and said, ‘OK, I’m going to build pools and get some money so I can buy these stores and rent them to myself,’ but that wasn’t my game plan from the beginning,” Davis says. “I’m fortunate that I kind of stumbled into it. A business owner can be taxed very heavily on his personal income — real estate income is taxed differently. I don’t pay myself a big salary; I make my income on the real estate.”
Managing ‘Vacation at Home’
Bob’s daughter and Aqua Pros’ operations manager Hannah Davis says things slowed down for the company for a couple weeks in the March shutdown. But Aqua Pros is considered essential and never had to close its doors, so it never got bad enough to financially harm the company. In fact, the opposite happened.
“All of a sudden we started getting calls, increasing foot traffic, and online inquiries through our website and Facebook were heavier than they have ever been,” Hannah says. “We were just so busy with people in the store and phone calls that I don’t know how many emails never even got a response, or phone calls [never returned]. You’re on all the phone lines and there’s messages when you get off.”
The busyness was great at first, Hannah says, but manufacturers having to shut down left distributors short on supplies. “I’ve never seen lead times like this — ever, ever, ever,” Hannah says. “Right now, if I placed an order, it would probably be here sometime in April. You’re trying to order based off your bestsellers, your best models and colors, and wing it. And people are still ordering.”
Display models remain on the showroom floors, rather than sold, though there aren’t as many as there used to be. “We quickly realized we’re going to need to hold on to our floor models because they’re going so much quicker than they’re coming in,” Hannah says. “We’ve got enough to show the different models, features and options.”
The sales staff have copies of the orders Aqua Pros sent to the manufacturer and are selling hot tubs off those order sheets. This means the hot tubs are sold before they’re delivered to an Aqua Pros location, even when the customer knows they won’t receive their hot tub until 2021.
Keeping it Diverse
Bob Davis says one of the keys to Aqua Pros’ success is diversity in products and services. “I don’t understand how anyone in the hot tub business can be hot tubs alone,” he says. “I see people who don’t take spa chemicals seriously. Our traffic on chemicals is large and brings people in the store daily. Every time somebody comes in, it gives my folks an opportunity to talk to them about another product.”
To keep the business thriving in the offseason, Aqua Pros sells fire pits, fireplaces, gas stoves, grills and more. The company also services these products, plus offers installations and chimney sweeps.
Diversification isn’t limited to products for Aqua Pros — the company also services all brands of hot tubs, though it exclusively sells Marquis. “It’s critically important to have a good service technician and to work on all brands of hot tubs,” Bob says. “I tell my salespeople when somebody talks to you about that, let them know we work on all brands because it helps us.” While Bob’s no longer in the field building pools, he’s still very hands on with the business and plans to be for years to come. “We have to do so much to keep the business going,” he says. “It’s a great business, but it takes a lot to keep it afloat and I think we run a pretty tight ship.”