Master Spas’ Bob Lauter, who founded the company in 1996, has retirement on the horizon.
Career shifts, cross-country moves, bold business decisions, an economic recession and a global pandemic molded the career of Lauter, who will officially retire on December 31, 2022.
Lauter played football and studied at Ursinus College (Pennsylvania), graduating in 1973. After that, he worked in the newspaper business before satisfying his need to have his own projects.
An entrepreneurial spirit guided Lauter in the early stages of his career in the spa industry. That, and what would eventually reveal itself as an incredible knack for surrounding himself with the right people.
In 1979, Lauter was in the newspaper business and was about to leave his hometown of Philadelphia for Pittsburgh, to take a job as an ad manager at a group of newspapers. But out of the blue, his best friend Dee Adcock called and asked him to start a spa division for Adcock’s family swimming pool distribution business.
Lauter recalls laughing — and warning his friend that he couldn’t even spell “spa,” let alone start a spa business. Adcock assured him that no one knew anything about spas, making him the perfect candidate. In July 1979, Lauter started MidAtlantic Spa Distributors as a division of WW Adcock, Inc.
Adcock’s confidence in Lauter was well placed. Now, 43 years later, Adcock is one of Lauter’s partners at Master Spas.
Familiarizing himself with the industry and proving himself as a salesman and leader, Lauter in 1988 took a job as vice president at Fort Wayne Pools in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Lauter left six years later after an equity group purchased Fort Wayne Pools, and says the experience and connections he gained there were invaluable.
Lauter’s next stop would be a short one — but one of his most pivotal, he says. He and his wife, Sherry, moved their family to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1994, where he became senior vice president at LA Spas. Lauter’s good friend Terry Valmassoi — now president of Master Spas — would start at LA Spas in 1995 under Lauter’s encouragement, moving his family from Southern California.
In January 1996, Lauter and Valmassoi were preparing for a pool and spa show in Atlantic City when Lauter bumped into a former Fort Wayne Pools co-worker. “He said to me, ‘Did you hear that the equity group is selling the spa division? It looks like they’re going to sell it to a company that’s not even in business anymore,’ ” Lauter recalls.
Later that evening, a friend aware of Lauter’s experience in the industry reached out to Lauter and offered to help him purchase the Fort Wayne spa division. Lauter immediately made some phone calls to determine if that was possible.
Lauter flew to Fort Wayne and met with Rick Garten, CEO of Fort Wayne Pools and one of Lauter’s business mentors. “We didn’t have a deal put together,” Lauter says, “but we felt like we got far enough along that we could do it.”
Lauter flew back to Atlantic City and turned in his resignation: “People were like, ‘You sure that’s a good idea? You don’t have a job if you do that.’ ” What’s more, Lauter was also bracing for a difficult conversation with his friend Valmassoi, who had just moved his family for his job at LA Spas.
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“I felt guilty because I was going to Terry’s hotel room to tell him I was leaving,” Lauter says, adding that Valmassoi was nonetheless supportive and even asked if he could get a job there, too.
“I was like, ‘Well, you’d have to take a big pay cut because it’s a startup,’ ” Lauter says. But Valmassoi said yes anyway.
Lauter met with the attorney for Fort Wayne Spas — who has incidentally been Master Spas’ attorney ever since — and the two worked through the night to get the deal done. Valmassoi agreed to gather Lauter’s belongings from his desk at LA Spas.
“He cleaned my office out and got all my personal stuff,” Lauter says. “That’s a true friend.”
The deal was official in February 1996. Fort Wayne had six employees working in the spa factory, and as part of the new deal, that crew was kept on — with tenure. “There were just a handful of us,” he adds, “and today we’ve got 1,000 employees.”
“It’s been quite a ride,” Lauter says. “We’ve faced some challenges, but it’s been a lot more fun than challenges — at least it seems that way to me. It’s gone by so fast. You’re focused on the challenge in front of you, and you’re not worried about all the other stuff going on.”
Once he took the risk to start Master Spas, Lauter says failure never occurred to him. “I put my house and all my assets up,” he says. “I pledged them for the bank loan, but it never crossed my mind that we might not make it.”
The biggest obstacle for Master Spas came in 1998 when the company’s largest customer, a big-box store, went bankrupt, which nearly put Master Spas out of business, too. However, the company’s shift away from big-box stores and toward dealers would ultimately transform it into what it is today.
When further reflecting on the most trying times in his career, Lauter says the pandemic — and the supply chain disruption that went with it — is the clear runner-up. But he lauds his executive team for working through the part shortages and hiring struggles, noting that the company has still been able to grow substantially.
Lauter also takes pride in Master Spas’ swim spa line, which launched “from scratch,” he says, in 2005 with the release of the H2X. Now, the company is the largest swim spa manufacturer in the world. Along the way, it developed a swim spa Michael Phelps used for training in two Olympics, and that “helped him become the most decorated Olympic swimmer ever,” Lauter adds.
Through it all, he is pleased to have stayed the course alongside many of the same people with whom his hot tub industry career began. Valmassoi will take over as CEO upon Lauter’s departure. Sam Badiac joined Master Spas just a few months after it opened and now serves as executive vice president. “They have been such a key part of our growth,” Lauter says.
Upon retirement, Lauter plans to remain chairman of the board of directors for Master Spas and continue his involvement in several charitable boards. “Sherry and I plan to do more traveling,” Lauter says, “and spend a lot more time with our 14 grandkids.”