Wisconsin retailer saw success by putting family first
Dave Sturino is a musician: He plays jazz piano in four local bands in his spare time. There was a season in his life when he pursued a music career, but circumstances shifted his trajectory.
In 1980, while attending Berkeley College of Music, he searched for a job he could maintain when home during breaks. His younger brother was building above-ground pools for a store in their hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The owner hired Sturino upon hearing about his experience selling products in his parents’ Norwegian ski shop.
In winter 1981, Sturino’s father passed away, the ski shop closed and Sturino never returned to school, continuing to work for the pool company and help his mother. Trying to figure out what to do with remaining merchandise from the ski business, Sturino asked his boss if he could rent the seasonally closed pool store in Waukegan, Illinois, to sell off the products. Not only did his employer agree, but he also offered Sturino a hefty commission if he managed to sell a pool in an Illinois winter.
Sturino settled on the name Hansen’s Scandinavian Ski Shop for his temporary business, in honor of his mother’s maiden name. But it didn’t stay temporary; it was so successful that Sturino ended up establishing a line of credit with distributors. From 1981 to 1983, Sturino worked for the pool company in the summer and ran his ski shop in the winter.
In summer 1984, Sturino’s employer called, saying he was closing the pool store for good and offered to sell the business to then 23-year-old Sturino at a price he couldn’t pass up, under the stipulation that he change the name. Sturino bought the business, took over the property lease and called it Hansen’s Pool & Ski. By the late ’80s, Sturino got out of the ski business, started selling hot tubs, installing in-ground pools and changed the name to what it is today: Hansen’s Pool & Spa.
Business was booming. “A lot of people came up to me before I had kids and said, ‘Man, with your energy level, you’ll have 20 stores, you’ll have this, you’ll have that,’ ” recalls Sturino, now 58. “But sometimes you have to make choices because the business can consume you.”
Sturino and his wife Paula’s first child, Margaret, was born in 1987. “When Maggie was three, she asked me, ‘Daddy, are you ever going to be home to tuck me in?’ And I knew I had to figure this out,” he says. “I was running like a mad man and wasn’t focusing, [so I asked myself], ‘What do I do best, and how can I still be a dad?’ ”
By 1992, Sturino stopped installing in-ground pools. In 1994, he closed the Illinois store and opened a store in his hometown of Kenosha again. What started in a strip mall with three warehouses has grown to a custom built, all-inclusive Hansen’s facility, which opened in 2017. But it’s always been just the one showroom location so Sturino could have the balance he desired.
“You can spend your whole life chasing the dollar, and I’ve seen it,” he says. “I wanted to be there for my kids.” The Sturinos’ three children grew up in and around the business, but Sturino made a point never to push them into the industry.
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“None of them were forced to be a part of the business,” he says. “[My daughters] came to me in their mid-20s and asked if there was a place for them in the business. And I welcomed them with open arms.”
Margaret (Maggie) Sturino-Wood, the oldest, went to school for accounting and marketing. “Nothing really did it for me, to be quite honest,” she says. Working summers in the family business since age 15, Sturino-Wood had a taste for the industry and came back not long after college. “It really just fits me,” she says.
The Sturinos’ second daughter, Katherine Brown, also worked in the store growing up and during breaks while working toward an interior design degree. For 18 months after college Brown did commercial design, but reconsidered her dad’s store once the design partnership amicably dissolved.
Brown went back to doing customer service for her dad in 2016 while figuring out what she wanted to do next. Taking on more responsibility the longer she worked there, Brown settled into managing the online portion of the business; about a year ago, her father approached her about taking on more. “I dove in since then, and I’ve been more involved than ever,” Brown says.
Even now, Sturino makes it clear his children don’t have to stick around. “He was always worried that we’d feel forced into it,” Sturino-Wood says. “Katie and I chose to come into the industry on our own.”
The Sturinos’ son, the youngest of the three kids, is pursuing a music career in New York. The whole family is very proud.
A couple years after coming on full time, Sturino-Wood became general manager of Hansen’s and says her dad often teases that she is his boss now. She focuses predominantly on managing sales and service routes. The Hansen’s showroom displays hot tubs, above-ground pools, semi in-ground pools, gazebos, patio furniture, grills and more.
Sturino-Wood says moving to one large facility in 2017 also helped to transform the business. “We operated one way for so long — like we were stuck in 1999 — that it really pushed us out of that mode, ready to fight for something and make it fun,” she says. “It catapulted us.”
The previous strip mall showroom was able to house a maximum of 12 hot tubs on display, while the custom-built facility has doubled that, with space for up to 25 hot tubs on the floor, as well a swim spa.
Sturino-Wood follows the Facebook page for many other hot tub retailers to keep an eye on trends within the industry. “I see a lot of people heading more toward boutique style selling and floor layout,” she says, including coffee bars, which she recently added to the showroom. “Really it’s just making it more of an experience for people. They can buy hot tubs at Costco now, so why would they want to come here? We want to give them a reason why.”
That goes beyond the aesthetic of a showroom with a coffee bar, Sturino-Wood says: It includes the staff customers will encounter in the store, too.
“I try to hire genuinely good people,” she says. “I don’t care if they know how to sell or not. That comes with time, but if they are good people, customers want to be around them. We want to continue growing as a business and refine our process to make customers happy, and to make sure there are no gaps anywhere.”
While Sturino says he has no plans to retire anytime soon — “I have a lot of energy and I can’t be idle, either,” he says — he knows the business is already in capable hands. Sturino says his daughters have done extremely well for the business and for themselves.
When Brown began to manage the online business, it was with an understanding that her long-term goal was to stick around so that, in partnership with Sturino-Wood, the two of them can continue the legacy their parents began and “try to make it as big as we humanly can,” she says.
They both appreciate the open lines of communication that being sisters provides and while they each have their department, Brown says, they bounce ideas off each other, collaborate and help each other succeed.
“Our conversations are [productive], we get a lot done in our meetings and we check each other when we’re out of line,” Sturino-Wood adds. “We want to continue growing as a business and refine our process to make customers really happy, to make sure everyone’s getting the same good experience from our staff.”
And while Sturino-Wood sees her toddling children hanging around the store in the future, she’ll take the same approach as her dad. “If they want to do it someday, that’s great,” she says. “If they don’t, that’s great. I want them to be successful at what makes them happy, and if this isn’t it, that’s fine.”
The connection between the Sturino family and legacy they seek to leave runs much deeper than a family business. “The love among [my three kids] is infectious,” Sturino says. “They laugh, they love and they care about each other. So for me, forget the business, forget everything. My success is these three kids.”
Photography by Kevin Geisler
Hansen’s is selling hot tubs off inventory sheets managed by employees in Google Drive, which Sturino-Wood says allows them to see what’s coming in from all manufacturers in one place and make updates in real time. She says she was proactive about placing orders as early as possible and should soon see deliveries every six to eight weeks. Plus, the showroom is no longer empty.
“Our showroom finally looks like we’re in the hot tub business,” Sturino-Wood says. Initially, when the pandemic hit and hot tub sales skyrocketed, floor display models at Hansen’s were sold out of necessity. “When we ordered [more] spas for inventory, I was very firm on holding specific models coming in for display so our customers have product to look at. It was very tough to have no spas on the floor; I’m happy to have them back.”