in 1977, Alice Cunningham and her husband, Blair Osborn, left good jobs to start Olympic Hot Tub Company. Cunningham says her father cried when she told him she was leaving her cushy government job.
The couples’ wish list for their first location sounds more like a home than a retail store: on the lake, deck, full kitchen, fireplace. “Since hot tubs were so new, no one knew what they were,” Cunningham says. “So we thought we were going to invite people for lunch and then show them the hot tubs.”
And they actually found a place that fit the bill, but no one could find it and there was no parking. They constructed the wooden hot tubs in the basement. “We had to roll the tubs up this ramp — it was essentially a boat dock,” Cunningham says. “It had a great view, but was totally nuts as a location.”
Listening to her talk about early business foibles — paying for the design of a nice logo that was expensive to print; shooting a brochure that cost $3 a piece to produce; picking an advertising firm that went out of business before it paid its bills — you wonder how it didn’t become a statistic.
In 1978 the couple decided to try their luck at the Seattle Home Show. “It was [the shows] first year in the Kingdome, so it was a really big deal,” Cunningham says. But the only booth they could get was up on the mezzanine level, where no one went. A couple of weeks before the show, however, a space opened up.
“We got the booth because the guy died,” Cunningham says. “And then you had squatter’s rights, so you had the space forever.”
Another lucky break came in the form of teaming up with a burgeoning company called Watkins Manufacturing. Plastic hot tubs were all the rage at the time, but they couldn’t find one that met Blair’s high standards. A professor of engineering for many years, Blair was hard to impress — but when they went to check out the Watkins brothers’ operation, Blair remarked there was “nothing wrong with it.”
“That’s engineer-eze for, ‘It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.’” Cunningham says.
“If we hadn’t found those guys, I don’t know if we’d be out of business or what,” Cunningham says. “They made such a quality product that it’s just been a joy [to sell].”
Another reason Cunningham believes they stayed afloat is that they have a low threshold for embarrassment: “If you quit your great government job and you start a funky venture, you don’t want people to say I told you so,” she says. “We always operated from a position of generosity. I’m active in the community and a lot of nonprofits; that’s always been very important to us. We’ve never missed a payroll. We just borrowed on our credit cards. I sold a house I had in Berkley, and we just muddled through.”
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Suffice it to say, they aren’t muddling any longer. Olympic is now one of the largest and most well-known hot tub sellers in the country.
Cunningham says the first sales training seminar she went to, the presenter Harry Friedman told her she was being too soft on her employees.
“He said, ‘You’re not running a business, you’re running a social service agency!’” Cunningham says. “But I always see it as more collaborative — that’s my style. I like to get people to sign on.”
Many of Olympic’s staff have remained with the company for years. Olympic’s vice president Don Riling has been with the company for 19 years.
“Without sounding schmaltzy, [Alice and Blair] are really stars in my book,” Riling says, “because they have given us a place to work that’s unique. I think it’s easy for employees to lose sight of that. It’s so easy to get into the grind and focus on the one thing you wish would be different instead of the 85 things that might be right.”
Cunningham says hiring people who are better at things than she is has allowed her to focus on marketing, which she loves.
“It’s absolutely critical,” she says. “Every sales person I have now is far better than I ever was. The jobs are so differentiated, so you’re not jack-of-all-trades; you’re a specialist. I had to learn to delegate. That was very hard. When people prove that they’re as good or better than you, you can really let go.”
Riling says that attitude has allowed him personally to thrive and kept him interested and challenged in his work.
“When you work for people like that, it makes you want to be better,” Riling says. “The culture of customer care can so easily degrade,” Riling says. “When the recession hit we decided we were not going to cut service or employees. When people were having such a hard time financially, they didn’t want to have the company that they counted on suddenly say, ‘Well, the sad thing is we’re not doing this anymore and we’re not doing that anymore.’ Their perception of value gets diminished and they lose faith in you. We never did that.”