Power Women: Rita Rowlen and Kara Weed

Rita Rowlen and Kara Weed
Ultra Modern Pool & Patio
Wichita, Kansas

When Rita Rowlen’s father, Cecil Schniepp, started his swimming pool construction and retail business in 1954, his dream was to have all seven of his children in the business. In fact, most of them were required to work in the stores after school.

Though most of his children stayed in the industry in some way, it was his three daughters who bought the business from him in 1986, with two sticking with it for the long run, Rita Rowlen and Linda Wallace.

“I put an offer in writing, put something together that I thought was fair and did a payment over time,” Rowlen says. “I believe to this day, had I not done that, he would still be the owner.”

Rita’s advice for women in the industry: Sometimes you have to demand to be respected, lead with authority and not give them the opportunity to question you. Start your conversation with control and ownership of your knowledge, to the point where the customer knows you know what you’re talking about.”

Rita Rowlen

Rowlen and Wallace remained partners running Ultra Modern Pool & Patio in Wichita, Kansas, for 32 years until Wallace’s death, when Rowlen took on full ownership. Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, the business is primed for the third generation, in Rowlen’s daughter Kara Weed, to take ownership.

Rowlen remembers how difficult it was for male customers to take her seriously in the ’60s and ’70s. After she answered a question, men would then repeat the same question to the less-qualified and equally young man in the room. “The guy would have to answer exactly what I answered,” Rowlen says. “And this would continue, [the customer] wouldn’t talk to me at all because I couldn’t know anything.”

“Eventually, there were so many women in our store that most of the time we didn’t have a man to talk to,” Rowlen says. “That got to be known in our town that it was women who were running it. And then we rarely had an issue with it.”

Rowlen was truly a trailblazer in the hot tub industry, not only with business ownership but also as part of what was then called the National Swimming Pool Institute. She served on the regional Kansas board for 20 years as well as on the national board. “I like to share best practices and things that would help other businesses,” Rowlen says. “I was all about helping our industry grow and have a good reputation.”

She was part of a small group of around six pool and spa retailers from across the country called “Pool Pros” who got together to share “all of our best practices, marketing, finances,” Rowlen says. 

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It was because of that group that Rowlen also became an early adopter of e-commerce when three of them (Brian Quint from Aqua Quip, Dennis Marunde from Arvidson Pools and Spas and Rich Werber from Great Atlantic Hot Tubs, Pools & Saunas) joined her to run pools.com where they sold and shipped pool chemicals, equipment and covers.

Weed also grew up working at the family business but got a degree in accounting and worked in Texas for Koch Industries. A series of tragedies made her realize if she had any interest in running the business herself, she needed to get home. Her aunt Linda and her father were both terminally ill, and her mother was in a serious car accident that required her to have multiple surgeries. Rowlen was considering closing or selling the business.

“I was like, ‘What if this isn’t an opportunity anymore and I come to regret it?’ ” Weed says. “So I said [to Rowlen], ‘Can you hang in there a couple more years with me, and I’ll come back and see if this is a fit for me?’ ”

It only took her a few weeks to move back to Wichita in September 2015. Eight years later, Weed is the managing member and co-owns Ultra Modern with her mom and plans to eventually buy her out completely. It’s a process Rowlen believes is necessary for a proper handover, like what she did with her dad all those years ago.

“[Parents] start a business as a way for retirement, and [children] can’t expect them to give it to you for free,” Rowlen says. “You need to make a fair offer for both parties and also then honor that person.”

“And now [Rowlen’s] my sounding board and where I get advice when I need it,” Weed says.

Weed says growing up tagging along with Rowlen to industry events, she saw the long-term friendships that Rowlen made and how the industry offered travel opportunities (Rowlen has visited around 25-30 countries for various events and incentive trips.) 

Weed knows she has big shoes to fill — in fact, she even considered not changing her last name when she married because she knew it carried weight in the industry. But Rowlen feels more than comfortable with Weed at the helm. 

“The business couldn’t be in better hands,” Rowlen says. “She’s smart, she’s bright and she’s a people person.”

  As a third-generation owner, Weed says the fourth generation of potential owners are already working in the business and says, “I definitely see how this will continue.”