Swims & Sweeps

Clay Sherwood, owner of Swims & Sweeps, remembers walking through neighborhoods with his top hat on in the late ’80s, leaving door hangers on people’s houses — doing everything he could, really, to get his Kansas business off the ground.

“I sat down and wrote the name of every person I could ever think of that I had done work for,” Sherwood says. “I went through the phone book looked up their numbers, called them all and told them I was in business for myself, and if they needed anything give me a call.”

In 1989, Sherwood left his job as a pool service manager at a company that sold and serviced wood stoves, hot tubs and swimming pools. That same year, with some encouragement from his father who told him he was too young not to do it, Sherwood put an ad in the paper and began his own chimney sweep and pool service business. He is now the owner of four locations in the state.

In 1992, a distributor approached him about selling wood stoves and spas and he got his first retail location off the ground, something he’d wanted to do for awhile. Twenty-two years later, Sherwood just opened his fourth location in Manhattan, Kan. “It’s been a slow growing process,” Sherwood says. He had hoped to open a store in Manhattan by 2010, but he as says, at that time you “couldn’t get it out of the bank if it was your own dollar.”

When you’re in the hot tub industry, Sherwood says, the political climate and the economic climate, are “nothing more than a wave that you’re riding.

“I could tell over the last 25 years what part of the wave I needed to be on,” he says, “make adjustments and try to ride it as long as I could. It takes a scrappy individual to adjust and move. My main motto this whole time is moving forward. There are times when you’re moving laterally, but you’re still poised to move forward.”

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Sherwood says that diversification has been a key component to the company’s success, swinging from the hearth season to the pool and spa season. When the housing bubble burst Sherwood found himself falling into price wars to compete.

“We were down to 12 percent margins,” Sherwood says. When he was undercut even at that dismal percentage, he made a decision: They raised prices and put margins where they knew they were going to help them survive instead of trying to sell more for less.

Instead of chasing the small dollars, they refocused on providing specialty care — and it worked: Sales went up almost $125,000, “and our profit margin went up almost 22 percent,” Sherwood says, adding that the margins have eroded quite a bit from where they were 25 years ago. He believes local retailers are going to have to adjust even more.

“It’s really hard to be unique,” Sherwood says. “As a business, you have to make a certain margin in order to keep the doors open and the phones on. If we’re going to lose our margin on the products, we’re going to have to start making it up on the service.”

He says that for most retailers, service is where growth will need to come from, not a bigger store. “The store I opened in Manhattan is a pretty small footprint,” he says. “We went minimalistic. We have to keep our overhead down and hope the sales are going to come. That’s where everybody’s going to have to go: smaller store, maybe multiple stores, get into those customers’ neighborhoods.”