Strength in Diversity

Working to bring more underrepresented groups into the hot tub industry

Racial and gender diversity in the workplace has been a priority for business owners in recent years and for good reason. A variety of perspectives and backgrounds stimulates innovative thinking and problem-solving; diverse workforces also tend to attract a wider and more varied customer base. 

For many young job seekers, a company’s commitment to hiring women and minorities is not merely a preference, it’s a requirement. As civil rights leader Jesse Jackson told “Crain’s Chicago Business” in a 2007 interview, “Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It’s the key to growth.” 

Room for Improvement

How is the hot tub industry faring regarding attaining and maintaining a diverse workforce? There isn’t much in the way of hard statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is much room for improvement.

 “I would say there’s a lot of male energy in the hot tub world,” says Sky Matula, president of The Hot Tub Store in Santa Rosa, California. “I think having diversity in the workforce and in company culture is really important.” 

 Matula took the reins at the 50-year-old, family-owned company ten years ago following the death of his mother, Ellen Friedman, a well-known and respected industry professional who had been president of The Hot Tub Store for 25 years. 

 “I’m proud to say that we have a pretty good mix of people,” Matula says. 

His company’s general manager, CFO and one of the sales managers are all women. His sales and service teams are both fairly racially diverse, though he admits that has come about primarily by luck, not as the result of specific steps. 

“We’re just trying to find good quality people to represent our company and our products,” he says. “Our sales associates are 50-50 male and female. Having this mix is extremely important.” 

Proactive Hiring

Some spa retailers say they would like to add more minorities to their teams but have had a difficult time, as the pool of applicants for specific jobs frequently skews toward white men. Don Riling, president of Olympic Hot Tub in Seattle and a 28-year veteran of the industry, has little patience with this complaint. 

 “That approach is so passive; I can’t stand it,” Riling says. “If you have an active interest in changing the look of your workforce, then you have to take the bull by the horns and actively participate in getting involved in minority communities.”

If you have an active interest in changing the look of your workforce, then you have to take the bull by the horns and actively participate in getting involved in minority communities.

Don Riling, Olympic Hot Tub

 He suggests reaching out to local organizations in Black/African-American, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ+ and other minority communities, many of which have career boards or other means of connecting business owners with applicants. 

In the seven years since Riling bought Olympic Hot Tub, he has committed to diversifying his team of employees at all levels, which includes seven stores, with an eighth store being added later this year. He says minorities comprise 31% of his 63-person workforce. 

Riling attributes that success in part to his location in Seattle, a metropolitan area that is both highly diverse and socially progressive. He also ensures there is some diversity in the charities his business contributes to and the philanthropic work it is involved with. Additionally, he believes being openly gay has helped further this mission. 

 “I’ve been pretty open about being gay,” Riling says. “I think that has afforded us the opportunity to attract people who have more diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. We’ve got a lot of diversity now compared to when I bought the company. It’s dramatically different.” 

Evaluating Priorities 

Glen Llopis, a workforce development consultant in Holly Springs, North Carolina, recommends companies prioritize diversity and inclusion at all levels. 

“They can do this by creating a welcoming, inclusive work environment that values diversity of thought, providing opportunities for growth and advancement for all employees regardless of background ethnicity,” he says. “Additionally, companies should invest in diversity training programs, mentorship opportunities and regularly measure progress toward their diversity goals.” 

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 Regular feedback from minority employees on how the company can improve its support and inclusion efforts is also important.

 “It’s essential to hold leadership accountable for creating an inclusive workplace culture by setting diversity and inclusion goals and measuring progress toward those goals,” Llopis says. “This sends a clear message that diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords but values that the company takes seriously.” 

Ronak Shah, president of Tulsa-based Galaxy Home Recreation, along with his three fellow co-owners, has achieved a high degree of diversity at the company’s five stores in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Rogers, Arkansas. 

Our society is diverse, and the people who work in this business need to represent that customer base. If we want to continue selling backyard recreation, then we need to look like the people that we want to serve.”

Ronak Shah, Galaxy Home Recreation

 “Our society is diverse, and the people who work in this business need to represent that customer base,” Shah says. He notes that a new, young generation is now homeowners and parents, and the pandemic has put an increased emphasis on home activities. “If we want to continue selling backyard recreation, then we need to look like the people that we want to serve.”

For Shah, diversity did not come about organically or through a happy accident. It was a deliberate process. 

 “Our business was growing before COVID, but like most spa retailers, it grew a lot during COVID and continues to grow,” he says, adding they are getting ready to open two new stores. “As we have been hiring and scaling our workforce like never before, we have been very intentional about finding folks who are younger, finding people who are of different races and backgrounds and having more women in our workforce.”  

 The 40-year-old Shah is of Indian descent, as are the other three co-owners of the company — Shah’s wife, his sister and his sister’s husband. Having four young Indian-American owners at the top contributes to the perception that Galaxy Backyard Recreation is a company that welcomes diversity and where a member of a minority group could happily work, he says. They have also been very deliberate in having women and minorities in managerial positions, which helps greatly when the company is recruiting new employees as they are the ones interviewing potential hires. 

 Shah says as the company has grown, they have also become more flexible about allowing employees to work remotely, more considerate of single parents and more invested in social and charitable activities, which he says has contributed to maintaining workforce diversity. 

 “It’s important to consider that diversity means more than just adding minorities to the workforce,” says Sabeena Hickman, president and CEO of the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance. “Companies that are looking to diversify should consider developing a diversity, equity and inclusion council, conducting a company audit and setting goals for what you want your workforce to look like and why.”

 The PHTA created its own diversity, equity and inclusion value statement, which is posted on the trade association’s website, phta.org

Open Communication 

To ensure minority employees are supported and retained, Hickman recommends ongoing, open communication so employees are heard and valued as well as adding employee resource groups and getting executives involved in the process. 

 “True change happens at the top,” she says. “It’s important to listen to your employees to understand their needs and how to best support them, rather than assuming you know.”   

 At Galaxy, Shah says the biggest thing they do to support minority employees is be open about how management can do better. Now that they have more transgender and openly gay employees, management is more attentive about having unisex restrooms and ensuring pronouns are respected. 

The hot tub industry faces big challenges in finding, hiring and retaining qualified workers. To help address this, the PHTA developed Work in Aquatics, a new workforce development program, which Hickman says is the first of its kind in the industry. WorkInAquatics.com, a dedicated job seeker website and job board, launched this spring with the goal of attracting a more diversified workforce to the industry. 

Hickman says the website provides resources and information on career paths and growth opportunities, and a full marketing program will help it reach job seekers at every stage of their careers.