Women shaking up hot tub industry with bold moves, inspiring stories
According to 2021 data from Statista, about 55.6 million women are employed full-time in the U.S. They are underrepresented, however, on career paths related to construction, and civil and mechanical engineering. These disparities can lead women to question whether they have what it takes to succeed in a male-dominated field.
Not in the hot tub industry.
The sampling offered below of six established hot tub professionals is proof positive that women’s leadership is a lifeblood for the industry. As the saying goes, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Their stories are already influencing younger generations and demonstrate that women will continue to find fulfilling careers in the hot tub industry so long as they possess passion, grit — and a degree of fearlessness.
Meg Post is the first woman to serve as president of Haviland Enterprises, and also the youngest. Post, 36, joined Haviland in 2018 as vice president of finance and became CFO in 2020 in the throes of the pandemic. As of July 1, Post was also named the company’s CEO, taking over for retiring Mike Karasiewicz.
“The highlights have been watching our team adapt and succeed while faced with a difficult and changing business environment,” she says of her proudest memories of the job thus far. “Many aspects of the market have changed, from the expectations of our customers and employees, to supply chain challenges and internal changes to improve the business. I’ve seen our team work collaboratively to stay ahead of and adapt to those changes.”
The president role, she says, is very broad compared with the CFO position. What she loves most about its multiple facets, though, is getting to spend more time with people on the manufacturing floor, and hearing their feedback on what they’re seeing and what opportunities exist to improve.
Before joining Haviland, Post spent 11 years at Adamy Valuation, where she had gotten to know Haviland as a client when she did a valuation of its stock in a consulting role. In 2017, the company’s longtime CFO was leaving, and Haviland’s chief sales officer, Art Harre, approached her as a candidate to take his place.
Post was highly confident she could do the job well: “I knew the company and knew the team,” she says, “and understood more about the company and the culture than the typical new hire would.”
Born and raised in Michigan, Post is a mom to two boys, ages 7 and 5, who keep her busy with after-school activities and games. She says Haviland staff as well as its board of directors are very supportive of women in the workforce and the notion that personal lives and professional lives can coexist.
She says she has zero reservations about being young or being a female leader. “I may not look like the previous CEOs,” she says, “but I’m very confident in my ability to lead the company.”
Post says she also enjoys seeing Haviland, which has been 100% employee owned since 2012, share its success with its employee-owners. Looking ahead, she is excited by the growth — existing and potential — of Haviland. Being able to lead the company at this stage of its life is rewarding, she says, as is watching more leaders emerge in the industry.
“I haven’t seen a ton of female leaders in the industry, but there are some, and there’s a lot changing in the dynamics and expectations of leaders in general,” she says. “I think women are well equipped to lead in the marketplace today.”
In the early 1990s, Susan O’Con and her husband Jeff O’Con purchased a hot tub from the company they now own. But before that, having bought a hot tub was the extent of the couple’s industry experience. In 2004, she got her contractor’s license and underwent an industry crash course, to say the least.
“When I think back,” she says, “I think, ‘Oh my goodness — how in the world?’ ”
As Jeff O’Con maintained their tub, he kept contact with the company’s owner. Years later, the owner of what was then called Cedar Works Spas asked if the couple would be interested in taking over. The three reached an agreement that involved the purchase of the company name, a forklift and the previous owner’s customers.
The owner was supposed to train them, but a sudden injury meant he was unable to do so. “I didn’t even know how to answer the phone or a chemical question — but I am an organizer,” O’Con says. “I read every book I could — chemistry, everything. I called the chemical manufacturers and asked them questions. I wanted to give the right answer, not just an answer.”
To this day, O’Con changes hats from one moment to the next. She was the company’s primary salesperson for years, and now as president, she handles taxes, payroll and all legalities, to name a few responsibilities. She is also a legal PSW (personal support worker) for her medically fragile 11-year-old grandson, Deyakenga O’Con, which necessitated a step back from hot tub sales. The outdoorsy family also spends time camping and riding side-by-side RZRs (a brand of small recreational off-highway vehicles).
Deyakenga O’Con’s father, Susan O’Con’s son, Dustin O’Con, is Cedar Works’ head technician. Four generations of their family live on a single property.
The line between her family and her worklife may continue to blur, as she says that even her niece, who is in her early 20s, wants to become a welder. “She said she’s going to need to be better than the guys,” O’Con says, “but I disagreed. I told her that she should hold her own standards.”
O’Con says their company is about 50/50 male to female, and hopes that, like her niece, more young women will see the pluses of joining a hands-on industry.
“Women in the industry need to raise strong women in the industry,” she says. “My mom raised me to get the job done.”
In 2018 when Melissa Deverell and Becky Smith purchased the hot tub store their parents had owned for 17 years, the subcontracted crew didn’t take kindly to the news that two women would now be running Cambridge Pool.
“They didn’t want to listen to our suggestions to make things better, faster, easier,” Smith says. “They basically stuck it to us and said we didn’t know what we were doing.” While that first year was rough, Deverell notes that most customers remained loyal, trusting that the sisters would continue their parents’ stellar legacy.
“My mom is a strong businesswoman who doesn’t take crap from anybody,” Smith says. Nevertheless, Deverell adds, “I didn’t know if I could do this.”
The sisters’ parents, Anne and Bill Grayston, purchased the business in 2002. Although law enforcement was her original plan, Smith quickly became integral at Cambridge Pool, with chemistry and mechanics being her strong suits.
Smith was wanting to buy the business, but her parents were not yet ready to retire. In 2012, she left to pursue another career. Meanwhile, in 2014 Deverell quit Toyota after 15 years of doing factory work to learn the hot tub business, anticipating she and her sister would team up when the time was right. Deverell’s instincts proved accurate when in 2018 Smith returned to the business, at which time the sisters bought the company.
“Becky and I had a big conversation: Can we do this? Should we do this?” Deverell says. The two worried for a time that the stress of ownership might erode their relationship, but their complimentary natures quickly erased that fear: “We are best friends now,” Deverell says. “We are two different, very strong women.”
Since she’s newer to the industry, Deverell says this is the first year she feels “extremely confident” and is not questioning her abilities, which she credits to her mom and sister “pushing me and being there for me.”
The store’s spa sales over the past two years are their highest ever, and they are aiming to keep those numbers up despite rising costs and the return of travel that had halted during COVID.
They’ve also changed up their interview process in the hopes of enticing more women into integral, detail-oriented positions. If they apply for retail, Smith and Deverell may casually let slip that the service department is also hiring. Not to knock the guys, Deverell says, but women “pay more attention to the messes. They remember to fill out work orders. They lock the gate when they leave.”
There are so many roles for women in this industry, Smith says, and opportunities that play to anyone’s strengths. “We want them right there with us, making decisions,” Deverell adds. “It does a lot for women to see us in this environment. We’re killing it, and we’re loving it.”
The Customer Service Director JaimeLee Wright Dream Maker Spas Lake Mary, Florida
Sixteen years ago, JaimeLee Wright was a receptionist for Sunrise Spas in Canada. She’d completed a master’s in education, but needed a holdover job between graduating and her first teaching position.
- Sponsor -
“I really fell in love with the business and how it works, top to bottom,” says Wright, who has never returned to teaching. Dream Maker hired her 10 years ago as a customer service representative, and from the beginning she says,“I’ve always had my nose in the other departments and have been invited to collaborate.”
When Jacuzzi bought Dream Maker in 2020, Wright’s job as customer service director became more focused on mentorship, management and leadership, and since then the company has grown from 50 employees to 200. On any given day, Wright may have marketing and/or customer calls, operations meetings or customer service meetings — all of which she says serve to foster relationships that are “the beating heart of every company.”
Wright says the hot tub industry has been really welcoming to her, adding, “I haven’t met a door that hasn’t opened.”
Wright has two children, 8 and 4, who have grown up in the industry witnessing both of their parents’ hard work. (Wright’s husband, Ryan Wright, is Dream Maker’s director of manufacturing.) On weekends, the kids can often be found creating YouTube videos about why it’s important to buy a hot tub. As a family, they enjoy returning on trips to their native Canada.
While Wright says that she knows she works in a male-dominated industry, it doesn’t quite feel that way to her: She has frequent interactions with every Dream Maker department and has female colleagues everywhere from technical and warranty to troubleshooting.
“In today’s space, females are taking the lead on everything,” she adds, “and impacting quality and production everywhere. Every position is an opportunity, and I see many females coming into the industry and succeeding.”
Tracy Sheriff is one of four members of her family who work for Atlanta Hot Tub Center. It started with her son, Cory Sheriff, who worked for owner Brian Johnston as a delivery tech. When Johnston was looking for an office manager, Cory Sheriff encouraged his mom to apply. After 11 years in the HVAC industry, she hit the hot tub ground running.
Sheriff has always thought of herself as a quick study, and is fascinated by how hot tubs are made and how they work. “I love to challenge myself,” she says, adding that she’s also proud of how, with her influence, the company has gone paperless. “We were doing everything handwritten,” she says. “Every invoice was handwritten. But we were growing so big, we needed a [software] program.”
Seven years later, Sheriff remains in this fast-paced role, from which she has relished watching the bustling business grow. “It has been tremendously busy,” she says, “and we exploded when the pandemic happened.”
In addition to Cory, her son Ian has also worked at Atlanta Hot Tub Center in the past, both sons have gone on to start their own businesses in welding and mechanics. Her brother-in-law, Dusty Baker, however, serves as Atlanta Hot Tub Center’s sales manager to this day.
For Sheriff, her days are diverse. She manages the office, but also does sales and dispatching. She jokes that she is a “Jack of all trades and master of none.”
After work, she goes home to her 45-acre farm to cut the grass and make sure the animals have what they need. “We have free-range chickens and dogs,” she says, “and we are looking at getting cows again and more chickens.”
She also became a certified service tech this year in the hopes of being able to better answer customer questions and was one of two women in a virtual class of about 12 students — although in a recent sales class she took, she reports it was an even split of men and women.
“When 2020 happened … more women were looking for something to change,” Sheriff says. “The industry has grown and it’s for everyone. I have a gal in the office who does estimates who’s dying to get out in the field and become a service tech.”
Sheriff has every intention of continuing her industry education as well as helping other women carve their own paths in the industry. Eventually, she’d like to travel to the manufacturer’s plant in California “and watch how they make the hot tub from start to finish.”
The Innovator Angie Pettro Spazazz Spanish Fork, Utah
Even before women broke into the world of business, they were innovating — take for example the invention of the aquarium, the paper bag, the dishwasher and Kevlar, all of which were innovations brought on by women.
Today, Angie Pettro’s own innovative mind is what she credits much of her success to. Though she laughs when referring to herself as such, Pettro is the president and CEO of her own company, which has for almost three decades been producing variations on an aromatherapy product she named Spazazz. According to Pettro, Spazazz was the first aromatherapy spa and bath salt ever produced, which she introduced into the market in 1993 while living in Southern California.
“We were filling this swimming pool, and we wanted to get a hydrotherapy hot tub as well. We did, and then…the chlorine,” Pettro hesitates: “I am sorry, you know, the chemical smell?”
Pettro says she immediately sought a solution. With the help of a local chemist, Pettro created what she believes to be the first ever aromatherapy salt base. “And then I labeled it ‘a crystal to soak in with Epsom salt and magnesium.’ That way, we were able to make a therapeutic blend, as well as one that smelled really good, so you wouldn’t have to smell the chlorine or bromine.”
From there, Pettro took her concoction to trade shows, where she was typically among the only female business owners. Initially, she says, the response was not encouraging.
“[I was] quite naive when I walked in,” Pettro admits. “It was all men, and nobody really was familiar with aromatherapy back then. They were like, ‘Are you the medicine lady coming through town?’ ”
All that changed when a small retailer called Bath & Body Works opened in New Albany, Ohio, and began gaining worldwide attention. “The men were suddenly getting educated by their wives or significant others about how orange is energizing, lavender is relaxing, etc.,” she says, “and we kind of took off after that.”
Today, there are countless aromatherapy bath salts on the market, which means competition can be fierce, but Pettro says nothing can stop her from finding new ways to innovate.
In more recent years, Spazazz has developed a spa bath bomb as well as a line of CBD products that came out during the height of the pandemic. “We will keep on pioneering and being the first to come out with new ideas,” Pettro says. “We will keep being the leaders in the aromatherapy hot tub industry.”
Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Sabeena Hickman was never given any reason to doubt her ability to succeed in any field, regardless of anyone else’s expectations. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, she had already witnessed her mother break down more cultural barriers than she would ever have to face, even as president and CEO of the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance, the world’s largest and most established swimming pool and hot tub association.
While the pool and spa industry, like many others, is still very much a boys’ club, Hickman says the attitudes in India, when her mother was growing up, were even more patriarchal. In fact, as recently as 2019 the database management company Prime Database found that, out of 100 CEOs and managing directors listed in India’s national stock exchange, only about three were women.
“[My parents] had the traditional arranged marriage,” Hickman says. “And when you think of the Indian culture, you think of the male and the subservient wife, the homemaker.”
Regardless of cultural pressures, Hickman’s mother earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees, then after moving to the United States and starting a family, pursued a career as a librarian.
There was never any question as to the value of a good work ethic growing up. After graduating from Virginia Tech, Hickman quickly found herself drawn to association work, where she rose quickly, becoming CEO for the National Association of Landscape Professionals; she would work there for nearly 12 years. In 2019, a colleague informed Hickman that the PHTA needed new leadership, after having just finalized a massive merger of two previously contentious associations: the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals and the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
The challenge intrigued Hickman, who notes she has always enjoyed uniting different groups and cultures, feeling that when done right, the combined strengths of both can emerge. Since taking over, Hickman has fallen in love with the pool and spa industry, mainly thanks to the relationships she has developed with some of PHTA’s 3,600 members.
“I love the members,” Hickman says. “We’re working for an industry where the members really appreciate and value the work that the organization does, and they’re so heavily engaged in their trade,” Hickman says. “The amount of volunteer time and talent that they give to this organization — it’s incredible. They make it fun.”
Her passion for growth and improvements among the organization’s members make her optimistic about the future of inclusiveness and diversity in the industry. A mother to two sons, 18 and 21, Hickman says the more that women are seen in leadership, the more the next generation will recognize it as normal.
“Hopefully, I’ve left an impression on them,” Hickman says. “I’ll always be ‘mom’ to them, but when they see me in my work mode, they’re like, ‘Mom, how did you do that?’ ”