The owner of a Wisconsin pool company saw success by putting family first
Photography by Bella Luz Photography
Dave Sturino is a musician; he plays jazz piano in four local bands in his spare time. There was a season in his life when he pursued a music career, but circumstances shifted his trajectory.
In 1980, while attending Berkeley College of Music, he searched for a job he could maintain when home during breaks. His younger brother was building above-ground pools for a store in their hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The owner hired Sturino upon hearing about his experience selling products in his parents’ Norwegian ski shop.
In winter 1981, Sturino’s father passed away, the ski shop closed and Sturino never returned to school, continuing to work for the pool company and help his mother. Trying to figure out what to do with remaining merchandise from the ski business, Sturino asked his boss if he could rent the seasonally closed pool store in Waukegan, Illinois, to sell off the products. Not only did his employer agree, but also offered Sturino a hefty commission if he managed to sell a pool in an Illinois winter.
Sturino settled on the name Hansen’s Scandinavian Ski Shop for his temporary business, in honor of his mother’s maiden name. But it didn’t stay temporary; it was so successful that Sturino ended up establishing a line of credit with distributors. From 1981 to 1983, Sturino worked for the pool company in the summer and ran his seasonal ski shop in the winter.
In summer 1984, Sturino’s employer called, saying he was closing the pool store for good and offered to sell the business to then 23-year-old Sturino at a price he couldn’t pass up, under the stipulation that he change the name. Sturino bought the business, took over the property lease and called it Hansen’s Pool & Ski. By the late ’80s, Sturino got out of the ski business, started selling hot tubs, installing in-ground pools and changed the name to what it is today: Hansen’s Pool & Spa.
Business was booming.
“A lot of people came up to me before I had kids and said, ‘Man, with your energy level, you’ll have 20 stores, you’ll have this, you’ll have that,’ ” recalls Sturino, now 58. “But sometimes you have to make choices because the business can consume you.”
Sturino and his wife Paula’s first child, Margaret, was born in 1987. “When Maggie was three, she asked me, ‘Daddy, are you ever going to be home to tuck me in?’ And I knew I had to figure this out,” he says. “I was running like a mad man and wasn’t focusing, [so I asked myself], ‘What do I do best, and how can I still be a dad?’ ”
By 1992, Sturino stopped installing in-ground pools. In 1994, he closed the Illinois store and opened a store in his hometown of Kenosha again. What started in a strip mall with three warehouses has grown to a custom built, all-inclusive Hansen’s facility, which opened in 2017. But it’s always been just the one showroom location so Sturino could have the balance he desired.
“You can spend your whole life chasing the dollar, and I’ve seen it,” he says. “I wanted to be there for my kids.” The Sturinos’ three children grew up in and around the business, but Sturino made a point never to push them into the industry.
“Neither one of them were forced to be a part of the business,” he says. “[My daughters] came to me in their mid-twenties and asked if there was a place for them in the business. And I said, ‘Of course there is’ and welcomed them with open arms.”
Margaret (Maggie) Sturino-Wood, the oldest, went to school for accounting and marketing. “Nothing really did it for me, to be quite honest,” she says. Working summers in the family business since age 15, Sturino-Wood had a taste for the industry and came back not long after college. “It really just fits me,” she says.
The Sturinos’ second daughter, Katherine Brown, also worked in the store growing up and during breaks while working toward an interior design degree. For 18 months after college, Brown did commercial design, but considered her dad’s store once the design partnership amicably dissolved.
Brown went back to doing customer service for her dad in 2016 while figure out what she wanted to do next. Taking on more responsibility the longer she worked there, Brown settled into managing the online portion of the business; about a year ago, she says her father approached her about taking on more. “I dove in since then, and I’ve been more involved than ever,” Brown says.
Even now, Sturino makes it clear his children don’t have to stick around. “He was always worried that we’d feel forced into it,” Sturino-Wood says. “Katie and I chose to come into the industry on our own.”
Sturino’s son, the youngest of the three kids, is pursuing a music career in New York. The whole family is very proud.
A couple years after coming on full time, Sturino-Wood became general manager of Hansen’s and says her dad often teases that she is his boss now. She focuses predominantly on managing sales and service routes. The Hansen’s showroom displays above-ground pools, semi in-ground pools, hot tubs, gazebos, patio furniture, grills and more.
While the company doesn’t directly provide pool installation, it exclusively partners with one contractor and acts as the go-between for customers to make it as easy as possible. Customers buy the pool from Hansen’s, making the deposit at the onset and paying the rest when installation commences. They pay the installer directly for his part.
“We help the customers get the information to him and facilitate all of that for the customers, so they don’t have to navigate questions they don’t know [the answers to],” Sturino-Wood says. “We try to make the process easier since we don’t have our own crew for installation. While we don’t hide the fact that it’s not us, we used to try and remove ourselves as much as possible because it wasn’t our company. But the customers were still calling us to figure things out…Obviously we can’t make decisions for either party, but we try and facilitate as much as we can.”
Sturino-Wood says moving to one large facility in 2017 also helped to transform the business. “We operated one way for so long — like we were stuck in 1999 — that it really pushed us out of that mode, ready to fight for something and make it fun,” she says. “It catapulted us.”
The separate sales website Sturino started about 10 years ago, which ships products nationwide, is also thriving. Brown manages NationalDiscountPoolSupplies.com, which sells myriad products including above-ground pools, pool covers, pool closing kits, pool toys and accessories, pool equipment, paint, fencing and chemicals.
Brown says this aspect of the business has grown a lot in the last year since she’s modernized the website and enhanced the online customer experience. “I don’t know if it’s the millennial in me that wants to just take over,” she says, “because I know that if someone goes to the website [it can’t look] outdated.”
Hansen’s utilizes email blasts to retain previous customers with the online store and Google’s pay-per-click advertising to attract new ones. Brown says it’s still hard to compete with sites like Amazon: “We’ve certainly had to try and find a way to make our website something that people want to go to,” she says. “With Amazon, you don’t really know who you’re buying from, so we [work to make our site] feel like it’s your local pool store online and having the customer service to back it up is something that’s important to us.”
While Sturino says he has no plans to retire anytime soon — “I have a lot of energy and I can’t be idle either,” he says — he knows the business is already in capable hands. Sturino says his daughters have done extremely well for the business and for themselves.
When Brown began to manage the online business, it was with an understanding that her long-term goal was to stick around so that, in partnership with Sturino-Wood, the two of them can continue the legacy their parents began and “try to make it as big as we humanly can,” she says.
They both appreciate the open lines of communication that being sisters provides and while they each have their department, Brown says, they bounce ideas off each other, collaborate and help each other succeed.
“Our conversations are [productive], we get a lot done in our meetings and we check each other when we’re out of line,” Sturino-Wood adds. “We want to continue growing as a business and refine our process to make customers really happy, to make sure everyone’s getting the same good experience from our staff.”
And while Sturino-Wood sees her children (now three years and nearly six months old) hanging around the store in the future, she’ll take the same approach as her dad. “If they want to do it someday, that’s great,” she says. “If they don’t, that’s great. I want them to be successful at what makes them happy, and if this isn’t it, that’s fine.” The connection between the Sturino family and legacy they seek to leave runs much deeper than a family business. “The love between [my three kids] is infectious,” Sturino says. “They laugh, they love and they care about each other. So for me, forget the business, forget everything. My success is these three kids.”