Cover Story

Bear Necessities

Ted Hebert Sets His Own Standard of Success

COVER0914bTed Hebert walks through his store, hugging customers he knows, slapping them on the back, making recommendations, and bending over happily to pat dogs that people bring inside with them.

His positive attitude and the relaxed atmosphere that emanates throughout Teddy Bear Pools & Spas in Chicopee belies the fact that the pool and spa business is down 70% from the peak it reached between 2004 and 2005.

But Hebert has weathered worse storms, and his love for people and reputation for customer service have allowed him not only to survive when his competitors went under, but ultimately thrive during the course of his 39 years in business.

None of that has come easily. Hebert enjoyed unprecedented highs but also suffered devastating blows as his business grew from the carport of his parents’ home to the position it holds today as one of the leading pool and spa businesses in the Northeast. Still, “to me, success is not what you have; it’s about what you give back to the community,” he said. “It includes respect, which is something you can’t buy, and my goal is to make this a better world than it was when I came into it.”

Hebert’s business history is peppered with philanthropic endeavors, and he and his wife, Barbara, have served on the boards of countless charities and made an untold number of generous donations, which include the gift of a kangaroo to the Zoo at Forest Park in Springfield. They sponsor hundreds of youth and adult sports teams, and have also sponsored events ranging from the Paws Golf Tournament for the MSPCA of Western Mass. to the Shriners Chowder Bowl, which they supported for 15 years, to the local chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The couple has volunteered all over the world, and Hebert has been feted with many awards for his altruism, including the prestigious Paul Harris Fellowship for distinguished community service, which he received in 2008 from the Rotary Club of West Springfield.

He takes pride in the fact that the majority of his employees have been with him for more than three decades, his salespeople close 75% of their sales, and factory representatives come from as far away as California to learn from his business.

Teddy Bear Pools

Ted Hebert doesn’t do much advertising, but his community activity — occasionally involving his store’s mascot — is its own form of marketing.

But he has always set the bar high, and Hebert’s concern for his customers extends to the products that line the shelves at Teddy Bear Pools and Spas. The majority carry his private label and were created decades ago when he discovered the industry was reducing the quality of chemicals needed to maintain the chemistry of the water in pools and spas.

“I have some medical background, so I understood what was taking place in terms of the chemistry,” he said, adding that he hired a company to make products to his specifications, with ingredients that were better than what he could purchase and resell.

This concern for other people and their lives, which extends to their pets, was learned at his mother’s knee and highlighted by an incident that took place during his childhood.

Christmas was approaching, and although Hebert and his siblings were excited about the holiday, any hopes of finding toys beneath the tree were dashed when their mother told them money was tight and she could not afford to buy them much.

But when the doorbell rang a few moments later and a woman asked her to donate a dollar for flowers for a sick neighbor, Billie Hebert hurried to her desk and painstakingly counted out pennies and nickels until she had enough to satisfy the request.

“When I asked her why she did it, she told me, ‘it’s more important to use the money to help others than to buy toys with it,’” Hebert recalled. “She ingrained the belief in me at a young age that it was important to do what you can to make the world a better place.”

Since that time, it has been a guiding principle in his life, and to that end, he had a bench in his backyard emblazoned with the words, “make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”

“It sits by our pond,” Barbara said, “and the words are something he has always lived by.”

Getting Ahead

Hebert was a lonely child, as his mother worked two jobs to make ends meet, and his father was rarely home. He also had a stuttering problem and suffered from low self-esteem. “But I always had an innate ambition to work,” he said, adding that, by the time he was 9 or 10, he was mowing lawns, shoveling driveways, washing windows, devliering newspapers, selling Christmas cards from a catalogue door to door, and collecting old newspapers and bottles to exchange for cash.

Ted and Barbara Hebert

Giving back to others is important to Ted and Barbara Hebert, as this bench at their home reminds them.

He was hired as a busboy at age 14, and during his high-school years, he worked every night from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a dishwasher at New Bay Diner in Springfield. “I spent more time working than I did at school,” he said, noting that he took a second job during his senior year, working around the clock from Friday night to Sunday night at the Oaks Inn.

The course of his life changed when his mother purchased an above-ground pool for a Fourth of July party. The people who were supposed to install it didn’t show up, and when Hebert’s uncle volunteered to do the job, he decided to help.

They had to visit the pool store to get some missing parts, and he saw a young man cleaning a pool there and working in the display lot. “I thought it looked like a cool job,” Hebert said.

So he had his mother drive him to the store, where, much to his surprise, he was hired to fill a temporary slot, which led to a permanent position. The following summer, Hebert began installing above-ground pools with several different subcontractors, and after he got his driver’s license, he and his best friend decided to become their own subcontractors.

“I realized I could make more money that way, so we loaded shovels and rakes into my Corvette and went to work, digging by hand,” Hebert recalled.

His career soared after he began installing in-ground pools. “I fell into it,” he told BusinessWest, explaining a woman insisted he do the job for her even though he had no experience, so he tried and met with success. “By the time I was 21, I had five or six guys working for me and was subcontracting the heavy-duty equipment we needed.”

But prior to that, after graduating from high school, Hebert attended classes at Holyoke Community College. At first, his grades were poor, as he was working so many hours, but after three semesters he switched to Springfield Technical Community College, where his grade point average improved, then went on to Worcester State College, where he finally earned high grades.

Hebert wanted to become a doctor, but didn’t have the money for medical school. In 1975, after 14 rejection slips from schools he hoped to attend, he made the decision to start his own pool company from the carport of his parents’ home. It was the right thing to do, Hebert said, as his mother had suffered a mild aneurysm, and he wanted to stay home and care for her.

Although the original moniker he chose for his business was Custom Pools by Ted, his mother suggested he use his childhood nickname of ‘Teddy Bear’ given to him during a visit to his grandmother in Canada, which was a play on the French pronunciation of Ted Hebert.

“I thought the name Teddy Bear Pools was stupid,” he said, but conceded to her suggestion after he thought about it and realized everyone likes teddy bears.

By 1976, Teddy Bear Pools had grown enough to allow Hebert to rent a former car-wash bay on Memorial Drive in Chicopee and turn it into a storefront. When the property was foreclosed upon three years later, he purchased what he describes as “a beat-up car dealership in a completely dilapidated, 4,000-square-foot building on East Street in Chicopee.”

The property contained an old garage and was owned by the Partyka family. “I was blessed, as interest rates were 18%, but because they liked the idea of my business, they offered me financing at 10%,” he said.

In the early years, he did his bookkeeping himself, and the business grew steadily. Despite its success, however, Hebert suffered terribly years later when some of his employees betrayed him and mismanaged his business. The first event occurred in 1986 when an audit undercovered $1.2 million of money and goods not accounted for, and the second took place while he was on his honeymoon in 1987. When he returned, he found an additional $200,000 of money and goods missing.

“I had no business background and a great faith in people,” he told BusinessWest. “I was very naïve and learned the hard way. For many years I was consumed by hurt and pain, and my business completely controlled my life. But I finally realized that money and materials could be replaced. I have survived two mismanagements, paid off $1.45 million in debt, and never went bankrupt.”

He also refused to allow the pain of betrayal to destroy his belief in others. “The reason I survived and have done so well is because of the people who stood by my side. They were my rock.”

Innovative Measures

Today, Hebert’s retail operations are housed in an 18,000-square-foot complex of buildings in Chicopee, backed by a 38,000-square-foot warehouse in South Hadley which serves as the center for his service and installation operations. “We can service and repair up to 10 spas at a time,” he said, adding they are sent from as far away as the mid-Atlantic states, and he received a great deal of work after Hurricane Katrina.

The company also installs several hundred new pool liners each year, opens 1,300 pools each spring, and closes about 1,600 pools in the fall, which equates to roughly 40 a day.

“The business we do is not normal. We are very, very unusual,” Hebert said, adding that the store has five laboratories where pool and spa water can be analyzed and tested at no charge to the customer.

The Teddy Bear name is well-known in the community, and in the last few years, Hebert has done little in the way of formal advertising. Instead, the Teddy Bear Pools name is emblazoned on the uniform shirts he provides for sports teams. Meanwhile, he has sponsored many racecar teams and owns a Volkswagen ‘Bear Bug,’ emblazoned with his company’s mascot, and a Smart Car known as ‘Smart Bear’; both are a hit at parades and other events. In addition, he was the first local business owner to have a hot-air balloon with his company name on it.

These measures, along with his charitable work, have morphed into an indirect advertising and branding campaign. “I love helping kids and adults in any way that I can,” he told BusinessWest, noting that his work on the boards of nonprofit organizations, such as the Rotary Club, where he was named a Paul Harris Fellow for his generous contributions to society, helped spread the word about his business.

“My wife has also been very instrumental and has done a lot for local charities. She left her job after we married to help me, and we do everything together,” he said.

The business also expanded due to Hebert’s commitment to his customers, which led him to implement innovative ideas. For example, when he realized people often forgot the initial instructions they were given about how to maintain a new pool, he hired a production company and made a video that explained everything pool owners needed to know, from how to change, operate, and clean filters to how to vacuum a pool, winterize it in the fall, then reopen it again in the spring. It can be viewed at no charge on the Teddy Bear website at www.teddybearpools.com.

Then, in 2009, when pool manufacturers Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller went out of business, Hebert launched a company to make replacement parts for those brands to make sure his customers had everything they needed if a problem occurred. Teddy Bear is also one of the only companies in the Northeast that repairs automatic electric pool vacuums. “People sold them, but no one wanted to fix them,” he said, adding that he regards his customers as family, and didn’t want them to encounter insurmountable obstacles with the products they purchased.

As a result of these measures, the company soon achieved national and international recognition. Teddy Bear Pools carries Hot Springs spas and is rated 22nd out of 700 dealers in the world who sell its products. “We have had people come here from the factory in California to see how we operate,” Hebert said, “and we were one of the first companies inducted into the Aqua Hall of Fame.”

Above and Beyond

Hebert’s success led him to become a motivational speaker at national conferences in his industry, and he created eight three-hour seminars on topics that range from branding to team building to “How to Survive the Economy, the Weather, and Your Employees.”

However, he says he values the people who work for him and prides himself on the benefits he offers his 85 employees — a number that expands during the summer season.

“I consider them part of my family and believe I have been successful because I care about people, quality, and value,” he said. “We are fair in price, and I take advantage of every opportunity I have to help the community. But you are only as good as your employees, and the people who work for me are my greatest asset.”

Although no one can predict the future, Hebert says he will never retire. “I keep getting new ideas. I don’t know where they come from, but the work I do is fun and gives me a reason to get up in the morning. Every season is a new adventure, and I have been blessed to have the foresight to look ahead and see where the business is going,” he said. “But I never want to forget where I came from, and for the past 15 years, I have called customers personally to thank them for their business.”

Thus, Hebert’s reputation and business continue to grow, while he and Barbara remain committed to using their time and talent to do what matters most to them — which is, “to make the world a better place to live in,” he said.

And to swim in, of course.

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