RENICK, W.Va. -- When Rick Mouw travels around the world to market his Greenbrier Valley company's handmade saunas, foreigners almost always start singing the words to John Denver's famous West Virginia tribute.
"No matter where I am in the world, people recognize West Virginia and they all know John Denver's 'Take Me Home, Country Roads,'" Mouw said Thursday from England, where he was selling saunas at an international trade show. "The whole West Virginia thing is huge for us. It's such a huge marketing tool for us and the brand recognition that comes with an automatic comfort of loyalty."
Almost Heaven Saunas has been much more aggressive at pushing its brand since Mouw took over the failing company 14 years ago.
Today, the Greenbrier County saunas manufacturer has a solid presence in both the United Kingdom and Europe. Almost Heaven Saunas sells its well-known barrel design saunas at trade shows in Germany, France and Dubai.
As he stood on the sawdust-covered floors of Almost Heaven Saunas' warehouse in Renick this week, general manager Darrell Alderman -- who has worked at the company for 34 years -- pointed to two large boxes filled with custom-crafted saunas.
Those are headed to South Africa, he said. He shipped two saunas to Hong Kong just last week. Another went to Chile.
About 25 percent of the company's sales are in the international market, Mouw said.
It's this change -- a real, concentrated effort on international distribution -- that has brought back the business that "was on life support" in 1999, Mouw said.
In 1986, 10 years after Barry Glick and Bob Hoffa had founded what was then called Almost Heaven, the duo had achieved international recognition, according to a Charleston Gazette article. The company's annual sales had reached $20 million and employed 102 workers.
But in 1996, they filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, claming more than $1.7 million in debt, according to the article. Glick admitted at the time that he and Hoffa had "lost interest in the company."
"We succeeded and it became kind of anti-climatic," Glick said in the article.
So when Mouw -- who was president of Michigan-based GPM Industries, a swimming pool company started by his father that turned Great Lakes Spas -- discovered the deteriorating company, he saw growth potential, he said.
Mouw bought Almost Heaven out of bankruptcy for $340,000.
"The bank's goal was simply to dispose of the company, not necessarily to make it [successful again]," Mouw said. "Today we're probably the biggest saunas manufacturer in the U.S., but I don't know that."
Almost Heaven Saunas sold more than 500 saunas last year. The company is already on track to sell at least 750 this year, he said.
In three years, Mouw said he sees saunas selling in the thousands.
That is definitely an increase from the 60 saunas the 12 part-time Almost Heaven workers built and sold in 1998.