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Greenbrier sauna business sells worldwide

By Megan Workman

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.

"The product was awesome, we didn't need to really change anything, what we needed to do was introduce it to more dealers and we did that," Mouw said. "At our first dealer conference we sold 80 units our first weekend, which was more business [than employees] had seen in years."

Mouw said the business model has changed entirely. "It's really mushroomed," he said.

Almost Heaven Saunas can be found on websites including Costco and Cabela's. Saunas sell through direct sales to customers, international accounts and at trade shows both internationally and throughout the United States.

The saunas -- which range in price from almost $4,000 to $12,000 -- are sold in a number of designs but the Renick-based company is known for its barrel design.

The circular sauna is made of western Canadian red cedar, which doesn't decay and is soft, Alderman said.

Almost Heaven Saunas has always been known for a quality, handcrafted product, but Mouw has been the exact salesman the company needed to pick up sales again, said Jonathan Alderman, an employee of five years.

"Rick has been the backbone of our company," Alderman said as he sanded a sauna door. "[The product] wouldn't go out if we didn't build them but they wouldn't sell if Rick wasn't such a great salesman."

Darrell Alderman, Jonathan Alderman's uncle, agreed.

"We have always had a reputation of producing a quality product but as far as the increase in sales and exposure, I got to hand it to Rick," Darrell Alderman said. "The change in marketing was an evolution in improvements."

The company's most recent change is the introduction of the Blue Ridge Sauna, an indoor-only sauna that is a square design.

Mouw said he challenged his eight employees, including Darrell Alderman -- who came up with the design -- to create a sauna specifically for indoors.

Darrell Alderman's design features multi-level benches -- "a biggie in a sauna because if you want to be in hotter air, you sit on a taller bench," he said. The Blue Ridge sauna launched Dec. 21 and they are already sold out, Mouw said.

Almost Heaven Saunas offered the Blue Ridge sauna special only on Costco's website. The Internet "has been huge for" the company, but more for brand awareness than sales, Mouw said.

Mouw said he is confident about Almost Heaven Saunas' future. He will continue to market the "saunas that sell themselves" internationally, too. The company has scheduled trade shows this year in Brazil, Canada and Spain.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 


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