Aqua-Tots Swim Schools
Aqua-Tots Swim Schools prioritizes its seven core values
to help it grow and expand.
By Bianca Herron
Ron Sciarro started Aqua-Tots in 1991 with one goal in mind: to provide quality swim programs for parents to enroll their children in.
In 2005, Sciarro and Paul Preston turned the seasonal swim school operation into a year-round business by opening a state-of-the-art training center. Shortly after, they launched the Aqua-Tots Swim Schools franchise model.
Preston, who is director of franchise development, says the Mesa, Ariz.-based company awarded its first franchise in 2007 in Peoria, Ariz. Since then, Aqua-Tots has had significant growth, currently with 82 locations operational across the United States and internationally in Canada, Europe, Southeast Asia, Mexico and the Middle East.
“We have 50 to 55 new schools slated to open within the next 24 months,” Preston says. “We’re teaching great swim lessons and we’re loved by our communities.”
Keys To Success
Aqua-Tots is 100 percent dedicated to teaching children how to swim and be safe around water. The company has eight swim levels, which start with children at four months and go on to 12 years old. Preston notes its clients have come to expect three things from Aqua-Tots: great swim lessons in great facilities with great instruction.
“Our state-of-the-art facilities are designed for swim instruction, so they’re very clean and family friendly,” he explains. “The pool water is comfortable at 88 degrees and the air temperature is about the same, which is very conducive for teaching kids four months to age 12 how to swim.”
He adds that Aqua-Tots’ lobbies, changing rooms and pool systems are start-of-the-art, and its customer service is unparalleled. “If you call Aqua-Tots, we’re going to answer the phone and meet your needs,” Preston says. “Be it a consult, how to get signed up, scheduling a makeup and so much more, we are customer-oriented every step of the way.”
Ultimately, Aqua-Tots provides the best swim instruction, Preston notes. “If a parent wants their child to learn how to swim, be safe around water and become a great swimmer, Aqua-Tots is the place to enroll,” he says.
Aqua-Tots attributes much of its success to its culture and how it treats its customers and family, which are its franchisees. “When I’m in the town visiting a franchise owner, it’s typically at their home where we are enjoying a meal,” Preston says. “When they’re in Phoenix in our area, they’re at our home enjoying a meal.”
Its franchisees have played a critical role in Aqua-Tots’ success, Preston says, noting the franchise has some of the most “diverse and wonderful” people in its organization.
“Whether it’s here in the U.S. or one of the 10 other countries we’re located in, our culture stays the same,” he says. “It’s the commitment from our franchise owners that really makes the difference. They genuinely want to serve their community so kids can learn to swim and be safe.”
Aqua-Tots has 20 vendors – who supply everything from merchandise to teaching equipment and branding and marketing materials – that it also considers as family. “Whether its our vendors who help us find the real estate for our facilities, or those who provide our pool equipment or the merchandise we sell in our facilities, the relationship we have with them is paramount,” Preston says.
Aqua-Tots has been franchising for 10 years, and it has maintained longstanding relationships with most of its vendors, according to Preston. “Seventy-five percent of our vendors have partnered with us for more than five years,” he says. “We have maintained these relationships the same way we have maintained our franchisee and employee relationships – with transparency, honesty and communication.”
Although Aqua-Tots doesn’t employ salesmen or advertise via the Internet for its franchise business, Preston anticipates it will receive 1,000 inquiries this year. He adds that prior to signing a new franchise owner, Aqua-Tots converses with the potential candidate about its business model and expectations.
“We want to know their business and personal goals, which I ask them to write down,” Preston explains. “Some people don’t want to do that. I ask them to do it because I want to know who they are. I want to know what drives and motivates them. Some people feel that’s too much information, which isn’t a problem. It just goes to show they’re probably not a good fit for our franchise.”
For Aqua-Tots, a new partnership is no different from getting married, according to Preston. “There’s a dating period,” he says. “So we have to ensure we’re compatible, like each other and share the same vision and goals. Some people I talk to don’t care about our core values, and some do. Those are the ones who are attracted to not what we do, but how we do it.”
Aqua-Tots’ core values aren’t just seven bullet points on a piece of paper, Preston says. The founders, franchisees and employees of Aqua-Tots make them a priority in their own lives first and then use them when conducting business, he explains.
Its first core value is to affirm each other’s strengths and protect each other’s weaknesses. “We are constantly evaluating our effectiveness as a leadership team,” Preston says. “We push ourselves, our employees and franchise owners to excel in all they do by recognizing what they do well and looking out for opportunities in areas they can improve to better help the communities we serve.”
The next few core values include treating others the way Aqua-Tots desires to be treated, extending grace to those who are teachable, seeking first to understand others before trying to be understood, and choosing relationships over profit. “We are capitalists and we need to do business,” Preston says. “However, we know if we do great business, parents will come, and kids will learn, and our community will get better.”
The final two core values include thinking outside of the box, and praising in public and correcting in private. “We have to always question the status quo, so we’re not going to rush when we do things,” Preston explains. “We’re not going to do things a certain way because that’s how it’s always been done. We’re going to think outside of the box to figure out how we can serve our customers better because that is who we work for.”
“Additionally, our company and managers lead by recognizing each other in public, and conversing in private,” he continues. “If we have a problem with one of our team members, we’re going to shut the door and talk to them.”
Aqua-Tots’ core values can be found on its website and in each of its franchise locations for parents and children to see. “These aren’t Paul and Ron’s core values,” Preston notes. “These are Aqua-Tots’ core values that people shine back on us and we reflect back on them.”
Aqua-Tots combines these core values with being a leader in its industry. “We’re not just about our great core values, but winning,” Preston says. He adds that the franchise aims to be the best in the children’s sector, and not just in swimming.
“We feel our competition is Gymboree, Little Gym and My Gym,” Preston says. “We compare ourselves to other brands. That’s what we have our goals and eyes set on, and our core values help us guide how we’re going to achieve that.”
Aqua-Tots employs 3,000 people through its franchise units. “We’re really proud to be able to provide a community and business that’s meaningful and purposeful to our employees,” Preston says. “It’s really neat when we think about how many people are out there helping children to swim and be safe around water.”
As the franchise looks ahead, it is focused on strategically expanding within its current franchise network. “We’re looking for the right franchise owners who want to come into the system and serve their community, create great teams of people within the schools, and teach kids to swim,” Preston says.
He adds that although Aqua-Tots could open 50 new facilities per year, it is only opening 20 to 30 to ensure it has the right people.
“About 75 percent of our growth is within our current franchise system,” Preston explains. “Everyone of our franchise owners is a multi-owner, so we know we’re a good business that they want to be a part of. As we move forward, part of our journey is to keep working hand-in-hand with our franchise owners. That’s how we’ll continue to be successful.”