Many spa and pool retailers are blessed with close-knit staffs. Thus, the loss of a key player can really hurt the company personally and professionally. There may be a number of reasons for a vital member of the team to depart — from layoffs due to a tough economy to personal needs or even an untimely death.

Regardless of the cause, your business must go on. Here, several retailers and consultants describe how they’ve handled such situations and discuss proven strategies for coping with the loss of essential staffers.

An unexpected blow

When it comes to the worst kind of departure, the untimely death of a highly successful and beloved employee, a list of tips and strategies is inadequate. So we begin with the story of how Backyards of America in Sandy, Utah, recovered from such a loss.

Paul Frey was considered by many to be a legend in the pool and spa industry. He had worked at Backyards of America for 18 years, and had consistently sold $1 million in spas annually. Furthermore, he was remarkably well-loved. Many people, including his boss and the owner of Backyards, Ray Schureman, believed Frey was quite possibly the best spa salesman in America.

But in fall 2007, Frey’s co-workers began noticing that he was losing his touch. Eventually, Frey would visit a doctor and discover that he had a terminal illness. But he still wanted to keep working. Unfortunately, it was painfully obvious that the effects of his illness were affecting sales.

Schureman had a talk with Frey to assess the situation. He encouraged him to take time off to try to combat the illness, but Frey didn’t want to leave. Though Frey’s limitations were affecting the business, Schureman said there was never any question in his mind about his staying on staff. As long as Frey wanted to keep working, he was going to let him.

Schureman and the other employees did the best they could to fill the gap, but, he says, they lost a few sales at the end because of the decision to let Frey keep working. They didn’t look for another salesperson because they wanted Frey to know that his position was there for him, so he could concentrate on fighting his disease.

“Nothing like this is cut and dried,” Schureman says. “It just depends on the employee and the relationship you have. But loyalty is a two-way street, and Paul was a friend as well as an employee. He put 18 years in with me, and I felt like I owed him.”

Frey passed away on Valentine’s Day, 2008, surrounded by friends and co-workers, including Schureman.

Not surprisingly, Backyards of America’s first quarter took a nosedive. “It was a bad time for everyone in the industry,” Schureman says, “and then with our sales manager passing away in the middle of everything, it was really dismal for us.”

How they recovered

Crises like these can either incapacitate a company or bring it together. Schureman believed it was important to give himself and his employees space to grieve.

First, the staff and vendors held a wake for Frey after hours, reminiscing and toasting him all night long. Later, they shut the store down for the funeral, and literally everyone came — employees, vendors and many customers.

Then, even though he felt more like “blubbering” than working, Schureman called a companywide meeting to discuss how to rise above Frey’s death and the dispiriting state of their business.

“We talked about honoring Paul by trying to emulate his genuineness and personal touch,” Schureman says. “And we’ve really done that to a great extent. Even I have tried to jump in his shoes that way, and it’s fun. But it’s a challenge.”

“Employeewise, this has really strengthened us and brought us closer together,” he says. “Now second quarter’s been awesome, and the third’s looking good, too.”

While Backyards is moving on, management realizes that some of its customers might not be ready to. For that reason, you will still find a “Mourning Paul Frey” section on its Web site,

“I decided to leave that up on the Web site for a while, maybe even until the end of the year, depending on people’s needs,” Schureman says. “We kind of want to be over it, but we need to acknowledge that many of our customers may not have been in for a while and it comes as a shock, and they need to deal with it.”

The majority of employee losses are not as severe as that suffered by Backyards. People leave to take higher-paying jobs, to follow their spouses in moves to new states, or to retire. But often there is still a feeling of loss, and Schureman’s example can be applied to such situations.

Schureman remained loyal to a valued employee. He made space for his staff, vendors and customers to grieve. He involved them in the decision of what to do to next. Through it all, he had an open-door policy for anyone who needed to talk about the situation.

A really open door

Like Backyards of America, Aqua Quip in Renton, Wash., also counts loyalty to employees and an open-door policy as key values. So Alan Wing, who used to manage several of Aqua Quip’s retail stores, found it hard to even think about leaving them. But when his wife was diagnosed with arthritis, and they were told that she would do much better in a drier, warmer climate, he approached his boss, John Antilla, vice president of sales, and the company owners.

“Instead of telling me to pack my bags and leave, as some employers would,” Wing says, “they were very supportive and said they were sorry I had to leave, but they understood, and would even help me find a new position.”

This is normal company policy for Aqua Quip. “The reality is that you’re going to lose some people,” Antilla says. “Employers get into trouble if they think their key people are going to be there forever. If you have an open-door policy, it’s easier to respond to transitions.”

“We’re a collaborative organization,” he continues. “One of the things I make very clear to people we hire is that if they need to move on, I’d like some advance notice and am willing to help out.”

He means that quite literally.

In Wing’s case, Antilla and the owners gave him all the contacts they could think of for potential jobs in warmer states, along with stellar recommendations when anyone checked his references.

It took Wing nearly a year to find a suitable job, and all the while he was giving his staff extra training.

However, when he finally accepted an offer as a territory manager working out of Arch Chemicals’ Phoenix office, it came during Aqua Quip’s busiest season. At Aqua Quip’s request and with Arch’s permission, Wing delayed his move to Phoenix for 1 1/2 months, so he could finish the season.

“The whole experience was positive,” Wing says. “Aqua Quip is very employee- and family-oriented, and [the company] is repaid with a lot of loyalty from the people who work there. And Arch has been really great, too.”

Lend a helping hand

Wing’s experience is not unique, according to Antilla. Not long ago, they helped another key person in his job search when he told them he had to move where living expenses were lower. They also assisted three former employees who now work for some of their suppliers.

“Each of them was a really good employee,” Antilla says. “Of course, we were sorry to see them go, but there were reasons they needed to do that for their own careers, and we recognized that. In each case, we were called and we gave them good recommendations.”

On rare occasions, Aqua Quip has had to fire a problem employee. But management has never had a bad experience when losing a key person, Antilla says. They make sure all employees know who is going and why, so they can explain it to vendors and customers in a positive way.

“We promote and train from within,” he says. “If a manager has someone below him or her who gets promoted to manage another store, that’s an honor. It proves they were able to grow somebody. So there are always people who can pitch in.”

In addition to making the business run more smoothly, these policies are practical, Antilla believes. In a small industry, it’s never good to burn bridges.

As for temporary leaves such as for an operation or maternity, Aqua Quip has written policies so people know what to expect. And because of the collaborative environment, Antilla says other employees always step up to handle things.

“In the state of this economy, you’re not able to hire a lot of new people anyway,” he says, “so you have to have a collaborative environment to be successful.”

As Penny Johnson, co-owner and general manager of Johnson Pools & Spas in Huntsville, Ala., points out, employees are the best asset a company has. If you take good care of them, they will take good care of you, even when they have to leave, whatever the reason.