As a fourth-generation retailer, Tom Shay knows a thing or two about the business world. By the ripe old age of 9, he was helping in his grandfather’s general store in Arkansas, sweeping floors and assembling bikes. After more than 25 years in the family retail operation, he sold it in 1997 and turned all that valuable experience into a career as a business consultant, seminar leader and author.

“I’m not a motivational speaker – that’s rah-rah-rah,” said Shay, principal at Profits Plus in St. Petersburg, Fla. “I’m more, ‘Let’s talk about your business’ and figuring it out.” He’s on the road as a keynote speaker or seminar leader up to 75 days annually, and has taught at the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo, owned by Hanley Wood, parent of PSN. Shay also has written magazine columns and several small-business books over the years, such as 100 Profits+Plus Ideas for Power Promoting Your Retail Business and EZ Cashflow: Cash Software Management for Independent Retailers.

An important message Shay wants to get out there is the need to shake off old ways of thinking. With people getting information in formats such as satellite radio and the Internet, you cannot rely solely on traditional media for your marketing. And don’t try to compete with mass merchandisers on price because they see their pool chemicals as a loss leader, whereas the pool store says it’s their bread and butter. Shay summed it up thusly: “Let me tell you what my father said. ‘When a bear gets in the water with an alligator, the alligator usually wins.’ ”

Shay would like to see industry professionals adopt a new attitude toward customer relations in general. “People say ‘my pharmacist’ and ‘my dentist.’ Earn the title of ‘my,’ ” he urged. “We’ve got to see this shift in how people respond [to pool and spa professionals].”

On a final note, he explained why he likes retail so much. “Outside of police, firemen and military personnel in the line of combat, the small-business owner is the bravest thing you can do,” Shay declared. “You own the business, you’ve mortgaged your house, borrowed money, and never know what will come next. You’re taking risks and rolling the dice every day. Yet when I ask small-business owners how they do it, they say they never thought of it, never entertained the possibility of losing.”

Perhaps the great ones never do.