On today’s Bottom Line Faith, Ray travels to the headquarters of Aqua-Tots to visit with their co-founder, Ron Sciarro. Ron’s story takes us from his plan of being a firefighter to reaching people around the world with the Scriptural values he and his team members live out on a daily basis.
Tom Pace started PaceButler Corporation in 1987. He currently serves as the CEO of PaceButler, MentorHope Publishing, and World Book Bank, Inc. He is a popular author and business mentor, helping people be successful in their business and personal lives.
“Let’s not just be quick to listen, but let’s be careful who we’re listening to.”
“The ‘stop’ list is almost harder to do than the list to do.”
“Doing good business is maintaining good relationships.”
1. Hard is not bad, but it is hard.
2. The trial is the blessing that produces the perseverance and the character.
3. How to distinguish between core values and good suggestions.
4. Make sure your leadership team is in alignment.
5. God honors transparency and humility.
Ray: Well hello everyone, this is a Ray Hilbert. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith and if this is the first time where you’ve checked out the program, thank you and welcome. We are excited today to be in Mesa, Arizona. We are at the franchise headquarters for Aqua Tots Swim Schools and I’m going to tell you, I have a little bit of excitement about the interview today. My 17 year old daughter McKinsey works for Aqua Tots in my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. So I’m the dad of an employee for this organization. And so I’m really excited to introduce you all to our friend. And now your friend Ron Sciarro, who is the co founder here at Aqua Tots. Ron, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Ron: Thank you. Thank you. The pressure is now having a father with the employee that works one of the store,
Ray: She’ll probably be the first one to listen to the program and say, yeah, dad, that’s how it is. So that’s success here. But Ron, what we’re going to do today on our conversation is we want to hear the story of Aqua Tots. What, why, and how you founded the company and got involved there. We want to hear and learn about your core values and we want to learn about lessons learned in the hard times as a leader and so forth. But most importantly, we want to learn how your Christian faith shapes your leadership and business. And so if you wouldn’t mind taking a couple of moments here and tell us what is Aqua Tots, what do you do and why did you start this business in the first place?
Ron: Well, Aqua Tots was formed in 1991. We did about 27 years ago, and it was based on a premise of how do we help families teach their young children what to do if they were to fall in the pool. So whether you go to the Lake, if you’re in Michigan or wherever it may be, if a child were to fall in the pool, would they know how to swim over to the side and get out of the water and get out? So years ago, when I was much younger, we had my wife and girlfriend at the time in high school, we both taught swim lessons and we had an opportunity to teach. And as we taught, parents started asking, Hey, would you teach my kids? And it just kind of that word of mouth referral. I actually trained to be a firefighter. So my first day training and then getting to the station, I realized I wasn’t supposed to be a firefighter, I was supposed to do Aqua Tots.
So I left. So I can’t really say I was a firefighter. I showed up, but I didn’t even get a paycheck. So I left. That felt God calling me to do something that would make a difference in people’s lives and partnered with families to help get their kids safe. That’s really how it started. And then from there it continued for years. About 13 years ago, our business partners, Paul and Heather Preston partnered together with us and we began to franchise this concept of how do we not just do this in Arizona, but we started having a request around the world in different states in the United States and saying, would you come here? And that’s where Paul came in and he’s a systems guy. We always tease each other because I’m the Italian and he’s the German. So he’s very systematic and I’m very idea oriented, and it allowed us to really put those two together.
God had this idea of putting us together to build something that helps countries and States alike. You know, we all have kids, whether it’s your daughter growing up or it’s young kids, we don’t want anything to happen to them. Usually when you have a young child from about four months to maybe five to seven years old, it’s that real dangerous time. Unlike like playing soccer or football, it’s more of a life skill than what we realized. We didn’t, this was not what Paul and I planned. This was just what God and his sense of humor put us through. Neither of us are swimmers. He was a golf pro. I was a firefighter to be. And we get involved in swimming and the idea was he basically shared with this, I have this vision that it’s not just swimming in, it’s about creating opportunities to talk to people around the world about the two most precious things to them: their kids and their family. And Aqua Tots became a conduit to do that with them.
Ray: And that’s really exciting. And so give us an idea of the size and scope. So you franchised out, did you say 12 or 13 years ago?
Ron: 13 years ago we had two locations. Right now we have 87 locations.
Ron: We’re in about 14 countries, nine languages, about 3,000 swim instructors. We just a lot of people, we do about 4 million swim lessons a year.
Ray: No kidding.
Ron: About 76,000 swim lessons a week. So an enormous amount of the numbers beyond what we ever imagined. It’s kind of that Ephesians 3:20, it’s that measurably more than we can ask or imagine. And it’s almost the more we take our hands off the wheel and realize we’re not so smart, but we know the creator who is smarter. And I just got back from Lebanon and we were talking about the cedars of Lebanon and the idea of, you think about Nehemiah and you think about building a wall and the idea of providing all the things, supplies, money, time signatures, approvals, and to have a sword in one hand and rebuild a wall on another.
Well, I think if I think of a leadership lesson that I would say Paul and I have learned is we’ve realized the Lord is the provider and the Gyra. And part of that providing is just saying, okay and saying, okay Lord, if that’s where you want me to go, I’ll go and I’ll be okay with it. Not knowing what tomorrow brings, but trusting that today not only just has enough for today, but that when you step back and say, gosh Lord, just take my day, and we call it taking our hands off the wheel. Just take our hands off the wheel and just be okay with the moment. We’ve watched the Lord do things where we just go, okay, that was crazy. But it was a good, crazy, you know, it’s one of those things.
So that’s how the whole franchise, and now it’s just, you can’t stop it in. The more we try to slow down, the more we watch the Lord show up and say, don’t get comfortable. We’re going this way and we’re going that way. And you know, there’s not like, we get to go have stores in Italy or France. We’re going to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and places where there’s tanks and you know, so it’s where he’s moving and we’re just being a part of it.
Ray: Yeah. So 27 years now, coming up in April. First of all, congratulations. What an incredible journey this has to have been for you. So I’m sure in spite, I don’t want to say in spite of your Christian faith, but probably perhaps because of it, you go through peaks and valleys. Would you just maybe give an example of some time that was a really low point for you? A dark place because one of the things we wanted to do here at Bottom Line Faith is we want to encourage. There’s probably a business leader or an owner listening right now that’s in a dark place or they’re really discouraged and they’re wondering how am I going to make it through this? And if this conversation can just be an encouragement, then that’s a win. So could you share maybe a dark season or a valley that you’ve gone through in the last 27 years and what was it that brought you through that? How’d you get through it?
Ron: So I have, you guys are in my office right now. I have some of you may recall the, the thing is called the Hot Wheels car. I have a bread truck Hot Wheel sitting on my desk in front of my computer as a reminder. So five years ago we had four employees working in our office in our franchise headquarters office five years ago. Two of those four were Paul and I full time. And the other two were other two full time people. Today we have almost 30 people working full time here in our headquarters, not including Paul and I. And if you just peel the layer back five years ago, let’s just go to the six year, we were on the verge of when we, you wonder is there enough cash to come in to pay the bill to do this idea? In this case called franchising.
And we have, every year we have interns come in and they ask, they get to ask us questions, and the question that you just asked, highs and lows. They always ask this question, do you ever feel like quitting? And I pull out my bread truck, Hot Wheels car, and I set it down on the desk and I say to them, well, let me tell you the story about the bread truck. This is called bread truck Monday. This is a story about my life of a leader leading all week long. And then by Friday crying out to God saying, what am I doing? This is nuts. I have no money. I feel the stress and the burden. Nobody cares. Everybody hates me right now. And by Sunday night I’m saying I want to quit. I want to quit and I want to go on Monday and a drive for a bread truck.
I want a delivery route where I can close the doors of the bread truck, lock it, turn on country music, smell the fresh aroma of bread, and then drive around the city and say, Oh, hi Mark. Here’s your bread. Oh, hi Ron, how are you? And they love me and I get in my truck and I drive it onto the next, Hey Ray, how are you? And do that all day. And then I share with them that would be good for about a week. And then about a week later I would realize I’m running from the very thing the Lord had called me to do. And although the bread truck Monday would be great for Ron because I would want to escape, the reality is I don’t need a bread truck at all. What I’ve learned to do over the years, particularly in the last five years as Aqua Tots exploded, is learn to trust more.
And when it doesn’t make sense or the cashflow is not there or the people in this crisis and there’s a PR whatever going on, is learning to be okay in the chaos or the trial, if you will, that it is. So when it says in James, consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, I realize the very trial is the blessing that not only just produces the perseverance and character that hope, the hope that it’s described, the hope in the Lord, that the joy of knowing God’s got this. And so I would tell you my lowest is on a Friday and Monday. It’s my blessing to realize I’m not running to the bread truck anymore. I’m saying I’m here and God, as long as you have me here, I’m going to be okay with that. Because if it’s up to Ron, I’m going to the bread. But if it’s up to my brothers and sisters who are holding me up and reminding me this is why we’re doing it, then I moved from the bread truck back into the world and say, God, you have it all and I’m okay with that.
Ray: I don’t want to get too deep theologically cause that’s just not me. But as I’m listening to you share that story, I’m thinking about the words of Jesus when he says, I am the bread of life. So he’s not calling us to the bread truck, but he’s calling us to the bread of life, right? And he’s asking us to feast on him. And that’s what I hear in your story. And the other thing that I was thinking about, Ron, as I was listening to that is for some reason this thought popped into my head, so forgive me, but Jim Collins, his book from a number of years ago, Built to Last. He studied companies that not only survived but thrived through the great depression. And boy, that’s what you were feeling, right? This great depression and how am I going to make it through? But one of the consistencies that all of these companies had was they had anchors, they had moorings, they had things that were their North star. And we would call these things today, core values. The things that we’re not going to sacrifice, the things that we’re going to hold on to, even in difficult times. And if it’d be all right with you, I know that core values are really important to you and the team here at Aqua Tots. And I’m looking at some of these. So could we just maybe walk through some of the just, you know, can I read these?
Ray: So, and then we can talk about these. It says number one, affirm each other’s strengths and protect each other’s weaknesses. The second core value is treat others the way you desire to be treated. The third core value: extend grace to those who are teachable. The fourth core value: seek first to understand others before trying to be understood. Number five: choose relationships over profits. Number six: think outside the box. Always question the status quo. And number seven: praise in public, correct in private. How did these come about? And let’s talk. How do you try to live these out in the company?
Ron: Years ago we drafted these. They were ideas. They were what we thought were the how to do something in business. And both Paul and I had these in a file. And several years ago we realized, you know what, if we’re really going to stand on anything, if we’re going to put the anchor in the ground per se, and if the season turns, which it had turned many of times; we take one step forward and then instead of two steps back, we take six steps back and we’d say, do we really believe that God’s calling us to do this? It’s hard, right? And then we started wrestling with this concept of hard is not bad, but it is hard, right? So hard and bad are not equivalent words. They are different and they’re different for a reason. So how do I, not confuse hard with bad, but just understand that that trial or the hardness is part of the lesson for myself?
So the core values, we began to franchise and people started asking us, what do you guys, what is this? What do you believe in? And it pushed us to this. And we said, you know what? We’re going to take a stand here. When we go to franchise, we’re going to sit down with every one of our owners as we interviewed them and say, here’s who we are and this is how we intend to do business. And if you’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay. You can decide to do another business, it’s fine. But if you want to be under the umbrella of Aqua Tots, you need to commit to these. And they need to be our core values. Now they need to become yours. And that if you look at core value number five, which is choose relationships over profit, this would be not a popular one for somebody who wants to buy a franchise to make money.
I think we all innately have this God fearing desire, I would want to do what the Lord is calling me to do. But I need to put stakes in the ground, right? And I can replace all of these with Scripture. But for the context of communicating to the public, I want to come to the level like Paul did and say I want to be where you are and walk with you at that point. And that’s what we did. And so we’ve watched these core values extend to every different culture even in the States and really just say, gosh, who do we want to be? How do we want to do business? That’s why we’re anchored in the core values.
Ray: That’s really strong. That’s encouraging. So on this note then, how do you make sure these are in fact core values and not just good suggestions?
Ron: So I think if you think of core values the way they are almost like personal convictions. Say they are at the heart of who you are and why, what you do. So for us, we had to commit to if we believe the Lord was leading us down this road of doing Aqua Tots. And neither of us were swimmers. Neither of us graduated from college. And we are being called to do this franchise in a world where franchising is said, no, you do this and you do this. It’s all about the units. And so we were doing everything opposite. And so we had the crisis of our hearts to say, who are we? What do we absolutely believe in spite of what the circumstances are today. And that was the stake in the ground.
And that’s when we began to pray and say, you know what, we’re not only going to put these on little cards that we have and hand out to customers. We’re going to put them on every store, on every wall, whether it’s in Vietnam or it’s in Texas. They’re going to be displayed one through seven for everybody to read to know how we do business. And it’s from the franchise owner down to the employee, your daughter. We want her to have the very same thing. And what we’ve heard over and again, and this is across the board, people say often, the reason why I’m here is because of this. I am so thankful to work at an organization that will stand for something in an environment of our culture that we’re in today, that everything’s lukewarm and we’re just saying we’re not going to do it. They’re assuming we’re going to trust God with it. And it is. We have turned down people who say this is a joke. I just want to make money. And we say that’s great. Go make money. This is who we’re going to be and we’re going to serve in the communities regardless of what communities. We’re going to do this, this is how we’re going to do it.
Ray: That’s fantastic. Well Ron, how could someone learn more about Aqua Tots? They’re listening to the program and like, wow, this sounds like a neat thing. Or how would they find out more?
Ron: They can go on the website would be the area that I would suggest is type in Aqua hyphen Tots.com. They can go and find our headquarters and reach out to us. Love to help mentor or guide people in the direction that they want.
Ray: So that’s Aqua hyphen Tots.com. So the point of Bottom Line Faith is to get very specific about our Christian faith in business and in leadership. How does your faith, and we’ve talked about core values, so this is just dripping with your Christian faith, but how do you uniquely and specifically do things differently because of your faith in business?
Ron: So I would answer that is at this stage of the game it’s, we do less than more. Let me explain that. We have learned to slow down to be in prayer more and doing less and not that doing less is not being effective or efficient. That’s not what I’m talking about. But I’m saying making sure our senior leadership team, everybody on our exec team is in alignment with the decisions that impact several thousand people. So our conversations or our meetings are started with Lord, let us seek you and let us step out of the way for something that you may have for us that we are not seeing. So going back and we’re so guilty, at least in even our owner, we want to run forward. And weekly to pull back and say, you know what, let’s stop, let’s regroup.
Hey, you know what? We don’t need to make this decision this week. Let’s pray about it and let’s come back together the following week and see what the Lord might have. And if it is the same that we’re at this week and we see the same sensing for the next week, we’re comfortable with, let’s make the decision then. So I think where we have shifted as an organization is saying, let’s be slow to speak. Let’s not just be quick to listen, but let’s be careful who we’re listening to. Is it us or is it him? And I think it is harder to listen to him when we are speaking. So I think at our senior level we are sitting back and saying, how do we slow down more to listen to him?
Ray: That’s that still small voice that he tells us about in Scripture, right? So you shared with us at this 27 years and like all of us, you’re growing older, but as you look back, Ron, and if you had a chance to advise the 20 year old, you know, what would you say to the 20 year old you, what advice would you give?
Ron: I think the greatest advice that I would say is to get a mentor. Get a mentor. I would say that you know what Paul and I do and we encourage our senior leadership team is we try to find three mentors a year, all over 60 years old who will speak truth into us and we are able to sit at their feet and ask questions. And that may be, you may find someone who’s in their forties, someone who’s in their sixties, someone in their fifties the age is the least important part. But the encouragement I would encourage all young leaders is there are people who have went before you and there’s wisdom medicine lost because we won’t humble ourselves just to ask, Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee? And just ask you some stuff about what you did in your career and what lessons you learned.
And I think that the thing that we’ve been wrestling lately on is what are the things that we need to stop doing? The stop list is almost harder to do than the list to do. And I find myself and I find our senior team is saying, what do each of us need to stop doing? And then as an organization to have the courage to have a conversation to say, Hey, you know what, this is what I think we’re, when you stop doing this and focus on that. And I think a mentor helps you do that because when someone is asked and they say, yes, it’s the best cup of coffee you could ever buy because you will find the mentor will learn just as much is a will in it is really a more of a discipleship role that I think that’s how God intended it to be. It never on her own. And I that’s what I would encourage the youth to do. The next generation will benefit from the leaders who went ahead of it.
Ray: Oh, I love it. That is really encouraging. And it’s also a biblical mandate where it says to train up a leader who in turn trains up other godly leaders. So what I’d like to ask you, Ron, is this, if there’s someone listening to the program right now, they’re discouraged. Maybe they’re in that hard season, maybe they’re really not yet hearing God’s voice. But maybe there’s this dream, this idea, I don’t know, but whoever’s listening to this. They know it right now that we’re talking to them because the Holy Spirit’s speaking to them right? So what encouragement, what words of advice or encouragement would you give to that person who’s listening now, going, oh, this is for me.
Ron: Yeah. I think one of the things we all wrestle with, myself included is fear. Fear traps us. And one of the great tricks that Satan loves to do is to make that false environment feel real, right? It’s that false evidence appearing real. And I think when, if we look at Scripture, Scripture is clear on when we communicate and we are in brothers where we’re shoulder to shoulder with one another and we’re communicating and we’re sharing that whether the transparent, vulnerable, real, the fear of, Hey, here’s where I’m mat. I think God honors that. You know, it says He gives grace to the humble, despises the proud. But I think when we humble ourselves and we call out not only to the Lord and we call it to brothers and sisters, when we’re just discouraged for someone to say, Hey, let me, I’ll shoulder that with you.
I think that frees us. It frees us not to solve it, but it frees us to know that we’re doing it together. You know it’s that three cord kind of concept, but it’s the idea of not holding back something that God may be pressing on your heart saying, do you trust me? I do God, but frankly, what if I just said I do God, what would you want me to do? I think we would find ourselves running for him because he’s pleased with us and he’s not against us. He’s for us and so when you have other brothers and sisters encouraging you to take a step forward, that’s by faith, right? You look the idea of pushing forward by faith. God has used men and women throughout Scripture by faith because they simply trusted and so they didn’t do it alone. They did it with brothers and sisters and I would just encourage when you are feeling down, to find someone who is safe and just say, man, can I just share what’s on my heart? I think God honors that and brings that to light and moves us into an environment that none of us could imagine, but it’s better than it was before.
Ray: Such great stuff. That is such great stuff. Well, Ron, we are at the end of our time together here. However, our listeners to the program, they know that my last question of every guest, it’s what I call my 4:23 question and it’s based out of Proverbs chapter 4, verse 23 where Solomon writes these words: he says above all else, guard your heart for from it flows all of life. And so Ron, what I’d like to do is just ask you to just maybe fast forward the clock and you’re at the tail end of your time, this side of eternity here on earth, and you have a chance to pass along one piece of advice to your family, your friends, your loved ones, business associates, whatever the case may be. But I want you to fill in the blank as we wrap up our time together. What above all else advice would you share?
Ron: I would say the immediate thing that came to my mind is relationships matter. Doing good business is maintaining good relationships. So I would say the idea of when I honor relationships, when they are hard or when they are easy maintaining, both of them are both important and so it’s easy to run from things that challenge us and break our own little world. But they may be the very blessing that the Lord is poignant to make him more like him. So I’ve learned to when, and if I look back, I would say the very hardest things in my life God has used to shape who I am as a leader. When I was just willing to work through it with him rather than myself. So that’s what I would pass on.
Ray: Ron Sciarro, thank you for your time with us here today on Bottom Line Faith.
Ron: Thank you.
Ray: Well folks, there you have it. A cofounder here at Aqua Tots in Mesa, Arizona. Ron Sciarro and check them out at Aqua hyphen Tots.com. Great company. And as I said in the opening of the interview, my daughter works there and it’s been a great experience for her. They’re doing business God’s way and they’re honoring him and the process. And that’s really, again, what we’re all about here at Bottom Line Faith. So thanks for tuning in today. Become a subscriber, go to BottomLineFaith.org you can scroll down to the bottom of page there and subscribe, get the program on a regular basis right into your phone or mobile device. And it’s just a real encouragement to have had the chance to get to know Ron today and hear his story and how God is using him in the marketplace. So until next time, I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith, Ray Hilbert saying, God bless and we’ll see you next time.