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Realizing his dream: Marco builds Hand & Stone into industry force

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Hand & Stone founder John Marco, left, has made the Hamilton Township-based company a family business by having  his children, Tara Bogota and Nick Marco, become franchisees.
Hand & Stone founder John Marco, left, has made the Hamilton Township-based company a family business by having his children, Tara Bogota and Nick Marco, become franchisees. - ()

John Marco's “Jersey Boy makes good small business” story really comes down to two moments:

  • When he realized he could make it on his own;
  • When he realized he couldn't.

It all started back in 2004.

After 25 years of working as a physical therapist for someone else, Marco opened the first Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa in Toms River.

“I was watching how the massage industry was growing, and analyzed the membership-based model,” he said. “I was confident in my business skills, so I got private investors and opened the first location by creating everything ourselves, right down to our services and specialties.”

A year later, Marco opened a second location. He soon began franchising.

By 2009, Hand & Stone had 28 locations; Marco knew, however, that to go bigger, he needed help.

He brought in Todd Leff as CEO, hoping Leff's previous franchise experience as the president and CEO of two of the largest transmission repair specialists in the country would help further stimulate growth.

He was right. In less than four years, Leff helped Marco increase the number of Hand & Stone locations nearly 500 percent.

Today, there are 170 Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, with nationwide annual sales reaching about $140 million, capturing a nice chunk of one of the fastest-growing sectors in the retail service industry.

“I reached out to an executive search firm to find an experienced franchise executive to join the Hand & Stone team and help grow it,” Marco said.

“What I found was a man with not only great experience in franchising, but a man who shared my vision, a man who helped reshape and improve the entire vision and grow Hand & Stone to what it is today and where it's going tomorrow.”

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, massage therapy was a roughly $9 billion industry in 2013. And according to U.S. Department of Labor data from 2012, employment for massage therapists was expected to increase 20 percent by 2020 — faster than the average for all occupations.

The growth of the industry has brought many competitors to the New Jersey market, including Massage Envy and Elements, among others.

Marco, however, isn't worried.

“New Jersey is a great place to do business in,” he said. “People are stressed out because they work too hard for too many hours, and they find escape here.”

And, Marco said, he's confident customers will find a better escape at his establishments.

“People are going to go to a place that's convenient for them. If they enjoy the experience, they'll continue to come back,” Marco said. “The secret in any business is to focus on what you do best by executing your culture and your brand.”

While Marco admits that the chain will often employ the same tactic of introductory offers, he said it's never about competition or price wars.

It's about service.

That's the reason the company created Hand & Stone University — a training center at its headquarters in Hamilton Township, for new franchisees.

“(They) can come to learn how to run the business,” Marco said.

Something Marco realized he could do years ago.

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3


NAME: Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa
HEADQUARTERS: Hamilton Township
EMPLOYEES: 30 at corporate headquarters
REVENUE: Annual sales of about $140 million
ONE MORE THING: In addition to doing a lucrative gift card business, Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa benefits from its members applying rollover “funds” to guests. After a relaxing massage, Marco said it’s difficult to pass up a membership opportunity.

All in the family at Hand & Stone

So many family-owned businesses in New Jersey face succession issues, as the original founders realize their kids cannot (or do not want to) continue running the business.

That’s not an issue for John Marco.

Both his daughter (Tara Bogota, 28) and son (Nick Marco, 24) work in the family business.

In fact, it’s the only job they’ve ever known.

“It’s close to home, so I’ve never left since I started working here after college,” Bogota said.

But don’t think for a second that it’s simply the comforts of the family business that’s kept them with Hand & Stone — it’s the business opportunity.

“Our dad is a great business mentor,” she said. “I’ve always believed in his vision for the company and loved watching it grow.”

Nick agreed, adding that he owes it to his father for showing him just what it takes to run a successful business.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to speak from experience in business at 24 years old,” Nick said. “I watched my dad grow his business into a franchise — I can now have a legitimate conversation with people who have worked their whole life.”

And when he does, he can talk about his own business.

Earlier this month, the siblings opened a new location in Howell — one that will compete with roughly 40 other New Jersey locations, including the Toms River location their father founded years ago that remains one of the top sites in the company.

“I’m competitive,” Nick said. “Toms River is often in the Top Five (locations), so we’ll be trying to get Howell in that spot, too.”

Bogota agreed.

“The pressure is on to prove to the other franchisees that we’ll be just as if not more successful as the Toms River store, simply because we’re following the system our dad created,” she said. — Meg Fry

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