Unmasking the ‘Hot Tub Capitalist’

March 7, 2015
1979 Playby ad with Tim Haley of San Luis Obispo.

Playboy ad, 1979, with Tim Haley of San Luis Obispo.


REVIEW: American Made — A Boomer’s Reflection, by Cliff Branch

Long before he made his bones in the San Luis Obispo County real estate development world, Cliff Branch was, in the words of one associate, a marketing “mad man” awash in Boomer Generation hedonism but possessed by a desire to make money — lots of money.

From the smoky haze of the 1970s comes Branch’s recollections of an era where the masses’ pursuit of personal pleasure led to a Branch brainstorm — he modernized and popularized a product that would revolutionize the American landscape: the hot tub.

Several decades ago, Branch wrote a best-selling book about cocaine’s lure and addictive properties under a pseudonym, perhaps to avoid social ostracizing over his admitted use of the drug.  Now, he has included that story in a polished book about his life,  and it has become a soul-baring, lighthearted, and historically entertaining memoir of a different time in America, and in Cal Poly town.

Branch was a Cal Poly undergraduate when he co-founded a San Luis Obispo based head shop that later became Warehouse Sound Co. After a multimillion dollar sale, Branch opened California Cooperage, a large hot tub factory on Industrial Way, and created a product for a generation synonymous with sybaritism.

Concert at Warehouse Sound Co. in the 70s.

Concert at Warehouse Sound Co. in the 70s.

The fresh-faced Branch was widely considered a marketing genius by his peers, who despite the advertising-driven laid-back appearance of his hot tub operation, peddled his redwood spas to over 300 nationwide dealers as fast as his employees could turn them out.

His marketing acumen gave hot tubs a major boost when he hired two models to disrobe and step into one his products at a national convention of hot tub manufacturers. He eventually sold that business to the Coleman Company.

In the ensuing years after Cal Poly, Branch and his various partners created several multimillion dollar companies, as well as real estate developments that helped shape San Luis Obispo County.

American Made provides a rich tapestry of San Luis Obispo history, as Branch interacted with people who would later become local household names.

Jim Smith, John King and Cliff Branch in the 70s.

Jim Smith, John King and Cliff Branch in the 70s.

He initiated a business partnership with Tom Spalding while both were undergraduates, and both became millionaires in their 20s when they sold one business to CBS. And he formed profitable associations with local luminaries Jim Smith, Rob Rossi, John King, and other Central Coast movers and shakers.

The book also presents a series of short essays about “Life under Boomer Rule” and includes more than 600 of places and people from the Central Coast.

Branch’s American Made is a refreshing journey into the past of a cozy coastal county, to a time when sensory delights — and the open enjoyment of same — were foremost in the minds of an entire generation.

Annie’s Publishing, Berne, Indiana. Published March 4, 2015. paperback $19.95; hard cover $29.95. Available on Amazon, soon available on Kindle.

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Nice to read the review of Cliff’s book…I remember passing by Super Sonic on Foothill and then purchasing my first stereo from Warehouse Sound…Love the picture of the concert – my husband told me he was there (it was before we met) – said it was great fun. We’ve bought several California Cooperage Hot tubs over the years – enjoyed them all. The best though, is our redwood sauna – which we still use almost daily. Good job Mr. Branch – looking forward to reading your book.

Cal Poly’s legacy affect on San Luis Obispo is not the jobs that it provides. It is the students that stay here after attending Poly. Alumni (many of which started businesses before graduating) can be seen everywhere. Has truly made SLO the community it is today.

Bought a Cal-Cooperage hot tub in 1981. Some friends had purchased a new car, and part of the car deal was a big discount on a hot tub. They didn’t have a place for it, but we did. Me and a friend put it together, and ran a gas line, and power to it. For the next few years, I offered to help others put theirs together so that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes I did. I remember the showroom on Industrial Way was quite impressive. Sorry I missed the concerts at Warehouse Sound….looks like fun….

Yeah, bought stereo gear from Warehouse Sounds Company, heard his name forever, own stuff near some land that has a Hattie Branch in it’s ownership pedigree and title insurance so always figured he was from a local family of some kind, but never had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman nor got to rub elbows. The book should be enjoyable.

He played the locals card well; one year his Warehouse Sound catalog featured a photo of a stereo gear set up priced in marquis letters on the marquee of the Obispo Theatre. Guess we have our own local successes types. Good for you, Cliff.

Interesting! I have long been aware of Cliff Branch as a developer and the rise of California Cooperage but I never put the two together. I was also unaware of the Warehouse Sound Company. (Where was that building located? I recognize the morro in the background but haven’t seen that structure and I have seen most places in this county since I arrived about 1980.)

As for the book, the price is too high for my taste so I will either read it when it hits the library or wait until I can pick it up used.