In the heart of northern California, The Hot Tub Store is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023. A remarkable milestone by any measure, the success and longevity of this business are rooted in a legacy of innovation, hard work and a commitment to customer service.
The Hot Tub Store’s story traces back to the early 1970s when Bob Wismer, inspired by a redwood barrel hot tub he saw in a magazine, decided to make tubs himself. Operating out of his garage, he and a partner began building hot tub kits, and The Hot Tub Store was born.
“Bob is a renaissance guy,” says Dan Friedman, the long-time general manager of The Hot Tub Store who is now retired. “He could sell, and he could engineer, and he could design, and he could build and he could plumb. … He was able to find wine barrels and swimming pool equipment [in wine country], as far as I know, he basically engineered his own hot tub.”
In 1976, another key figure entered the picture — Danny Matula, an elementary school teacher who was also curious about the hot tub trend. Hearing about Wismer’s hot tub kits, Matula purchased and assembled some, a feat that proved difficult for most. Recognizing Matula’s capabilities, Wismer asked him to work part-time assembling the hot tubs, laying the foundation for a lasting partnership.
Partnership and growth
A turning point came in 1977 when Wismer’s original partner left the business and he and Matula officially joined forces. Over time, the business expanded its offerings, becoming a Watkins/Hot Spring dealer in 1979 after discovering the Watkins brothers’ innovative portable spa.
As the business grew, family played a vital role. Matula’s wife (and Dan Friedman’s sister), Ellen Friedman, stepped in to lend her expertise, and more stores were added to the network, along with products like swim spas and saunas. Ellen Friedman and Wismer took turns overseeing the operation, with Ellen earning the nickname “head cheerleader” for her enthusiastic support.
“She was much more of a people person than Bob was,” Dan Friedman says. “Managing people — that’s where her strength was.”
Ellen eventually held the role of president for more than 20 years.
Passing the torch
In 2013, Ellen faced a battle with cancer. Focused on securing the company’s future, she initiated discussions about succession planning. Her son, Sky Matula, who had pursued a career in construction, accepted the role of president and CEO of the company, a title he holds today.
“Being my mother’s son, I basically said, ‘Here I am, Mom. I don’t want you to worry about the business at all. I will come in and take this on,’ ” Sky recalls. “I had two and a half or three months of mentorship from my mom before she passed in June 2013. And that was not a very long amount of time. I wish I had a lot more.”
Despite the circumstances, Sky brought a new perspective to the family business. He implemented changes to stimulate growth and innovation, ensuring The Hot Tub Store could thrive in an ever-evolving market.
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A vision for the future
Under Sky’s leadership, rejuvenation and expansion were paramount for The Hot Tub Store.
“I came in with fresh eyes and a different viewpoint and made it a priority to modernize and get [our showrooms] looking closer to what would be expected to match the product that we represent,” he says.
Today, the company boasts six showrooms and two warehouse facilities to house its product lineup featuring brands like Hot Spring Spas, Caldera Spas, Endless Pools and Freeflow Spas. These showrooms feature what Sky calls a “rustic modern” style and unique attractions, such as an impressive snowboard collection, to draw in customers.
Sky is also focused on developing new talent during a “changing of the guard” as many longtime employees near retirement age.
“[We’ve] been doing a good job of continuing to build the next generation to move this forward into the next several decades,” he says. “We really take pride in operating a business that has been here for a very long time because we do right by our customers. That is our culture.”
Another part of The Hot Tub Store’s culture is operating from a win-win-win mindset.
Everything we do needs to be a win for our team members, it needs to be a win for the company and it needs to be a win for our valued customers. That’s who we are.”
Sky Matula, The Hot Tub Store
“Everything we do needs to be a win for our team members, it needs to be a win for the company and it needs to be a win for our valued customers. That’s who we are,” Sky says.
A commitment to community and legacy
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, The Hot Tub Store is not only looking back but also giving back. The business is sponsoring a regional park in Santa Rosa, California, the city where the company was founded, which is also marking its 50th anniversary this year.
The Hot Tub Store has made financial contributions and collaborated on marketing efforts, reinforcing its commitment to the community that has supported it. The company also supports various nonprofits, even letting team members choose causes important to them for company donations.
In honoring the legacy of Ellen Friedman, who was posthumously inducted into Watkins’ Ring of Honor, Sky strives to uphold her motto: “Love is all there is.”