I grew up in a family that was both very horsey, (my mom,) and very car oriented, (my dad.) Back in the day my grandma had fine horses and once she was offered a lot on the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles for one of them. She declined to trade as that was a “very good” horse. That lot is now worth millions. Growing up we had Arabians, my own first horse was a Welsh pony named Pridee. We rode her, drove her, did all the things that kids do with horses.
In addition to horses, we also had go-karts and mini bikes. Since we lived on an orange grove in Monrovia, CA we had a built-in race track out our back door. My dad was one of the original Southern California Hot Rodders. He built speed equipment for all kinds of racecars. His Flamethrower ignitions are now collector items and his BDI was the first electronic ignition. For over a decade, typically 30 out of 33 cars at Indianapolis used his products.
In the morning before school I would shovel the stalls and after school I would work in my dad’s shop making ignition systems. Eventually I went down the racecar route and my brother Patrick (who started Spalding Labs with my mom) went down the horse route. Now I have my brother’s horse business and his kids have my motorcycles.
I attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in Mechanical engineering and in my sophomore year started an after school record shop. That grew into a chain of Hi Fi stores (Stereo West) and a mail order company, (Warehouse Sound Company). The mail order company became the largest in its time because we sold the best sounding equipment and we explained the nuances. We published a 96 page catalog every quarter that my partner, Cliff Branch, and I wrote every word and we had the first commercial computer in San Luis Obispo County. In the 70’s we sold the stores to CBS and they became Pacific Stereo.*
That pattern continues today with my current business, Spalding Labs, which has become the leading company in the equine and dairy business for fly control. We offer the best biological fly control and have the most informative website and marketing materials. I still write every word in our catalogs, ads and on the website. Our website is unprecedented in its capabilities, the depth of information, the quality videos and community aspect. How we came to do all those things came about from some of the other steps along the way.
After selling the Hi Fi business, I started racing cars in the Trans Am and Can Am series. Big league motorsports is expensive so to help the sponsor chase I developed the first live in-car camera for race cars. The first broadcast use at the Daytona 500 in 1981 won an Emmy. The next year we did the Indianapolis 500, and a Formula 1 car. That led to producing television shows on motorsports, both for broadcast and cable, including the first full Formula 1 season on ESPN. My director from those days rejoined me 5 years ago and is responsible for the great videos we offer today on horses, dairy and Light Hands Horsemanship.
The TV biz led to digital video technology for compressing video over satellites, digital dial up networks and eventually the internet. I was one of the co-founders of PictureTel in Cambridge MA, the first company to make a practical video phone which went public in 1984. Video compression is all about super-fast computation and the next company AI Architects/Ergo made high performance artificial intelligence PC hardware and software that allowed DOS to break its 640k barrier. We then made a unique form factor PC called the “Brick” which won the Best Industrial Design product of the year in 1991.
Back in California in 1998 for another startup with one of my PictureTel cofounders we started an Internet hardware company called 2Wire. This device provided voice, video and high speed (DSL) data over regular copper phone lines. It became the standard of North American and UK telcos and was eventually purchased by AT&T and others. If you search for a WIFI connection and see 2Wire, it’s one of our devices.
In 2003 my mom, who had been running Spalding Labs since 1979 after my brother went on to become a doctor, asked me to take over the company. At 79 she thought it was time to slow down. That might have been premature because at 91, she still comes to the office every day.
My current gig, Spalding Labs, selling little bugs that are known as Fly Predators, I call my analog business after spending many years in the digital world. While you might think that dealing with flies, manure and barn odor is a perfect subject for the TV show Dirty Jobs, it’s actually the best job I have ever had. Not only can I apply what I’ve learned in all my prior lives but horse and animal owners are the nicest customers.
Solving the horrific problem that pest flies are, with a safe, effective pesticide free approach is a reward in itself. When we started, many thought putting out bugs to get rid of bugs was on the lunatic fringe, but now we have become bigger marketers than the chemical folks. The customers also appreciate the difference and unlike most of my prior businesses which were developing products nobody knew they needed; if you have flies you KNOW you need a solution. Most of our customers are rural and we travel each summer to visit many of them. Seeing the country from my little airplane is the best fringe benefit, even when it can smell very dairy at 18,000 feet from the rubber boots in the back.
* Read more about Tom, Cliff, Stereo West, and Warehouse Sound Company in a free chapter from Cliff Branch's book: American Made: A Boomer's Reflection available at americanmadestory.com.
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