SONOMA -- When Fred Cline opens the eucalyptus doors to his new Jacuzzi Family Vineyards this June, some of his first guests will be, fittingly, members of the Jacuzzi family.

Yes, it's that Jacuzzi. It's the East Bay clan that gave the world the whirlpool bath, the outdoor spa and countless other inventions. Through his mother, winemaker Fred Cline is a direct descendant of the original Jacuzzis, seven brothers and six sisters who first came to America 100 years ago.

Cline said he wanted to honor the family by erecting the Mediterranean-style mansion, complete with a stone-walled courtyard and a tower. It will double as the headquarters for a premium line of wines using the Jacuzzi brand. Cline modeled the building after the old family home, back in the northern Italian city of Udine.

"The story of the Jacuzzis' success and invention and notoriety -- it really is something to be very proud of," he said. "It's great having that common bond."

As with many families that climbed to great heights of achievement, though, that bond has been tested over and over again. Success always seemed to come at a price: tragedy, illness and intrigue went hand in hand with heroism, inventiveness and decades of very hard work.

At the end of it, there is a group of people successful beyond the wildest dreams of most immigrant families. But after all they went through in America, the Jacuzzis are just learning how to be a family again.


Building something

It has been an eventful century.

Reciting the names of the original 13 siblings is not unlike rattling off "the Seven Dwarves." Most of the 698 contemporary Jacuzzis can do it. Rachele, Valeriano, Francesco, Giuseppe, Gelindo, Giocondo ... the six boys were the oldest, followed by six girls and a much younger brother.

Valeriano was 20 and Francesco 18 when they set off for America in 1907. Within a few years, the six boys all had settled in the Berkeley area.

Theirs was the tail end of a long wave of immigration from Italy to the United States. California was a destination of choice.

After a visit, Giovanni, the father of the adventurous six, returned to Italy to get the rest of his family. By the time they all arrived, the brothers already had created their first company, making airplane propellers.

Rachele, an aviation fanatic, conceived of a propeller with a novel windward pitch. It was so efficient that it became the standard at the U.S. Army Air Corps. Today, it's on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Emboldened, the brothers built a whole passenger plane and started U.S. Postal runs and a shuttle service to Yosemite Valley. When a crash over Modesto killed brother Giocondo and several other passengers, the Jacuzzis, grief-stricken and burdened with debt, abandoned the airplane business.

The boys hit their stride again soon, this time with agricultural water pumps. A huge commercial success, the pumps became the cornerstone of their fortune for decades.

Slowly, the operations expanded. Cousins were hired as the company grew. The factory moved to newly reclaimed land along the Richmond shoreline, in a place now called Jacuzzi Drive. Wedged between Interstate 80 and 580, the buildings still stand.

Sitting recently in her kitchen overlooking El Cerrito, 87-year-old Lola Fenolio, a daughter of an original Jacuzzi brother, pointed down at the complex.

"I worked right there," she said. "I was the first secretary the company ever had."

For a long time, women were not considered for work at the company, but office-type jobs like Fenolio's eventually opened up.

'Just a pump'

Kenneth Jacuzzi was born in 1941. At barely 18 months old, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a terribly painful disease that attacks the joints. He had just learned how to walk but he would never take another step.

His parents didn't like Kenny's daily hydrotherapy treatments. His mother, Inez, was appalled at the shared hospital baths and asked her husband, Candido, to do something.

Candido, the youngest of the 13 siblings, had emerged as a natural-born businessman and now led the family company.

"Dad went out to see me in the whirlpool tank," Ken Jacuzzi said. "He said, 'Why, that's just a pump!'"

The Jacuzzis came up with a submersible pump that churned water in a conventional tub. Kenny's physician was invited to take a look. Amazed, the doctor asked Candido to make more for other patients, and suggested that Candido patent and market it.

A few years later, in 1956, consumers got a taste of the first whirlpool bath machine -- and the family landed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

"Jacuzzi. Noun. A large bath incorporating jets of water to massage the body," the OED says today. "Origin: named after the Italian-born American inventor Candido Jacuzzi."

In truth, a company employee named Gene Pretti was instrumental in designing the original concept. A marginal side business for Jacuzzi Bros. Inc., the whirlpool bath unit created moderate interest and marketed to the health crowd.

"We ran ads that claimed to heal headaches, heart disease, sexual drive, everything," said Roy Jacuzzi, who worked summers at the bath unit as a teenager. "We demonstrated door to door, in people's bathrooms."

In the 1960s, Roy, fresh out of school, came up with the idea of incorporating the jets in the sides of larger bathtubs, eliminating the buzzing electroshock hazard that had sat between bathers' legs before. Though Roy had to peddle hard to sell the idea to his skeptical family, then to a skeptical public, this is when the object we know today as a "Jacuzzi" was born.

A family divided

The year was 1968.

Under different circumstances, the product's promise might have enthused company leaders more. But just the year before, Jacuzzi Bros. Inc. wrapped up its first lawsuit that pitted one side of the family against another. It was a bitter time.

Candido, admired by many as a firm leader but notoriously autocratic as a boss, decided to form a holding company in Switzerland. He wanted to transfer the company's assets there to minimize taxes. Some in the family thought the move bordered on the illegal, and others felt that Candido would "stash money away from them," his daughter Alba recalled.

Whatever his motives, Candido listened to his lawyer, future San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto. Alioto told him to go ahead with the holding company, and represented him when some Jacuzzi cousins sued.

"In the end, the courts held up our point of view," said Rudy Jacuzzi, who led the effort to stop the Swiss move. "But it was not a happy victory."

The court ordered the holding move stopped, and the plaintiffs were bought out. Candido Jacuzzi eventually fled to Italy, then to Mexico, trying to escape separate tax-evasion charges. He returned to the U.S. only after falling seriously ill in old age.

Corporate culture

The suit and the buyouts rocked the company financially, and the family began to look for ways to finance future growth. Going public was doomed when the oil crisis hit the market in the early 1970s, so some, including young Roy Jacuzzi, began to suggest selling.

"There were 250 stakeholders," Roy said. "It just got to be unbelievable."

Although the company was successful on the surface, with a global manufacturing and distribution network, "growth wasn't only about expansion," Roy said. Placing cousins strategically to satisfy everyone undermined the company's efficiency. "It was all about keeping it together as a large family."

"Board meetings were impossible. We had to have an advisory council to take care of actual company business."

The campaign was successful: The Jacuzzis sold their shares to Kidde Inc., a New York conglomerate. Making $5.6 million in yearly profit on $90 million of revenue, the family received $59 million for the company.

What followed was the darkest period of Jacuzzi history. Except for Roy, who was put in charge of the bath division, the new owners fired most family "hanger-onners," as a later executive said. They also focused on the bath business, letting the original agricultural side languish.

"To sell a pump, you're lucky to make 10 percent," Roy said. "I sold my baths at a 45 percent margin. If you were the owner, where would you go?"

That Roy profited exactly when the rest of the family was booted created shock waves. The family, still reeling from parting with the property and the layoffs, took the quick changes hard.

Few were more appalled than Ken Jacuzzi.

"Unfortunately, (Roy) let himself be sucked in by that darker side of American corporate culture," he wrote in his 2005 memoir. The corporate PR machine positioned Roy as the sole inventor of the whirlpool bath to make it an easier sell to the media. The family turned away.

"It's a shame," Ken said recently. "Many other relatives resent his taking credit for things that he never did."

Unfazed, Roy built a billion-dollar brand. Through a series of ownership changes and acquisitions, and by shedding agricultural products altogether, he reached the pinnacle of the corporate ladder in 1994, when he added chairman to his titles of president and CEO of Jacuzzi Brands.

Growing peace

The clan grew apart. Kenny wound up in Arizona, a respected figure in the disability community. Rudy already was a successful entrepreneur and a multimillionaire. Candido died hurting and angry.

Fred Cline stayed away during the turbulent times, and became a successful winemaker. He purchased property at the south end of Sonoma Valley, and San Francisco customers established his clout nationally.

"Every year was better than the last," he said. "After some tough times in 2002-2003, we came up with the Red Truck brand. With that, we turned the corner."

Red Truck, a fruity melange of deep reds, sold more in its first year than all of the wines he had made in the decade before combined.

The year 2003 also brought together the entire family for the first time since 1958. Cline played host to 350 Jacuzzis gathered on his vineyard's lawn, rekindling relationships long lost. Even Roy showed up, as did Kenny.

Invitations, 290 of them, already have gone out for the centennial reunion June 30 this year. As hundreds of Jacuzzis arrive at the vineyard that looks and feels much like the old family home, Fred Cline could very well plant the seeds of a peaceful second century for the Jacuzzi clan.

Marton Dunai covers small businesses. Reach him at 925-952-2671 or

1915: Jacuzzi Co. formed

1979: Jacuzzi Co. sold to Kidde Inc. for $59 million

1987: Kidde Inc. bought by U.K. conglomerate Hanson PLC for $2.2 billion

1995: Hanson spins off U.S. operations into U.S. Industries

2002: U.S. Industries renamed Jacuzzi Brands Inc.

2007: Jacuzzi Brands sold to Apollo Group for $1.25 billion, taken private