One year ago this week, Matrix Fitness was an unknown, a curiosity even, about to debut at the Club Industry show. In the fitness world of small companies struggling, big companies devouring each other in mergers, and name brands being relegated to bankruptcy and fire sales, how could yet another company even dream of making it?
Surprises do happen: One year later, Matrix once again took to the show floor. In contrast to last year when the company was a no-name with no customers, no proven supply chain, no advertising, no strategic partners, no global strategy -- well, not much of anything except 16 equipment prototypes and five employees -- Matrix was a successful company doing business in 66 countries, debuting 11 new pieces of equipment with 23 more in the works that had international partners, customers, strategy, branding and advertising.
"Our success went well beyond what I thought we'd achieve in the first year," said Ken Lucas, Matrix president and developer. "No other company has come out of the blocks as strongly as we have."
That of course doesn't mean Lucas wasn't a bit nervous the day the show swung open its doors last October in Chicago. Having just become a father for the first time nearly two months earlier, he likened the experience to being in the hospital waiting room: All indications were that everything was going to be fine, but you never know what will actually happen.
What's helped the company achieve a growth rate of 120 percent of original projections with the expectation for next year to double sales?
- Overseas manufacturing -- In his business plan, Lucas called for overseas manufacturing, although not a lot of the major players were doing it. All the other industries were doing it, he reasoned it, so why couldn't his new company? Without a good reason, he moved forward with Johnson Health Tech of Taiwan, knowing that part of his plan would allow for lower prices with the higher quality he had in mind for his "elegant equipment."
Johnson Health Tech, with a million square feet of manufacturing space, 1,400 employees and 122 engineers, also had a solid background since it is the fourth largest manufacturer of consumer fitness equipment in the world and the parent of both Vision Fitness and Horizon Fitness.
- No company history -- Lucas also said he had the luxury of a clean slate, no plants to close, no manufacturing to change, no branding to re-align, and utterly no legacy except what he was going to create.
"That was the beauty," he said. "You have no history. We had nothing but a clean slate. I could take the rights and wrongs, goods and bads, I'd learned in 24 years in the industry, and I could attract people I wanted to work with, and I could roll all that up into a company."
- Inviting equipment -- He also wanted to change the feel of equipment and gyms. Lucas felt that the aging consumer and the Baby Boomer wanted more than steel jungles with lots of sharp lines and no color. He wanted what Designer Rudy Fabiano calls "inviting," he said.
"The world is changing largely I think because of the aging population," he said. "They have different tastes and expectations. They're not going to go into some sweaty rat hole to work out." The goal at Matrix was to have sweeping lines and inviting equipment without sacrificing proper biomechanics or safe exercise.
- Veteran staff -- After two dozen years in the fitness industry at many of the big companies, with his last company stint as national sales manager at Cybex for a decade, Lucas knew people and knew who he wanted to work with. He was able to hand-pick a sales, engineering and support staff. Then he was able to pick a city for company headquarters (Albuquerque, N.M.) based on quality of life.
In addition, Lucas also pegs his success to the use of customer input, making sure the company never "hurt" a customer with late deliveries, and developing strong strategic partnerships.
The future is bright for Matrix (www.matrix-fitness.com). By the IHRSA trade show opening in late February in San Francisco, the company will have 50 pieces of equipment with the addition of free weights and multi-stations.
"What you built so far is only the beginning," Lucas said. "The product so far is only the beginning."
Matrix will grow its lines, expand its cardiovascular series both upward and downward in price, add plate-loaded equipment, and is working on what Lucas calls a completely new selectorized technology. But one thing is certain: It will remain a commercial fitness company.
"We're not trying to be all things to all people," he said. "We will always be commercial equipment. This brand will always be a commercial brand. You're going to sacrifice something to be all things to all people. And to become as great as I think we can become, it will require great focus."
SNEWS View: Matrix did the softest PR launch pre-Club Industry last year and SNEWS took a look-see partly because of Lucas. As he has said, the fitness industry is a lot about relationships. But after you pull the relationship card, you can't hang on your laurels. Then comes the really hard work. And Lucas hasn't rested, hiring energetic people, allowing them to be who they are, and always thinking about maintaining the focus of his brand. Lucas also has a passion and seems to be daring to do something a little bit different -- something that was accepted. That acceptance will therefore allow him as he moves forward with Matrix to perhaps push the entire industry just a little bit to think more beyond the box in terms of how a company engineers, designs and sells its product. The fitness industry needs more people like this to allow it to mature to where it can take its place beside other more mature industries of the world. Lucas perhaps doesn't know it, but we believe what he has done may have a lasting impact on the development and future of the entire industry.