When Ted Habing, founder of Pacific Fitness, appeared at the Health & Fitness Business show in Denver in August, his company had an array of familiar weight-training equipment, but those pieces shared booth space with fairly unlikely products -- colorful kiddie teeter-totters and kick-back patio swings.
And although he's known for home gyms and the like, Habing's new company, Health in Motion, became one of the show's favorite gathering places because of the swings, with retailers standing in the aisles and smiling at them because, well, you couldn't help but smile at them.
Since selling the bulk of Pacific Fitness to Precor in 1998, Habing has kept himself busy tinkering with his design company, Dream Visions, to stave off the boredom that his so-called retirement brought for a guy well below alleged retirement age. It allowed him to fool around with different product concepts and dabble in the mass-market arena.
Thanks to a toddler
But it was his toddler daughter who really kick-started what has become a significant part of his business -- the teeter-totters and swings known as Sunset Swings (www.sunsetswings.com). That endeavor then swung him back into the fitness equipment business with his Inspire home gyms (www.inspirefitness.net).
How'd an 18-month-old baby girl do that? On a shopping trip to Lowe's hardware store, a book on building playhouses caught their eye. (OK, maybe it caught daddy's eye so he could build something for the apple of his eye, but go with us on this story.) As they flipped through the pages, Habing spotted a wooden teeter-totter and thought, like all good designers, "I could update that old standard into something cool."
After a few sketches and prototypes based on different looks, he came up with a design that used a pendulum concept. Why was that better than typical lever-and-fulcrum pieces? It's safer because it doesn't pinch fingers or catapult a person off when the other user gets off it, Habing explained. How well do we remember a big brother or sister or mean playmate leaping off on purpose to thunk us into the air or onto the ground. Habing has now patented the pendulum design and even licensed it, with his teeter-totters testing well at Costco and Sam's Club.
Just swing in for a meeting
Habing said that whenever he and his prototype builder met to discuss new ideas, they'd always migrate to the teeter-totter to chat.
"Every time we had a meeting, we would sit on this teeter -totter and glide up and down while we're talking about other products," Habing said about his discussions with his prototype builder. "I thought, 'This is really cool. We're always sitting on this thing and having meetings.'"
Naturally, the next step was to find a more acceptable adult-like way to sit and swing as effortlessly: "I said, 'We gotta make a swing like this," Habing recalled.
Basing the design elements, again using the pendulum concept, he produced a patio swing that hangs from a single pivot with ball bearings, which allows it to glide smoothly. They in fact use many principles known to fitness equipment in the way the bars and tubes adjust, lock and move. They even have footrests, side tables and canopies, and offer a truly comfy spot to just rock forever. (In fact, SNEWSÂ® saw some impromptu meetings happening under those canopies at the show in Denver.)
Habing said he loved the swings so much that instead of licensing them, he decided to start a company to manufacture and distribute them. Jeff Laborde, a former salesperson from Pacific Fitness, and Habing's brother, Chuck, joined him in the endeavor, and Health in Motion officially formed in January 2003.
Specializing in specialty
Following the same formula from his Pacific Fitness days, Health in Motion (www.healthinmotions.com) sells the swings to specialty dealers who are in the patio furniture, pool and spa, and barbecue markets. As the venture grew, more former Pacific Fitness sales and design people started working for the new company.
While researching fabrics and materials for the swings, Habing then came across a special padding material that he felt would work well as a weight machine pad. So he took it one step further and decided to offer interchangeable color combinations.
"Because the padding wasn't able to be attached to a board, it made me think about not being attached and have it be interchangeable with colors. The pads just pop in and out really easily, but when you put them in, it's in to stay," he said.
It reminded Habing of his early days in the fitness industry in the mid-1980s when the market offered different options in colors and materials. But as time went by, the market minimized the options to ease excessive inventory for dealers and reduce manufacturing.
"Pretty much what happened as time went on, everybody wanted to keep the options down so there was only one choice for the buyer. Now people come into the store, they see the machine and that's how they get it," he said. "The industry has gone so monotone. In the specialty furniture market, you offer every single color and you customize. The whole market would be so much better if people could get what they really wanted."
With his non-compete with Precor expired, he and his partners launched a fitness products division under the Inspire name. Incorporating the same ball bearing and pendulum concepts from the teeter-totters and swings, the machines have a smooth and fluid movement.Â Seat padding and stretch canvas weight stack shrouds presently come in four colors -- black, tan, burgundy and blue -- and can be interchanged. More colors are proposed, and customers can send in fabric to match their furniture, curtains, or even a bedspread.
By offering color choices, Habing said he is trying to create a difference between specialty markets and the mass and sporting goods markets.
"We're trying to give the specialty dealers an edge again, and that edge is the customer being able to choose the colors they want and to mix and match them," Habing said. "The beauty of the way we're doing it is it doesn't burden the dealer with inventory if they don't want to. We will inventory the different color pads and shrouds. Because it's just a pad, you're not shipping the wood, and it's a cloth canvas shroud, they're very light, you can ship them for a very low cost compared to other types of options."
The first shipment of Inspire weight machines -- made up of three models called M1, M2 and M3 -- went out in November. Habing is also encouraging specialty fitness dealers to consider carrying patio swings in their slower selling months -- what a way to keep more income coming in during the slow spring and summer fitness equipment days -- and some dealers expressed an interest at the Denver show in doing just that.
It's about total health, including relaxation
"We came up with the name Health in Motion because we knew we were doing swings, but I thought I might want to get back into fitness at some point. Health is related to everything -- it's fitness, it's relaxation, it's nutrition. There are all kinds of things that make up the health of a person, and the swings are the relaxation side of health."
His company wasn't taking orders for swings at H&F Biz, but plans to start introducing new models to fitness retailers in March and April when their core business slows down.
"If you look at when swings are selling, they're busiest when fitness is slowest, and vice versa. It's a good mix and balances out their business. It allows the dealers to bring a product in to make their business more steady throughout the year."
As for the future, Habing said he has a lot of ideas -- more weight machines, benches and even aerobic products.
"What I want to do with Inspire is not be everything to everybody. The next products will be different from what you see out there," he said. "I don't want to come out with a me-too treadmill or a me-too bench line because all we're doing is competing for space with the dealer. What I want to try to do is come out with things that are so unique that the dealer is going to say, I gotta buy that from these guys."
SNEWSÂ® View: Honestly, no matter how smashing a new home gym or treadmill or bike or balance product may be, it's still something you've seen before. But we say show attendees stopping in the aisle and gawking at the swings. We caught a few discussing which store they'd put one in front of and how they'd have no problem selling them. We took our turn on the teeter-totter since, hey, why not? Fitness is about play too, isn't it? OK, so the pad colors on the gyms are nice. Really. But those swings. Those are just the cat's meow. Leave it to Habing to come up with them and "cross-train" a small business with both fall/winter and spring/summer products.