York Barbell leveraging strong heritage in new brands

If you thought York Barbell was only about big, heavy things made of iron and steel for the garage muscleheads of the world, think again. Since William Thierfelder came on as president in June 2002, he has used York's well-recognized name and worldwide heritage spanning more than seven decades to expand products and brands into "softer" areas with broader consumer appeal.
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If you thought York Barbell was only about big, heavy things made of iron and steel for the garage muscleheads of the world, think again.

Since William Thierfelder came on as president in June 2002, he has used York's well-recognized name and worldwide heritage spanning more than seven decades to expand products and brands into "softer" areas with broader consumer appeal. Plus, he's done this without diluting the strength of the name York.

"York has a name that most people in the world recognize," Thierfelder told SNEWS. "But as a company, we had a very narrow focus.

"I didn't want to diminish the heritage; it's a great brand," he added. "But I'm looking for it to be a total fitness company and, beyond that, a solutions-based company."

Marching strongly into 2004
The Super Show next month could be called a bit of a coming-out party for the York, Pa.,-based company that moves quietly while doing its business. York will use the show to do a broader launch of its new Live Smart-branded exercise packages, which were first quietly shown in early 2003 and, as of early fall, are available at discounters Target and Walgreen's. At the Super Show, York will also show its Exergear accessories brand alongside its traditional York strength brand.

But there's more: The company is expected to introduce a cardiovascular equipment line in January. (Really, but we can't tell you the details yet.) It's also doing more private label (including accessories for Reebok Europe). And it hired Dennis Huyck, formerly of Phoenix Health & Fitness, as its COO about three months ago. Thierfelder said we should also expect more announcements and perhaps even affiliations in the first part of 2004.

"York is still the mother ship," Thierfelder said, "but we're developing other brands that reach other markets.

That means other brand names that don't necessarily include the name "York Barbell" on the package.

"The 'barbell' in the name can be a limitation," Thierfelder added, since the company's other brands are often targeting that 80 percent of the population that doesn't work out. These are the inactive consumers that every company in the fitness industry would like to attract. And it's these consumers who might be intimidated by words like "barbell" or "weight lifting."

The Live Smart products (suggested retail: $29.99) are typical of this M.O. They include six packages that are friendly and inviting in design, color and photography, with names that promote a benefit, not just working out. Osteo-Smart, Maternity-Smart, and Slim-Smart, are examples. What's inside is very similar: Two, 2-pound vinyl-covered dumbbells in pretty, non-musclehead colors; three resistance tubes with light, medium, and heavy resistance; a door anchor for exercise variety; a 26-inch stability ball; and a foot pump to inflate and re-inflate the ball.

What differentiates the packages, however, is a thick booklet that features a fitness program geared toward that package's specific benefit, written or researched by an expert in that area. For example, the Maternity-Smart program is written by Mary Thierfelder (yes, Bill's wife) who also is a licensed physical therapist and mother of their eight children. Thierfelder said he believes that not enough people know what to do with weights and balls once they buy them, especially if their needs are specific, such as offsetting osteoporosis.

The psychology of growing a fitness business
Thierfelder's background came in handy when it comes to the business growth. He's a sport psychologist who ran a physical therapy corporation that was sold in 1992 to NovaCare Rehabilitation. He's also a former competitive high jumper. Thierfelder said he applied the competitive athlete's attitude with the sport psychologist's perspective to meet the needs of people he treated in his physical therapy practice.

There are three steps toward change spoken of by psychologists, he explained, that help him in business. One, know in detail where you are; two, know in detail where you want to go; and, three, start working in detail to bridge the gap between the two.

But first, some background: York was founded as a cutting-edge strength-training company in 1929 by Bob Hoffman, designated the "Father of World Weightlifting," who began lifting weights and making barbells in his oil burner factory in York, Pa. Soon, weight training became the centerpiece of the conditioning exercises done by the York Oil Burner Athletic Club, which in time became the York Barbell Club. He also became a publisher of a strength and health magazine, and a trainer to Olympic and national weight-lifting champions, which led partly to York being dubbed "Muscletown."

That was all fine and good for Thierfelder, but he knew there was more that the company with the recognizable name could offer consumers, as well as more that it could offer retailers to help boost their bottom line. And he took his steps-to-change formula to heart.

"The concept was to come up with something innovative, and that can be a difficult thing to do in the fitness industry," he explained, adding that the challenge for any brand is to enhance its name and to avoid being pigeon-holed. "People have to look outside the box and ask, 'What is the potential worldwide for this company?'

"We have a lot more to offer the industry than, 'Here, we got some iron for you,' " he said.

After nearly 18 months of planning, developing, building and beginning to sell the products, revenues are starting to go up. Within a year, he said, the company will more than double sales over its current sales.

Added Thierfelder, "We're not letting any grass grow under our feet."

SNEWS View: It's always a fine tight wire act to grow a company that has a good name, while not diluting the worth of the current name and products. More than a few companies we know have had hours of backroom sessions about what to name a new product – Do they try to use the known name? Do they come up with something new, so different channels and consumers recognize the products? Will the new products help or hinder the current ones? York seems to be going about this in a way that fits its needs, including partnering with the right people and using consultants around the globe. We also like Thierfelder's new exercise packages: What a no-brainer to put a benefit in big words on a package, even thought the only thing that's different is the written manual and program details. That's actually what counts, isn't it? What someone does with equipment is what helps them meet their needs, not the equipment itself. And these also target the low-fit or inactives who need a friendly hand to help them step up to a healthier lifestyle. We hope specialty dealers don't just turn up their noses at this package because it is sold at discounters. If the person using this gets a foot-up, they will be the next customer walking in the specialty shop's door for more and better.

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