March 8 (Bloomberg) -- In 1997, Navy SEAL squadron commander Randy Hetrick was in Southeast Asia, preparing for a training mission that involved scaling a cargo ship and commandeering it. Operating undercover, Hetrick and his team of frogmen couldn’t leave the wharfside warehouse until the mock exercise began. As days turned to weeks, Hetrick -- like most SEALS, conditioned as if he were a professional athlete -- started looking for alternatives to sit-ups and pushups.
Familiar with body-weight training, a type of exercise used for years by acrobats, Hetrick wondered whether he could fashion a device that would use his weight to strengthen his muscles. Rooting around in a supply box, he found a spool of nylon webbing employed in making parachute harnesses. After cutting three strips and tying them into a Y, Hetrick attached one end to the door and held the other two in his hands. Then he started experimenting on himself, attracting the attention of colleagues who offered suggestions. “SEALs are pretty innovative cats, particularly around physical training,” he says.
Hetrick’s invention became known as “the gizmo” to his squadron, and its uses became his passion. In 2001, after 14 years as a SEAL, Hetrick left the Navy to earn an MBA at Stanford University, where he frequented the school’s gym to work with conditioning coaches to turn his invention into a working prototype. By 2004, with $350,000 from private investors he had met through connections in the military and at Stanford, Hetrick launched Fitness Anywhere in San Francisco to sell a line of lightweight suspension gear called TRX.
The system, made by contract manufacturers in the U.S. and Asia, comprises three adjustable nylon straps attached to a metal ring. By leaning forward or suspending their legs in the air, users can perform several hundred exercises that range in difficulty, depending on the body weight leveraged. The TRX kit -- gear and basic instructional DVD -- costs $190, roughly $40 to $90 more than competing products.
COLLATERAL PRODUCT SUPPORT PAYS OFF
As Hetrick fine-tuned the Fitness Anywhere business model, the company evolved from simply selling gear to also selling classes, DVDs, and online videos for its “suspension training,” a term it registered as a trademark in 2007. “We sell gear to enable a world of content sales,” Hetrick says. That approach is what separates Fitness Anywhere from companies that make similar gadgetry, such as Rip60.com, Monkey Bar Gym, and Astone Fitness, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a fitness education group in San Diego. “A quality product is not just the tangible product, it’s everything that supports it, the collateral that goes into that product,” Comana says. “That’s what makes them unique versus all the competition in this genre of training.”
Hetrick expects his 120-employee company’s revenue to hit $50 million, up 56 percent from $32 million in 2010, in a fitness equipment market that industry researcher First Research says consists of about 100 companies with combined annual revenue of $3 billion. Hetrick says Fitness Anywhere has been profitable since 2009, with revenue from training classes ($250 a month for unlimited classes) and educational videos ($25 per DVD) doubling year-over-year since 2006, keeping pace with the increase in gear sales. More than 30,000 people have been certified as TRX instructors ($250 for a one-day class) in 40 countries.
Fitness Anywhere’s emphasis on training helped it land a 24,000-kit deal with the U.S. Defense Dept. in November, the latest in a string of contracts with the military. Hetrick says such sales more than tripled from 2009 to 2010 after he assembled a sales force of former military personnel who focus solely on the armed forces. He forecasts similar increases this year and next. If U.S. Army trainers decide to make suspension exercises part of their conditioning programs for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon could seek bids for a long-term contract from makers of the gear this year, says Paul Rohler, director of soldier and community recreation at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
TRX fans outside the military include such professional athletes as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. The gear also has a following among neighborhood trainers. Eddie Furth, director of fitness at the Jewish Community Center in Stamford, Conn., says classes have grown to 10 a week -- with 90 percent of them filled to capacity -- since the center introduced them in 2009. Most of the fitness instructors at JCC were trained by Fitness Anywhere. “Those [classes] are much, much harder to copy than just a piece of gear,” says Hetrick.
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