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Weight Maker Flexes Its Muscle, Brain to Build Brand, Foil Piracy

For Iron Grip Barbell of Santa Ana, the key to protecting its innovations is to make its products in the U.S. And it has lawyers to fight copycats.

September 27, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Over lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Newport Beach in 1992, Scott Frasco drew a picture on a napkin and showed it to his old USC fraternity brother and weightlifting buddy Michael Rojas. Both men, in their 30s, were successful, busy and tired of working for others.

The drawing was of a round weightlifting plate, the kind that goes on the end of a metal bar. Traditionally, the plates are solid except for a small hole in the center that fits through the bar.

But Frasco's plate had two extra rectangular holes, meant to be handgrips.

"I had wondered for a long time why there were not grips in weight plates to make them easier to handle," said Frasco, now 48. "I had seen people drop plates, especially when they became slippery from perspiration."

The innovation led to the founding of Iron Grip Barbell Co., which last year had $12.5 million in sales and counted among its customers some of the largest health club chains and corporate and hotel gyms, plus the training rooms of more than 60 professional and college sports teams.

"It was one of those no-brainers in innovations," said Therese Iknoian, editor of the exercise industry newsletter Snews, "a big 'duh,' but they were the ones to figure it out."

Coming up with the idea was only the warm-up. Protecting their invention in an era of international piracy turned into a full-time workout.

The two men, who co-own Santa Ana-based Iron Grip, embarked on a strategy to get their company and brand entrenched before copies began appearing. Key to their plan was a decision to manufacture their products in the U.S.

"We knew we would be copied in China. It was just a matter of time," said Rojas, 46. "We wanted to delay the day of reckoning until we had a critical mass of product and capital."

"We thought that if we stayed here, it would take a little longer for China to take notice of what we were doing," Frasco said.

Iron Grip's early grappling with potential piracy was prudent, said Kent Kedl, executive director of Technomic Asia, a marketing consultant in Shanghai.

"Even small and mid-sized companies now need a China strategy," Kedl said. "Sooner or later we all face China, either as an opportunity or a threat."

Another problem is that once a Chinese manufacturer is set up to make a product, it sometimes does production overruns and sells the surplus itself.

"We call it the third shift," Kedl said. "It's all too common."

Frasco and Rojas quickly developed more innovations, including making the plates 12-sided so they wouldn't roll on the floor when attached to a bar. And the two men started filing for patents, eventually getting 34 of them to protect their designs.

They hired a local foundry to produce their line.

The Iron Grip products were more expensive than those imported by competitors, sometimes twice as much. But the company was getting a reputation not only for its innovations but also for the sturdiness and weight accuracy of its products.

"We had durability problems with product from other companies," said Mike Feeney, head of purchasing for the 24 Hour Fitness chain, one of Iron Grip's customers. "We even had a couple of dumbbells break."

"Iron Grip was not the biggest of companies out there," Snews' Iknoian said. "Yet they managed to get into almost every big club."

The inevitable came in 1999, when Frasco and Rojas rounded a corner at a trade show and came upon a vendor who was showing a line of weights equipped with handgrips. They called their lawyers.

Iron Grip became well known in the industry for waging war on the patent front.

"They were very busy in the letter-writing department," Iknoian said.

Iron Grip brought suits against seven companies, but none went to trial. Most were settled, Frasco said.

A major setback came for the company in 2004, when a judge dismissed a suit, declaring one of the grip patents invalid because it wasn't innovative enough to warrant protective status.

By then, however, Iron Grip was established as a force in the fitness field, Rojas said. "We no longer needed to depend on intellectual property rather than our brand," he said.

In 2000, they felt secure enough to start manufacturing a budget line in China. It now represents about 20% of the company's sales.

Although the company still uses an outside foundry to produce the basic iron plates for the domestic product, most of the finishing work has been done in-house since 1997. In the company's main 34,000-square-foot building in an industrial area of Santa Ana, the plates are encased in protective urethane with the use of custom-designed molds that cost about $15,000 apiece.

The building also is used for shipping and storage, with workers using giant vacuum lifts to move boxes of plates and other products.

In April, the operation expanded across the street to a 9,000-square-foot facility where computer-guided saws and lathes, costing about $100,000 apiece, process steel rods into dumbbells. Employees now total 55.

The private company doesn't disclose earnings, but Frasco and Rojas said Iron Grip was profitable.

The two entrepreneurs said they had gotten inquiries from venture capital firms that were interested in investing in the company to enable it to expand more quickly. But the founders turned them down.

"We want to run our own business," Frasco said. "We don't want to share the profits. We don't want to report to a board of directors.

"That's why we started our own business in the first place."

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david.colker@latimes.com

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