Montco co. helping fight battle of boomers' bulge

By By DIANA MASTRULL

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. (AP) — Take heart, all you baby boomers who have let the years pass without a commitment to toning your abs and thighs or challenging your cardiovascular system.

In a Montgomery County office park, a small band of product developers at Smooth Fitness L.L.C. has your back. Your glutes, too, and anything else on your aging frame that might need some help.

"It's not because I'm 54," said Rich Hebert, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound CEO of the King of Prussia exercise-equipment company that trades as Smooth Fitness & Health. "This is a great target market and this is an underserved market."

And, Hebert contends, it is a promising route to one of his company's primary goals: improving its own fitness in an industry that most definitely is not for wimps.

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It's a fad-oriented business, where alternative functional fitness forms such as Zumba, Beachbody, and P90X has "cut in half" the traditional fitness market, Hebert said.

Among those that have felt the burn was InternetFitness.com Inc., the predecessor to Smooth Fitness. InternetFitness.com was created in 1996 and was believed to be the first online retailer of fitness equipment.

In 2011, Hebert, who had spent 25 years in direct retailing, was hired by NewSpring Capital in Radnor to position InternetFitness.com for sale. Larsen MacColl Partners, a Radnor investment firm, acquired the assets in December 2012 for an undisclosed amount, creating Smooth Fitness and staking its future on the generation of an estimated 76 million, whose oldest members are now 68.

Along with traditional high-end fitness equipment - elliptical machines, treadmills - Smooth Fitness has begun rolling out lower-priced items such as stationary bikes and a push-up device "to help people who have been inactive, or no longer have strength and flexibility for traditional equipment," Hebert said.

The company, which once employed 50 or 60, is down to a payroll of 15. Call center, warehousing, and logistics operations have been outsourced. Manufacturing is done in Asia.

Smooth Fitness' first boomer product, SitNCycle, launched in June 2012 to robust sales on television, the Internet, and through direct advertising, Hebert said. Unlike a typical stationary bicycle, the patented SitNCycle is lightweight, has no handles (so the rider is forced to use his or her core to stay balanced), and has relatively low resistance settings.

"We're selling hundreds of thousands of these," said Hebert, as he pedaled through a recent interview, attributing a 10-pound weight loss over six weeks to "just using this when I'm on the phone."

Hebert declined to disclose company financials other than: "The business is on track to more than double in 2014," with the boomer-related fitness products providing a "small majority" of overall revenues.

As part of its new fitness-health-wellness platform, Smooth Fitness also will be manufacturing and selling home environmental products, such as air purifiers and portable heaters, as well as direct marketing vitamins and supplements.

A second generation of the SitNCycle, more recumbent and with a better padded seat and wider pedals, is slated for a Feb. 13 premiere on QVC for $219, and becomes available this week at www.getsitncycle.com. Gen1 went for $199.

Smooth Fitness also has worksites in its sights. Because there are plenty of boomers expected to be working for years to come, the company will go to market with a low-speed treadmill desk in April for $999.

"We predict . . . you will see workplaces over the next 10 years totally transformed with workstations that facilitate physical activity," Hebert said.

In the future that he envisions, conference tables won't be piled with doughnuts, but rather lined with SitNCycles.

That might not happen at Larsen MacColl, said managing partner Tim MacColl, 39, who noted that the firm's thirty- and forty-somethings are "fairly active people who go to the gym."

Still, the company considered Smooth Fitness a good bet, MacColl said.

"We like to make investments in growing businesses that we feel have a product that people will want, and see fitness as a good place to be over the next five to 15 years," MacColl said. He said he is "pleased" with the company's focus on baby boomers.

So is Victor Tringali, a former champion bodybuilder and now director of an initiative promoting healthier choices among students, faculty, and staff at Drexel University.

"It's a large demographic and it makes sense to target that audience," said Tringali, who has advised Smooth Fitness on conditions it needed to keep in mind in creating products for use by baby boomers. They included orthopedic problems and arthritis.

He also helped the company develop a cross-training program.

The end result should not only be trimmer waistlines but smaller health-care bills, Tringali noted.

"Anything we can do to encourage being well and suppress illness of any kind is certainly going to have a positive impact on our medical costs," he said.

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

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