Ex-Pitt player's company looks to nutrition market

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Four years ago, the Crons Brand generated buzz by challenging giants Nike and Adidas for market share in the team apparel business. The West View company was featured in the New York Times in 2010 and USA Today in 2011 for outfitting Robert Morris University, based in Moon, and UNC Asheville in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Today, the company does not supply uniforms to any NCAA team.

But the Crons Brand is still growing behind a line of sports nutrition bars, called Come Ready Nutrition, and next month will launch the Come Ready Kids Bar, a series of nutrition products marketed toward children in seventh grade and younger.

The company, which has 20 employees and consultants working to develop the brand, will move into new headquarters in Wexford this summer, trading its space on the second floor of an office building for a renovated barn.

The Crons Brand has not abandoned its apparel business, said founder and CEO Pat Cavanaugh, a former University of Pittsburgh basketball player. But revenue from the nutrition bars exceeds apparel revenue, and the gap figures to grow as Come Ready Nutrition expands its retail footprint.

"There's no doubt it's challenging in the apparel space," Cavanaugh said. "We knew that going in."

The biggest obstacle for the company has been its lack of footwear. Any team that used the company as its apparel supplier had to look elsewhere for athletic shoes. Nike, Adidas and even Under Armour, which has emerged as a major player in the athletic apparel industry, can provide teams with uniforms and shoes.

Robert Morris left Crons for Nike, and UNC Asheville is now outfitted by Adidas.

"It's much more challenging if there's not footwear that goes with the business," Cavanaugh said. "While the quality of our product was very well received, as was the motivational message and branding behind it, the reality is shoe brands carry a lot of leverage with sports teams."

The company eventually plans to develop footwear, Cavanaugh said. "That's the next hurdle we need to approach if we want to get in that game in a bigger way, plain and simple," he said.

But the timing, he said, is not right. It isn't cheap developing and marketing shoes that can compete with Nike and Adidas, and the market might not be ready to support a newcomer anyway.

Instead, the company launched its line of Come Ready Nutrition bars in 2011. The nutrition bars are Cavanaugh's primary focus with the company. He has turned oversight of the apparel brand over to vice president Sotiris Aggelou, himself a former Pitt basketball player who was the Crons Brand's first employee.

Cavanaugh said the leap from making jerseys to making protein bars isn't a big one, especially since he has always viewed the Crons Brand as a "performance" company, not an apparel company. He founded the company, an acronym for "Come Ready Or Never Start" in 2007.

Nutrition, Cavanaugh said, is emerging in the sports performance field, and the company noticed most of the college athletics programs it contacted employed some type of nutrition expert.

That motivated the company to start developing its own line of nutrition bars. Cavanaugh and others on staff worked with formulators and consultants to create four flavors — cookies and cream, cake batter, caramel pretzel crunch and chocolate peanut butter pretzel. The nutrition bars are manufactured in Youngstown, Ohio, and the kids' bars will be manufactured in New York.

The food bar industry projects to generate $8.3 billion in revenue by 2016, according to MarketResearch.com, and energy/nutrition bars are expected to increase their share in the industry.

"There's not a lot of competitors (in sports apparel). You have three or four that are main competitors. You move to sports nutrition, there are hundreds," Cavanaugh said.

The Come Ready Nutrition bars were initially marketed toward the teams and college athletic conferences with whom the Crons Brand already had an apparel contract. They are used by about 40 college athletic programs, 13 of which appeared in bowl games this past season.

Once the nutrition bars were shopped to retail outlets, sales began to pick up speed.

The protein bars are sold in all Giant Eagle and GetGo locations and are available in select GNC locations and several local gyms. Come Ready Nutrition bars are available in 12 countries and more than 5,000 retail spots, which includes 2,000 stores added in January.

By the end of the year, Cavanaugh expects Come Ready Nutrition will be sold in 20 countries.

The nutrition bars are especially popular in Canada, where every GNC store and Wal-Mart Canada sells them. The company recently reached an agreement with Rexel, a Canadian pharmacy, to carry them.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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