The Equipment Outlaw

With local manufacturing, clever social marketing and impeccable timing, Bill Henniger's Rogue Fitness is cornering the market in delivering CrossFit's gear.
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The first time I walked into Rogue Fitness’ headquarters and storefront just west of Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus nearly two years ago, I was met by a familiar face. Dan Bailey, recently off his sixth-place CrossFit Games finish, smiled and introduced himself and then walked me through Rogue’s on-site gym to show off bumper plates and a foam roller. I made my purchase minutes later.

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That unassuming exchange between a CrossFit superstar and his customer might serve as the perfect analogy for Rogue’s recent ascension: With relentlessly hard work, laser-like focus and modest, responsible growth, Rogue is now the go-to equipment manufacturer for CrossFit and its affiliates worldwide.

Rogue founder Bill Henniger wasn’t thinking all that big when he opened his first affiliate in his Perrysburg, Ohio, garage in 2006. He was fresh off a certification seminar in Santa Cruz, Calif., and like most CrossFit acolytes, was immediately hooked by the constantly varied high-intensity workouts and intriguing definition of fitness. What he couldn’t find, however, was an easy way to outfit his gyms with the appropriate gear.

“It wasn’t necessarily that manufacturers weren’t meeting demand but that you had to order from five different places,” Henniger says. “The whole thing was hugely fragmented.” To address the problem, Henniger began shipping other manufacturers’ products from his
roguefitness.com shop, bringing equipment sales under one Web address. But customers still had to pay individual shipping fees to each manufacturer, making orders much more expensive, and transit times were lengthy. It could take up to two months to receive an entire order. The equipment also wasn’t always ideal for CrossFit, so Henniger began toying with the idea of warehousing everything a CrossFit facility might need. And the only way to do that, he figured, was to build that equipment himself.

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If Rogue Builds It

Because CrossFit affiliates can be high-volume, high-turnover facilities, industrial engineering, which was Henniger’s undergraduate major, influences the design of much of Rogue’s equipment. Gear like the Infinity Rig, for example, allows coaches to view, train and critique multiple athletes simultaneously and introduces an efficient flow and symmetry to the gym environment.

Rogue’s core products are made at the company’s 150,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on the west side of Columbus. It’s lunch break when we walk in and don our protective eyewear, but soon music is blasting out of a boombox behind a line of welding tables, and sparks fly as welders set to work on rig legs, parallettes and squat stands. Equipment not made here is outsourced to other U.S. firms: weightlifting belts to an Ohio leather company and Rogue’s famed bumper plates to Hi-Temp in Tuscumbia, Ala. The company also sources “99 percent” of the steel it uses from mills in the Midwest.

Henniger insists this focus on local and U.S. manufacturing isn’t just a marketing ploy but a business decision allowing him to respond quickly to market demands and make changes in a matter of minutes if something goes wrong with a piece of Rogue equipment. He estimates that process could take six months if he outsourced overseas. Moreover, Henniger is convinced America’s economy can and should still have a vibrant manufacturing sector. “Look, we can’t all work in the service industry,” he says. “It’s an ecosystem, and you need people [here] to make goods that go into the system.”

He might be right. Manufacturing grew to $1.7 trillion, or 12 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, in 2012, the highest level in five years. And according to analyst firm IBISWorld, the worldwide gym-equipment market alone reached $4 billion in 2012. The trick for Rogue is keeping prices competitive while building what Henniger says is stronger, better equipment than the industry has seen in 20 years.

By owning its manufacturing, Rogue cuts out the middleman. The company also has no sales team, no commissioned employees and does little paid marketing beyond the CrossFit Games, at which, since 2010, the company has built and supplied all the equipment needed for regional competitions. Last year, Rogue sent 15 semi-trucks of equipment to the Games at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

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Because of its limited marketing, Rogue, like the CrossFit movement, relies heavily on word of mouth and social media, which Henniger developed after coaching his future wife, Caity (Matter) Henniger, to victory in the 2008 CrossFit Games. It was then that Rogue officially sponsored Matter and Jason Khalipa, who had just garnered the men’s World’s Fittest crown.

“That wasn’t a common thing back then,” says Khalipa, who finished fifth last year. “It was cool to feel like you were part of a team and someone else had your back. I still live and breathe Rogue.” And, in turn, he reinvests into the company. Khalipa estimates he has spent nearly $200,000 on Rogue equipment to outfit his six CrossFit gyms.

By sponsoring the sport’s brightest stars, still part of the company’s social-marketing plan today, Rogue allows CrossFit fans to connect with and support their favorite elites by purchasing Rogue-branded, athlete-specific apparel, much like other professional sports. Rogue also reaches out to its customers directly, eliciting feedback and fielding equipment requests from customers on its Facebook page. Recently, Rogue asked its Facebook fans to weigh in on which of three products the company should release next.

“What most marketers forget is that words, photos and video mean nothing unless the products are great,” says Web Smith, a marketing consultant who has worked with the company. “Rogue generates a pipeline of top-quality, worthwhile, buzz-worthy gear, [and] Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts have been amazing for keeping the community involved.”

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Growth Plan

The 2008 Games marked another watershed moment: the point at which Henniger became convinced CrossFit was going to be successful. “It wasn’t like I was doing the math in my head about how big this was going to be for my business,” he says. “But it was a blast to be a part of this event.” For a sport that requires so much equipment — from racks, rigs and pull-up bars and barbells to glute-ham developer machines, medicine balls and ropes — it was a prescient insight. Since 2007, CrossFit’s stunning popularity has
fueled a boom in affiliate gyms, growing nearly 20 times, from just 270 to almost 5,000 boxes today.

Henniger won’t reveal Rogue sales figures but says he measures company growth by the workers he employs. On that front, Rogue has gone from just three employees in 2007 to 200 now. Henniger says the company could immediately fill another 50 positions and expects to reach 500 in 2015. Rogue Europe launched in Finland in January this year with Juha Puonti and 2009 Games champ Mikko Salo.

“Rogue demonstrated either keen foresight, was the beneficiary of good fortune, or both in aligning with CrossFit, [which] grew perhaps faster than anyone has anticipated,” says Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University in St. Louis who conducts sports-business research and follows CrossFit.

It has been fast, but Henniger says he has built his company like a traditional CrossFit affiliate, focusing on excellent products and only expanding when necessary and with cash on hand.

“They were CrossFitters first and foremost, and this is what has made them so successful,” says Dave Castro, CrossFit’s Games director. “They understand and care about our community because it’s their community.”

Rogue, of course, isn’t the only equipment maker targeting CrossFit. Again Faster in Boston began in a similar fashion and at nearly the same time, when Jon Gilson started making portable pull-up bars in his garage in 2006 and shipping other CrossFit-centric equipment from his website soon after. Today, the “multibillion-dollar multinational business” contract-manufactures Again Faster-branded equipment in the U.S., Canada and overseas. But Gilson sees his mission as entirely different from that of Rogue and other manufacturers, delivering content and educational materials and videos, including a new iPad application called Evolve, to the CrossFit community. “I don’t think we’re in the same business, honestly,” Gilson says. “No one else is developing this competency around media. Let me help you be a better athlete, a better coach or business owner.” Only then can Again Faster also deliver the necessary equipment.

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Quick Delivery

Today, Rogue delivers its equipment from a gleaming 175,000-square-foot warehouse space, and Henniger’s eyes light up (blame that industrial-engineering background and the fact that his old warehouse had a single door, making bottlenecks a regular occurrence) as he describes how workers scan and move product rapidly through the new, expanded space, through one of eight bay doors and onto trucks full of Rogue gear.

Because, Henniger says, 99.9 percent of equipment ordered is already built and sitting in the warehouse (on the day of our visit, that included about 30,000 square feet of equipment ready for Regionals), Rogue often ships orders in just a few hours, sometimes sending out gear intended to outfit entire CrossFit affiliates in a single day. That’s a point of pride for Henniger and forms part of his master plan for the company. “I tell my people our goal is to ship in five minutes,” he says. “There are companies like Amazon setting the bar, and there’s no reason that just because our stuff weighs 5,000 pounds, it should be any different.”

By aiming for that bar, Rogue often surprises with its shipping speed. Combine that with products that look great and hold up in a CrossFit environment, and the company wins exceedingly loyal customers.

“To watch where Bill has taken Rogue with this is very impressive,” Castro says. “He has created a mega-brand around gear and delivering high-quality product like no other to the customer.”

The only question for Rogue, and anyone in the CrossFit business, really, is how long the company can sustain this growth. Henniger, ever careful with company spending and expansion, seems unconcerned that CrossFit will peak anytime soon.

“Our focus is just building great stuff and letting it tell its own story,” he says.