Everyone in the CrossFit world is familiar with Rogue Fitness equipment. Rogue sets the standard for quality. The CrossFit Games are held exclusively using Rogue hardware. Hundreds of gyms and CrossFit boxes worldwide are chock full of Rogue steel. Thousands of CrossFit videos on YouTube are populated by elite athletes proudly wearing the Rogue logo on their clothing, whether they’re sponsored by Rogue or not. Turn on Biggest Loser and check out Bob Harper and his entire Rogue-built gym sets. Rogue is everywhere.
Bill Henniger, the head of Rogue and founder of the company, maintains a relatively low profile. I’ve been around Bill the last three years at the Arnold Classic CrossFit and he’s always cool and in control. In the midst of consecutive days of huge equipment set-ups, athletes asking questions, deadlines, booth set-ups, crowd control and the endless problems and situations that come with such an ambitious undertaking, Henniger is calmly in charge.
Henniger sat down with me at the 2012 Arnold Classic to talk about his vision for Rogue, why “built in the USA” is meaningful to him, and where the company is headed.
Koenig: Talk to me about Rogue and your ideas. Tell me what Rogue represents. How did you get into this crazy business? This isn’t something a person grows up thinking “I’m going to make high-quality strength training equipment.” Or is it?
Henniger: I grew up in a small town of hard-working people. Worked summers while in school, was in the military from age 18 until a couple of years after Sept. 11. When I got out, I went to work for General Motors, was in operations production, in a large production area in Toledo, Ohio. Was up there for seven years, working in manufacturing, living and breathing manufacturing, everything was metal work. I really loved working there.
(But Henniger was looking around for his next challenge, thought about going back into the military, then...)
Henniger: Someone told me CrossFit was the way to go. So I checked it out, went to a seminar in Santa Cruz, hung out with those guys, wow, there’s a lot more smiling people here compared to me clocking in at a plant.
Koenig: You went through your Level-1 certification at HQ?
Henniger: Yeah, the original gym.
Koenig: So you had an interesting opportunity to be around the founders?
Henniger: Yeah, it was one of the original three-day seminars, the last one before they split into the individual components. My Level-1 cert was a big eye-opener for me. I came back, had heard about the affiliate program. It was $500, so I bought the rights to CrossFit Columbus, and also CrossFit Toledo, as I was living there. I knew I was going to move out of Toledo once I finished my MBA. I was three years into my MBA out of the University of Michigan. Columbus was the next location I was going to move to.
I outfitted my garage, like every other crossfitter. Purchasing bars from Glenn Plendlay down in Texas, medicine balls from another guy, spending lots of time shopping at all these different locations. So I thought, when I was going to open my own gym, Crossfit Columbus, why not buy and sell equipment and open a gym at the same time?
So I contacted all these niche manufacturers, asking “Can I sell your stuff?” They all said yeah. I was surprised, I’d never done anything like that before. Eventually I was enjoying it so much, I took a leap of faith and left my high-paying job at General Motors. Left GM, came to Columbus, got my own plyo boxes, laid my own mats, all that stuff. Bootstrapped the entire thing, only purchased what I could afford, even cashing in my 401K to get cash for some of the equipment.
Koenig: Sounds like a big gamble.
Henniger: I knew I had good work experience,figured if the whole thing went into the bag I could find a job somewhere. During this period I was still working on my MBA from the University of Michigan. I was driving from Columbus to Ann Arbor twice a week, as well, on top of that.
I started the gym with a guy named Troy Taylor. He was co-owner; he and I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that gym. It was really going great; I enjoyed coaching, the people, it was a great community. I think that’s one of the big draws to CrossFit; the people you meet, their quality. It was good, but the equipment business began to grow rapidly. That’s how I ended up doing what I’m doing.
Koenig: Why are you so good, why is Rogue equipment of such high quality? Is it your personal standard, how Bill Henniger looks at the world.
Henniger: It began with the very first product I offered. It started with Ian King, he’s the product control guy at Rogue Fitness. I met him on the CrossFit message boards. He said “I’m a guy who welds, does anybody need anything done?”
I was interesting in building equipment from the beginning because of my manufacturing background. I immediately saw areas where things needed to be built. So I said, “can you make rings? I want the rings to be such that when someone opened the box, they immediately knew these things were quality.” Old school, USA-manufactured product. Like when you go to your grandfather’s garage, open up the tool drawer, look at the tools, they look different than the tools in Sears right now. There’s a big difference, I wanted to bring that back. The look and feel of quality.
I knew the only way to do that was through American manufacturing. My strategy was to invest in that, knowing people would appreciate it. We were building an equipment business at the beginning of the recession, in the industrial heartland. What’s interesting is, many of these shops were probably at a low point when we were approaching them.
Ian and I really see eye to eye. He comes from a family with a hundred years of manufacturing background. Ian’s ability to see the difference in our product is critical. There are other companies chasing the profit, taking something we make, sending it to China, reverse engineering it, bringing it back so they can have more margin, but our quality is almost impossible to recreate, in my opinion.
Koenig: How do you determine how to expand your product line? Where do the ideas come from?
Henniger: We try to look as far back as possible. For example, take powerlifting. We go talk to Louie Simmons [Westside Barbell]. We’re going to talk to the expert in each field. We’re the apprentices, we go talk to the journeymen, take what’s best from them, bring it back, put a new spin on it. If you look at the racks we carry, they have the Westside hole pattern. These things have been in Louie’s gym for 30 years. If those guys, who squat 1200 pounds, don’t destroy the equipment, we’re good to go.
For Olympic weightlifting, we go talk to those experts. We know we don’t know what they do, these people with decades of experience. A lot of this stuff has been around for a long time; the barbell has been around for a while. Over a long time the equipment field evolved away from heavy-duty, American-manufactured products, and we’re trying to go back full circle.
Koenig: Like to the old York equipment?
Henniger: Yes, the old York.
Koenig: How did you get so tied in with CrossFit?
Henniger: Obviously we’ve been part of that community since 2006. But in 2008 I signed Caity Matter, Joe Thomas, and Eric Jones, three of my best folks that were at the gym, to the CrossFit Games. One day I came in, put their registration letters on the white board, said “All three of you are going to the Games and I’m paying for it.” I didn’t have very much money at that time, but thought this was going to be neat. We trained hard, every single day, took Katie out there and she won the Games.
That was the moment. Then I knew we needed to sponsor athletes, so we sponsored Jason Khalipa, cause he won the games that year as well. That was the beginning of sponsoring athletes and the Games.
The following year, working with Dave Castro, we provided the boxes and bars, things like that. Then I approached them and asked if we could be the sole provider for the CrossFit Games, and since then, people have seen what we’ve done.
Koenig: Now you’re on ESPN on weekends.
Henniger: Yeah, we had no expectations that was going to happen. When we made our commercials it was for what we thought was going to be a livestream on the internet. Then we find ourselves two or three months later, seeing ourselves on the big screen. These are defining moments for us as a company.
Koenig: Where is Rogue going to be in a few years?
Henniger: Our metric is not millions of dollars; it’s jobs. Our goal is by 2015 to have 500 jobs. We figure that if we’re doing that, everything is going to be good. Manufacture more and more, get more into machining, more metal fabrication, leatherworking, woodworking, anything and everything that is something we think people here in the US are good at. We’re going to create a manufacturing campus.
Even as more competitors move into the equipment side of home gyms and CrossFit, Rogue continues to innovate (see the 2012 Games) and constantly produce high quality equipment. Examine their wonderfully professional website and you’ll be impressed by the breadth of selection, if not by the stimulating list of athletes they sponsor. Sign up for the Rogue newsletter, an always stimulating monthly event in my inbox.
I’m looking forward to the fun and imaginative Rogue set-up I know awaits me in Columbus at the Arnold Classic CrossFit coming up Feb. 28 - March 3.