I have something in this case that weighs less than two pounds,
but I bet you can't lift it," begins Bobby Hinds's sales pitch,
which he is as likely to recite to a bemused seatmate on an
airplane as to a FORTUNE 500 CEO. "Give up? It's a portable gym.
That's right. It's a treadmill, a pulley system and a weight
machine all in one, for under $40."
With that, Hinds, 67, bounces up from behind a cluttered desk
and begins vigorously demonstrating his product--essentially a
collapsible bar attached to taut surgical tubing that affixes to
a door jamb. By the time he's done, you want to buy one for
everyone in your calling circle who's as poorly defined as an
Not that you're alone. Hinds's 23-year-old fitness company,
Lifeline USA Inc., of Madison, Wis., will do about $12 million
in sales this year, up about 40% over last year.The success of
the company is driven by Hinds's inimitable personality.
Unencumbered by modesty or inhibition, Hinds is equal parts P.T.
Barnum and Bobby Riggs, the rare impresario of self-promotion
who is immediately endearing yet more persistent than heat rash.
Convinced he had invented a revolutionary jump rope, he launched
his company in 1975. By year's end he had lured Charles Kuralt
and a CBS camera crew to his backyard "factory" and had
demonstrated his invention on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
A sweaty permutation of Horatio Alger, Hinds learned the ropes,
so to speak, at a boys' reformatory in Wisconsin. The son of an
alcoholic father and a mother hobbled by polio, Hinds says he
was arrested for armed robbery before the age of 10. At the
Waukesha Industrial School for Boys he discovered boxing and
eventually earned a boxing scholarship to Wisconsin, from which
he graduated in 1956 with a dual degree in--somehow it fits--art
and criminal psychology.
His first job out of college was teaching art at a public school
in Madison, but he was moonlighting as a professional fighter.
He accepted a fight on short notice and called in sick for a
week. Unbeknownst to him, the bout was on the undercard of a
Sugar Ray Robinson-Gene Fullmer title fight that was being
televised nationally. "The superintendent saw me on television
and fired me the next day," says Hinds. "Hey, at least I won the
He retired from boxing and was selling insurance, but he found
his true calling when he realized that an adjustable, uniformly
weighted plastic jump rope was vastly superior to the leather
cord he had been using for decades. He invented the portable gym
in 1977. "I discovered there's nothing better than running your
own business," says Hinds. "I had been hustling all my life, and
this gave me a chance to do it for something I believed in."
This sentiment, not surprisingly, triggers yet another story.
Seems a fellow hustler at a federal prison in Illinois recently
ordered a portable gym, only to have it intercepted by guards
and returned. Hinds thought nothing of it until he found out the
prisoner was an organized crime boss. "Maybe," says Hinds,
grinning, "when he gets out, I can get him to do an infomercial."