Editor's note: Inc. magazine's 2018 Company of the Year is  Bird. Here, we spotlight a contender for the title.

In 2006, Bill Henniger was holding down a full-time operations job at General Motors and working toward an MBA at the University of Michigan. But the Air Force veteran was still looking for a challenge. He found it in CrossFit, a full-body fitness regimen that combines interval training with high-intensity workouts involving movements like running and jumping performed with weights.

After completing his level one trainer certification at the original CrossFit location in Santa Cruz, California, Henniger decided to join CrossFit's affiliate program. He purchased the rights to open CrossFit studios, or "boxes," in Toledo and Columbus, Ohio, and set about building a personal CrossFit box in his Toledo garage. It wasn't easy: Even though CrossFit boxes are so named for their minimalist approach to equipment, Henniger still had to go through multiple distributors to procure the weights, bars, and racks he needed--a costly, time-consuming process. 

As all great entrepreneurs do, Henniger saw a problem and decided to build a business to solve it. Using only his own money, he launched Rogue Fitness as an online-only distributor, creating a convenient one-stop shop for outfitting CrossFit boxes of all sizes, from garages with a few dumbbells to larger studios' rowing machines and racks.

Now, 10 years later, Rogue Fitness is the leading manufacturer of American-made strength and training equipment. The company declined to disclose revenue, but this year increased its workforce to 600, up from 160 in 2012. It recently moved into a new headquarters where it designs, builds, stores, and distributes all of its equipment . The 600,000-square-foot campus is helping to revitalize the long-struggling Milo-Grogan neighborhood in downtown Columbus. Rogue's commitment to American manufacturing, its employees, and investing in the local economy made it a contender for Inc.'s 2018 Company of the Year.

Although Rogue Fitness is hitting its stride in 2018, the company has by no means been an overnight success. Soon after launching Rogue as an equipment distributor, Henniger cashed out part of his 401(k), moved to Columbus, and opened Rogue Fitness Columbus. While the gym portion of the business took off, the distribution side ran into some issues. It was great for customers to be able to order their gym equipment from one place, but sourcing from multiple distributors meant inconsistent shipping times and costs. Henniger realized that the company needed more warehousing space, as well as to make its own equipment. And he knew he wanted it to be American-made.

By 2012, Henniger had made his manufacturing and distribution goals a reality. "The industry norm is six to eight weeks for racks and full gym outfitting," Henniger says. "We cut this down by 98 percent by stocking everything we make." CrossFit boxes can be any size and configuration, and have any combination of equipment. Rogue sells everything from dumbbells to exercise bikes, and lets shoppers custom-build boxes on its site. All of its orders ship in one business day.

This Amazon-esque business model seems to be working. Rogue is the official equipment supplier of the CrossFit Games, USA Weightlifting, the Arnold Strongman Classic, and the World's Strongest Man competition. In May 2019, for the first time, the Rogue Fitness headquarters will host a qualifying event for the CrossFit Games. The company has also opened a branch in Belgium for distribution to European customers, though all manufacturing is done right in downtown Columbus.

There are challenges of course, including steel tariffs and the general costliness of manufacturing 150,000 pounds of steel a day. But, according to Henniger, the benefits outweigh the costs. "I can walk to any area of the building and talk to the welders, machinists, painters, sewing staff, medicine ball builders, assembly team, and distribution team," he says. "Our product designers can work hand in hand with the fabrication teams. If we need to make a change, we can do it on the fly."

Where Henniger takes the most pride, though, is in his company's commitment to hiring local labor at a fair wage. (Rogue Fitness factory workers make about $16 an hour, according to Glassdoor.) The company's core philosophy reads: "Keeping our manufacturing operations in the U.S. and hiring skilled American workers results in higher quality products and more economic growth within the local community. Paying our employees a fair wage instills a sense of pride in their work and a sense of security in their lives." 

In its ongoing commitment to investing in the local economy, Rogue had made plans to develop property adjacent to its $35.5 million headquarters to accommodate a shopping plaza. "The vision for this area is to have businesses that fit our mission and values," a company spokesman told ColumbusCEO in February. "Bootstrapped companies that are willing to put in hard work and do things differently." 

Published on: Dec 10, 2018