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York Barbell Co. Starts Regaining Its Heft

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like the 97-pound weakling in the old Charles Atlas advertisements in the back of comic books, York Barbell Co. is tired of getting sand kicked in its face.

Once the big muscle in weightlifting--by the 1950s everyone from Olympic competitors to high-school wrestlers used York’s cast-iron barbells--the company that pioneered the sport shriveled. In a 1996 newsletter, the company conceded “20 years of slumber.”

Now owned by a group of investors that includes the new management, the company is trying to regain the mystique it enjoyed during those heady times when York billed itself as “Muscletown, U.S.A.”

“We want to get reinvolved in the sport of weightlifting and help promote weightlifting,” said Paul Stombaugh, the president and chief executive officer. “Right now the United States is not as competitive as it could be internationally in the sport.”

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York Barbell was founded in 1932 by Bob Hoffman, who coached U.S. Olympic weightlifting teams for 20 years and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sponsoring Americans at events around the world.

“York had their hand in everything at one time,” said Mike Lambert, editor in chief of Powerlifting USA magazine. “In the glory years, York sort of hand-picked people on the team, and they did very well.”

Many of the company’s employees were competitors, including some national and world champions in weightlifting, power lifting and bodybuilding.

Over the years, iron-pumping notables such as Arnold Schwarzenegger made pilgrimages to the company’s headquarters in eastern Pennsylvania, where a giant statue of a weightlifter revolving atop the building has become a landmark.

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Its prestige diminished in the early 1980s as Hoffman diverted his attention to softball--at one point the factory made indoor batting cages--while the company’s domestic and foreign competitors pushed vinyl-covered barbells and exercise machines.

“When the fitness boom hit, they lost some market share,” Lambert said.

Corporate infighting followed Hoffman’s death in 1985 and further hampered growth. The company sponsored fewer events and let its Olympic certification wane. The 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles marked the last time York barbells were used in an Olympic event.

York Barbell is the only U.S. manufacturer of the traditional free-weight plates, and its biggest competitors are Chinese companies that sell barbells at prices York finds difficult to beat.

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Officials at the privately held company don’t reveal its finances. Previous managers reported estimated sales of $10 million in 1995. In 1984, the company’s former general manager, John Terpak, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that sales then were approaching $20 million.

Hoffman built the company around a culture of healthy living, encouraging his employees to lift weights, even during lunch breaks, and sponsoring national and world competitions.

Murray Levin, president of the confederation that runs the weightlifting competition in the Pan American Games, said the new management has to become more indoctrinated in the sport.

The new owners are doing that. In April, York Barbell plans to conduct a strength and training seminar with the National Strength and Conditioning Assn. In June, the company will sponsor an international power-lifting competition at its headquarters.

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York Barbell’s administrative offices are in a 34,000-square-foot structure also housing the Weightlifting Hall of Fame. The company recently installed a platform for lifting events in its auditorium.

Managers are also considering building a gym. York had one many years ago that Hoffman opened to weightlifters.

“There was a lot of glamour there because all the champions would come in from around the world, and people would come from around the country to watch them,” Levin recalled.

The company has also regained its Olympic certification, although it lost to a Japanese competitor when it bid to have its equipment used in the 2000 summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. It is now bidding for the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.

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“We’re not trying to invent anything new here,” Stombaugh said. “We’re trying to pick up Bob’s legacy.”

Although it remains committed to selling equipment for gyms, schools and athletic associations, the company last year introduced a new line of home-use equipment to compete against the exercise machines.

Stombaugh said the company can bank on a loyal following, mostly people older than 35, but it must also work to attract younger people.

Observers such as Lambert believe an active interest in the sport by York could help raise the prestige of weightlifting in the United States, which finished 20th internationally last year.

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“York has a good name,” he said. “That name is golden, but you still have to pump it up a little bit.”


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