Dick and Peter Dreissigacker of Concept 2 in Morrisville used their stature in rowing circles to sell oars to college rowing teams, starting with Yale. Those teams were the first in line for the Dreissigackers' rowing machines.

What a Concept

Dick and Peter Dreissigacker, owners of Concept 2 oar and rowing machine company in Morrisville, sell to exercise enthusiasts on both sides of the shore

by Julia Lynam

It's oars all the way at Concept 2. The visitor parking spots at the company's Morrisville headquarters are marked by oars; the men and women's bathrooms are designated with signs made of oars; and that's long before entering the manufacturing area, where hundreds of oars are being assembled.

The two founders, Peter and Dick Dreissigacker, are living advertisements for the efficacy of their products. Tall, strong and handsome, they've steered Concept 2 in harmony since they started developing carbon fiber oars for college rowing programs in the late 1970s.

Dick, now 54, took up rowing while enrolled in engineering classes at Brown University in the 1960s and went on to compete with the U.S. Olympic team in 1972. It was a few years later, coaching rowing at Stanford University in California, that he drew his younger brother, Peter, then a graduate engineering student, into the sport. When preparing to try out for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, they attempted to improve their time by modifying the traditional wooden oars then in use.

"We cut some wooden oars in half," Peter says, "and made the outboard part out of carbon fiber. We couldn't really manage to work on whole oars in our apartment, so we just did the important bit." That innovative sectional approach continues to this day: individual components of Dreissigacker racing oars, such as blades, sleeves and handles, can be upgraded without replacing the whole oar.

The brothers didn't make the '76 team, but their experimental oars made their mark. When the Dreissigackers moved from California and set up shop making carbon fiber oars in Morrisville, they had a waiting market among college rowing programs, starting with Yale. "Being in the rowing circle, we knew the coaches," says Peter, as he carefully recounts the story, sounding mildly surprised at the way it has unfolded. "We didn't think in terms of setting up a company. The driving force behind where we located was a lifestyle thing. We had this image of being in a place where we could live right next to the shop, and that's what we did for 10 years. We found a non-working dairy farm on Vermont 100 in Morrisville, and Dick, my wife Bari and I moved in."

"It's exciting to have the Dreissigackers' level of inventiveness in a real world farming community." Elisabeth Podesta, Working Pixels

Starting out with a low budget and low expectations, the brothers soon found that making oars became more than they could handle and began to hire friends to help.

In 1980 they felt the need to diversify and started looking at making another product. "We started toying about with wind surfing masts, cross country ski poles and a rowing machine," Peter recalls. The first two projects limped along for a while before being shelved, but the rowing machine took on a life of its own, perhaps because rowing is so close to the Dreissigackers' hearts.

"We set out to design a training device for oarsmen that would be less expensive than the existing rowing machines, which sold for about $3,000, but better than the cheap exercise-type machines a rowing machine suitable for an oarsman but priced so that an oarsman could actually own one," Peter says.

Their first rowing machines were made from bicycle parts. They started by turning a bike upside-down and screwing it to the floor of the barn as a feasibility study. Drawing in their bicycle mechanic friend John Williams as part of the team, the brothers came up with a design that took off in the college rowing network, selling in 1980 for about $600.

Once again, success took them by surprise and they were amazed when a benefactor of Columbia University ordered 20 machines in one go. Concept 2 machines quickly became a standard: "Teams that couldn't afford the $3,000 machines could buy these," says Peter, "and teams that could afford the $3,000 machines could get lots of these instead. Some teams buy a large number every year and sell them off at the end of the rowing season.

The machines didn't remain long confined to the rowing world. The next wave of customers were "friends of rowers" who wanted to experience the benefits of this form of exercise. The curious Concept 2 "Model A" machine with its elevated bicycle fly-wheel became a talking-point in many suburban living rooms.

Sales have grown steadily in double digits almost every year, with the notable exception of 1990 when the horror of the Gulf War put a break on discretionary spending, the Dreissigackers say.

"Because we sell most of our product direct to the customer, if something happens in the news we see a result the next day," Peter says. "The week after the Challenger (space shuttle) blew up, and the week after Princess Diana died, our phones stopped ringing, but sales usually bounce back a few weeks later."

Within the U.S. and Canada, Concept 2 sells almost entirely by direct marketing. In other parts of the world their products are sold through a network of dealers. "Marketing direct to the end user is the way we started out with the oars," Peter says. "Virtually all rowing equipment is sold direct from the builder; that's just the way the market is set up."

The Dreissigackers say rowing machines were first sold to their oar customers because of their pre-existing relationship. They continued to do so because direct selling has enabled them to keep the price low with no dealer markup. Philosophically, that's important to them. It also gives them contact with the customer and the trust that the service they promise to deliver will get there. "The indoor rowing world is very small with respect to just about anything in the fitness world," Peter says. "It's important to us that people who buy a machine from us use it and are happy with it."

Their attitude of responsible care for their product, customers and staff is apparent with other professionals involved with Concept 2. Elisabeth Podesta of the Burlington website development company Working Pixels had an opportunity a few years ago to assist Concept 2 with some computer upgrades. She says the company is full of people dedicated to creating a product that's top of the line. "I was extremely impressed with their commitment to quality and their enlightened management style. They're especially astute at recruiting the right staff; they find out what people are good at and put them where they fit in and can thrive in the company. It's exciting to have the Dreissigackers' level of inventiveness in a real world farming community. Morrisville is fortunate to have them there."

Lester Farr has built oars at Concept 2 for almost 20 years. Peter says the company is more than willing to train employees for specialized jobs.

Steve Wagner, head coach of Rutgers University rowing team in New Jersey has been doing business with the Dreissigackers since 1979. He uses their oars exclusively, he says. "These oars are just about indestructible," comparing them favorably to earlier wooden oars. The design improvements Wagner appreciates include rounded rather than oblong shafts to reduce air resistance, their general toughness and the sectional construction which allows replacement of parts.

The fact that the Dreissigackers are rowers of such high standard is very important to product development, Wagner points out. "They test their products themselves and learn from that. Pete and Dick put a lot of effort into the rowing community. You can always talk to one of them if you need to. As big as they are, it seems like a family business." That compliment is very important to the company's development, Peter says.

The brothers revisited the rowing
machine design in the mid 1980s, producing "Model B" and abandoning bicycle parts in favor of custom-made components, which include a smaller aluminum flywheel. The quieter "Model C" followed in 1993, incorporating improvements based on feedback supplied by customers over the years. Several Vermont companies contribute to the manufacture of the Concept 2 machines, which are known affectionately as "ergs." The flywheels are made by NSA of Lyndonville, and plastic moldings by Progressive Plastics of Randolph; Rutland Industries and Manufacturing Solutions of Hyde Park both do sub-assembly.

While carefully controlling growth, the Dreissigackers have quadrupled the size of their headquarters and assembly plant on Morrisville's industrial estate, and staff numbers have increased from 12 in 1984 to a current 55. Roughly half of these are employed in the manufacture of oars and rowing machines, another quarter in customer service and the remainder in marketing, design, finance and related company functions.

As the hardware evolved, so too did the sophistication of the electronic measuring devices attached to it. This development was driven largely by the competitive element that soon emerged among Concept 2 machine users, as the new sport of indoor rowing machine racing began to blossom.

"Way back we just had a bicycle speedometer fixed to the machine," Peter recalls, "but there was a real need for more accuracy, especially when people got into racing." The Boston C.R.A.S.H.-B world indoor rowing championship that started in 1982 when a small group of friends decided to "race" their "ergs", for example, has grown to attract more than 1,800 competitors in 2001.

On-line racing, where people can hook up to the Internet and race each other in real time, is attracting many participants, but perhaps more functional is the Concept 2 website where people can log in their workout results and see how they rank with other users worldwide. Hundreds of people log on monthly and more than 2,400 people have already recorded their times for the current 2001/02 season that began May 1. "We try to find ways of keeping people involved," Dick says. "We don't want them to use the machine for a while and then put it away in the closet to gather dust."

Concept 2's major markets are in rowing circles and rowing countries. Just over half their production of oars and rowing machines is exported to Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Japanall countries that feature large international competitive rowing. "The sport leads the way," Peter says, "even though by now most of the people who use our rowing machines aren't actually rowers."

It's a steady year-round market with peaks of rowing machine sales in September, when people begin to think about winter training regimens, and again in January. "New Year's Resolutions," quips Peter.

"Rowing is growing steadily worldwide," Dick says. "In the 1980s rowing machines of the piston type went through a boom and bust phase. They were very popular for a while as exercise machines, but the bubble soon burst. We were just getting started at that time, so we never really felt the boom and bust."

In 2000 the Dreissigackers moved into this broader fitness market by introducing the "Dyno," a strength machine that uses the company's flywheel technology to offer bench exercises designed to target the body's large muscle groups and provide a foundation for any sporting activity. "The world has not beaten a path to the door," comments Peter, adding, however, that the Metropolitan Police Force in London is using it as part of a job related fitness test. "The Dyno is a departure from what people are used to as a strength training device," he continues. "Some people who have taken an interest in it feel it has many advantages that will, in time, be appreciated."

The Dreissigackers are family men with teenage children. Dick's wife Judy Geer, is a key player at Concept 2, as is Peter's wife, Barri.

Still rowing competitively in their 50s, Dick and Peter plan to compete in the 2001 World Masters Rowing Championship in Montreal later this summer, using what else? Dreissigacker oars. Concept 2 started in a barn in Morrisville before moving into the industrial park. The present building

Originally published in August 2001 Business People-Vermont