Until its dissolution in 1998, Diversified Products Corporation (DP) of Opelika was an important component of America’s emerging fitness movement for four decades. In 1961, with an investment by 13 East Alabama businessmen, Forrest Hood “Fob” James Jr., former star football player at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (later Auburn University) and later governor of Alabama, created HealthDisc Inc., which evolved into DP. The company is credited with introducing several new concepts that revolutionized the fitness industry, including a nonferrous barbell encased in a plastic shell, mass merchandising through department stores, and consumer in-home products. Over the course of its existence, Diversified Products would develop and manufacture hundreds of fitness items, expand to more than 1.2 million square feet of floor space, and employ more than 3,000 workers in six domestic and international plants.
Forrest Hood James Jr. In the late 1950s, James was living in Mobile, Mobile County, working long hours at a contracting company to support his family and pay for the high medical bills related to a son’s cystic fibrosis. James decided to capitalize on an idea for concrete weights covered with plastic derived from Mobile weightlifter Joe Newman. After much experimentation, James developed a blow-molded polyethylene shell that he filled with a slurry mixture of barite ore and concrete which, when solidified, was given the trade name Orbatron. In November 1961, James moved his family to Opelika and used family connections to persuade a group of local attorneys and businessmen to invest $31,000 in his venture and to provide him with business and legal advice. With backing from his father and others, James raised the capital to launch his company, Healthdisc Inc. Its first board meeting on January 24, 1962, included James as president, I. J. Scott Jr. and retired Major Leaguer W. C. “Billy” Hitchcock as vice presidents, and Eldridge Cockrell as secretary/treasurer.
James’s efforts would change the face of the industry. Barbell manufacturing was established in the United States in Philadelphia in 1902 with Alan Calvert’s Milo Barbell Company, which produced the first widely marketed cast-iron weights. Because they were difficult to manufacture, noisy, prone to rust, and destructive to wood floors, barbells were never a very profitable enterprise. Even the so-called “Father of American Weightlifting,” Bob Hoffman (who purchased Milo in 1935 and merged it with his York Barbell Company), made his fortune more from the sale of derivative health food products than from barbell sales. By the 1960s, the addition of other manufacturers to the market diluted profits even further. Fob James saw an opening for a rust-free product that did not require manufacture in a foundry, had eye-appeal, and was less damaging to its surroundings when used indoors. James’s objective was to make weight training appealing in the home, rather than in its typical locations: garages, basements, and gymnasiums. Furthermore, he sought to reach consumers through mass merchandising in department stores and sporting goods outlets rather than with expensive and time-consuming mail orders. This strategy would relieve his company of much of the advertising and sales burden while achieving nation-wide distribution and consumer awareness.
James entered the fitness market when the United States was on an economic upswing and on the verge of a fitness revolution. For decades, physical culturists had been trying to convince Americans that weight training, contrary to popular opinion (including virtually all coaches), would not make one muscle-bound, slow, and inflexible; rather it would promote general health and fitness and improve athletic performance. Both Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, after his 1955 heart attack, and his successor, John F. Kennedy, emphasized diet and exercise for a healthier lifestyle, as did popular fitness authority Jack LaLanne, who on his daily syndicated television show brought the need for regular exercise into the homes of millions of Americans, especially women, from 1953 to 1985. This was exactly the market sector DP targeted.
The business was housed in part of an old 2,000-square-foot cotton warehouse in Opelika, with James, Eldridge Cockrell, and James’s secretary, Dot Millican, running the operations. Millican had only an apple crate on which to place her typewriter. In 1964, DP added Ray Henderson to serve as secretary/treasurer and Fob’s brother Calvin “Cal” James to supervise sales, marketing, and transportation; by this time DP employed 21 people and had moved into larger leased space on Columbus Parkway. That same year, DP introduced its Orbatron barbells to the National Sporting Goods Association in Chicago to great acclaim.
In January 1965, Fob James hired Ira Silberman, a Georgia Tech graduate in industrial design, to be Vice President of Research and Development to lead the company into the creation of a multi-product design and manufacturing company. As demand for Orbatron barbell weights increased, a new, patented weight-filling system called “Big John” was placed in production in the early 1970s. DP soon was producing more than 50,000 pounds of weights per day. It quickly became necessary to expand to larger quarters to meet increasing barbell production demand and to provide space for manufacturing the new products being introduced.
By the end of 1965, sales had more than doubled, DP had completed its first profitable year, and Bill McLeod was hired as controller. In 1966, the company purchased property and a building on Williamson Avenue in Opelika that allowed for the expansion of the development and production facilities and the accelerated growth of DP. Gradually, with an increase in Silberman’s R&D staff, DP began developing and producing a vast array of fitness equipment and other products, including abdominal boards, table-tennis tables, treadmills, boat anchors, weight benches, and basketball backboards. DP also developed and produced Orbatron ballast for the lamp-manufacturing industries. During Silberman’s tenure, DP developed more than 200 different products and was granted more than 35 U.S. and foreign patents. While Silberman concentrated on product quality and development, Fob James focused his attention on finances, suppliers, and customers, and Cal James concentrated on customer development and service. Silberman would go on to direct all manufacturing operations at the Opelika facility from 1971 to 1976.
Diversified Products Senior Executives One of DP’s first customers was Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. Bill Curry, a former weightlifting champion and once reputed to be the strongest man in the South, was head of the sporting goods department and provided credibility for Orbatron weights; he would later become DP’s national merchandise manager. Sears, Roebuck, and Co. was the first national retailer to purchase a large quantity of weights, marketing them under its Ted Williams brand. Other major retail outlets soon followed, including Montgomery Ward, J. C. Penney, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Zayre’s, and Sam’s Club. By the end of 1965, sales had more than doubled, and DP completed its first profitable year. Expanding industrial facilities, chiefly in Opelika, enabled DP to produce 4,000 sets of barbells a day as well as related products. In 1967, trade journal The Sporting Goods Dealer bestowed its “Leadership Award” on DP, and over the next 11 years it received awards from Sears for innovation, quality, and service. In 1968, DP entered the poker and pool table business with the purchase of Superior Industries in Connecticut, and sales increased to more than $20 million a year. A DP-patented device called the “ExerGym” was modified for NASA to accompany the Apollo 11 astronauts on their 1969 moon mission, although Neil Armstrong later admitted that the astronauts had been too busy to use it.
By 1971, DP’s rapid growth brought with it significant debt and production problems that threatened the company’s existence. But by 1976, DP had fully recovered and was turning a handsome profit. An important key to DP’s continued success was its in-house control of most manufacturing and shipping, thus eliminating the expense of outside contractors. In addition to creating the molded barbell shells, the company performed in-house wood and metal fabrication, robotic welding, electrostatic painting, assembly, and packaging and employed its own national sales force to handle more than 5,000 retail and catalog accounts. The company even had its own trucking operation, which not only saved money on transporting heavy goods long distances but also made money by using emptied trucks to haul goods for other businesses. It grew to a fleet of 96 tractors and 173 trailers that serviced about 25,000 retail outlets. Further savings were achieved by establishing barbell manufacturing plants in California, Mexico, Canada, and Wales. DP also successfully resisted efforts from the United Rubber Workers to organize its Opelika workforce. In the mid-1970s, 300 of DP’s 500 non-union workers walked off the job, but management and office staff filled in until the walkout collapsed.
Production and product innovations were accompanied by a promotional campaign that included endorsements from numerous fitness and sports celebrities, including Billy Hitchcock (baseball), Bart Starr (football), Margaret Court (tennis), and Gary Player (golf). DP designed a complete line of home fitness equipment for women endorsed by Debbie Drake, another television fitness expert. DP also hired Bruce Randall, a former Mr. Universe and Washington Redskins strength coach, to visit stores, sporting goods shows, and schools to talk about physical fitness and health. Randall’s pitch and persona encouraged young boys to persuade their parents to buy a 110-pound barbell set that could be used at home without fear of marring the floors or rusting.
In 1977, DP was sold to the Liggett Group of Durham, North Carolina, and in 1978, Fob James relinquished the presidency to his brother Cal to pursue the Alabama governor’s office and Silberman was promoted to senior vice president. Liggett was soon acquired by Grand Metropolitan, a property conglomerate based in England, but the DP headquarters and management team remained in Opelika, and under Cal James the company had its greatest period of growth and profits during the 1980s. DP acquired Leach Industries of San Diego and thereby became the largest manufacturer of racquetball rackets in the world. In 1981, the company introduced Gympac, a patented product innovation based on the “universal gym” found in many fitness centers but designed and priced for the home market. This item became immensely popular despite its relatively high cost, especially after DP advertised it during ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and in other prime-time television venues. In 1983, Gympac sales soared 69 percent over the previous year, and overall DP sales increased 65 percent. Body Tone, a multi-purpose rowing machine, yielded sales of $6 million in just six months on the market. Other products continued to be developed or improved upon, including a complete line of weightlifting benches, self-contained weight systems, and stair-steppers. In 1983-84, business increased by 256 percent after weathering an economic recession with no layoffs. In 1986, the company fended off another attempt at unionizing when 57 percent of its workers voted to reject a second call to join the United Rubber Workers.
By 1987, DP’s prosperity peaked with annual sales of $280 million, a physical plant of more than 1.2 million square feet, and a work force of more than 3,000 worldwide. From its Lee County headquarters, DP generated a yearly payroll of nearly $25 million, paid $9 million in taxes, consumed nearly $2 million of utilities, and purchased $6.3 million of goods and services. Within its 28,000-square-foot research facility, Silberman established the industry’s first significant testing facility for product durability and consumer safety for home use fitness products and, in conjunction with the National Sporting Goods Association, initiated the first national safety standards for consumer exercise equipment. DP, a standard-bearer in the field, was capitalizing on the physical fitness boom and widespread acceptance of weight training, now in full swing, a consequence that was only a glimmer of hope when Fob founded the company in the early 1960s.
During the next decade, the company experienced a series of new owners and financial arrangements. For a time, it remained successful under the ownership of Jim Wilson & Associates of Montgomery but then began its decline under a succession of owners, including Maiden Lane of New York, the Shansby Group of California, and RoadMaster Corporation of Washington. Financial problems emerged under these conglomerates that derived largely from the massive loans they secured from the Westinghouse Credit Corporation to purchase the company. Other factors leading to DP’s demise were strong competition from rival Weslo, which relied on cheap imports; a shift in corporate focus from operations to marketing; the sale of many manufacturing assets; and a leadership void caused by the retirement in the early nineties of Cal James and Ira Silberman. In 1998, DP closed the doors of its Opelika operation.
In July 1999, both Fob and Cal James (the latter posthumously) were inducted into the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame for their innovative consumer marketing strategies. In April 2014, Ira Silberman also was inducted into Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame.
- James (Forrest) File, Auburn University Special Collections and Archives, Auburn, Alabama.
- Nakhjavan, Sidney James, “History of Diversified Products, Inc.,” in the Diversified Products File, Auburn University Special Collections and Archives, Auburn, Alabama.
- Silberman, Ira J., “Diversified Products Corporation, 1961-1998,” July 10, 2010, Museum of East Alabama, Opelika, Alabama.
- Thomas, Al. “Bill Curry and the Gospel of Physical Fitness,” Iron Game History 2 (May, 1993): 16-19.
- Webb, Samuel L., Jr., et al. Alabama Governors, A Political History of the State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.