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 "impeachable offense."
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 fight."
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."