Tonawanda News

January 13, 2010

BUSINESS: Local invention really taking off

By Neale Gulley<br><a href="mailto:gulleyn@gnnewspaper.com">E-mail Neale</a>

Climbing the ladder to success didn’t happen overnight for North Tonawanda businessman Robert Palka, but sales of his patented exercise machine “Jacobs Ladder” are definitely reaching new heights.

Palka, originally from Lackawanna, bought the patent and assets to the machine in 2004 from local inventor Steve Nichols, who first came up with the concept of the ladder climbing simulator in 1994.

Since getting involved six years ago, Palka said the company he reopened in the old Wurlitzer complex at 908 Niagara Falls Blvd. has grown. Business grew by about 40 percent in 2007-’08, then 54 percent the following fiscal year and a relatively strong 17 percent during the height on the recession last year. But the machine, now a regular part of NBC’s hit reality weight-loss show “The Biggest Loser,” is now selling at a clip of roughly 450 machines each year.

Add to that the fact some 10 professional sports teams including NFL playoff contenders the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and others.

The Navy Seals, FBI, Army Rangers and police and fire departments across the country use Jacobs Ladder as part of mandatory physical fitness training programs.

In May, an agreement between Palka and Marvel Entertainment will result in the machine being featured on the big screen in the upcoming movie Iron Man II, to be released in May.

“They make no promises on how much exposure you’re going to get,” he said, describing the conversations he had with the producers’ product placement executives.

Iron Man lead Actor Robert Downey Jr. used the machine to get in shape for the first film, Palka said.

Last March, NBC called about using the machine on the Biggest Loser, which aired its 9th season premiere early last week.

Since then the network has asked him to develop a residential version of the machine, now underway, to be called The Biggest Loser Ladder.

Each professional model Jacobs Ladder currently sells for just under $3,500.

Palka said the success of the machine can be summed up in four words: low impact, high intensity.

“The real hero in this from a Western New York standpoint is Steve Nichols,” he said. “He really came up with a design that uses very simple concepts and is very beneficial.”

Users get a full-body workout positioned at a 40 degree angle and climbing the ladder, which moves at the pace of the user and does not require any electricity.

Nichols was hired to work for Palka as part of the agreement to buy the previous, less successful company’s patent and assets. Palka, after years in various business administration roles had already made up his mind to buy a company.

“Being an ex-athlete, the fitness industry intrigued me,” he said.

Getting Jacobs Ladder off the ground took some help, including bank loans and similar low-interest loans granted by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and Lumber City Development Corp.

Chuck Bell, with the LCDC, said the $50,000 they lent Palka in 2004 was a calculated risk that’s now showing tangible results for the local business. At the time, Palka needed capital to book trade shows and get the machine listed in trade catalogs.

“Over the last six to eight months he’s finally staring to see the real fruit of that,” Bell said. “I think it’s really ready to pop ... he really, really impressed our (finance board) and our board as a whole. At the time (the loan) was a little higher risk than any bank would do, because it was for advertisement and there was no collateral. We’re just really excited about it because it seems to be paying off.”

Paying off for the local inventor and owner of a one-of-a-kind product as well as business in the city.

Sixty percent of the suppliers and fabricators used to produce it are from Western New York, and the rest of the supply chain is within U.S. borders.

Seven employees currently build the machines out of the Wurlitzer building. Palka said he has no plans to pick up and leave the city, and could support twice the current peak demand while staying in the same building.

“I’m a Western New York guy,” Palka said. “I don’t plan on moving. I never can foresee exactly what’s going to happen, but I don’t plan to move.”

Contact reporter Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 114.