Spotlight: Exercising Freedom


On the wall in Jerry Wilson's office is a large framed photo of Albert Einstein bearing the facetiously hand-scrawled inscription, "Jerry, keep up the great work—Al."

Though the physicist died when Wilson was only 11, the sentiment attributed to him is accurate. Jerry Wilson, a mustachioed 43-year-old with tousled though balding hair, is doing great work—both as an entrepreneur and for the cause of individual rights.

In 1978, he decided to make the childhood dream of running his own factory a reality. Bored with piloting corporate executives around the country in their Lear jets, Wilson mortgaged everything he owned and went to work in his garage on a new home exercise machine.

What emerged is Soloflex, a device that lets fitness buffs exercise all the body's main muscle groups by "pumping rubber" instead of iron. Soloflex's black rubber straps, about half an inch thick and slightly smaller than a business envelope, come in standard resistant "weights" and can be stacked just like the old iron discs.

After building 10 prototypes of the machine by himself, Wilson spent his last $15,000 of capital on an ad in Playboy, giving an 800-number for orders. Eight years and 125,000 Soloflex machines later, the marketing strategy has changed little. The $15,000 has grown to over $400,000 a month in advertising, and requests for information are now satisfied via free VHS "video brochures," but the only place you can buy a Soloflex (models range from $750 to $900) is still directly from the factory in Hillsboro, Oregon.

In the early days of operation, Wilson says he tried to create a company based on his adolescent utopian visions, a company where the boss and workers were good friends and where ex-convicts were given a chance to make good. For the first few years it was common practice for Wilson and his employees—some of whom had been recently released from prison—to play basketball after work and later enjoy rounds of beer together.

The result? "It almost bankrupted the company," says a chastened Wilson, dressed in his usual sweatshirt, sneakers, and Levis.

"The ex-cons stole us blind and the employees thought that since they were such good friends with the president they didn't need to work."

He soon gave up thoughts of utopia and, he says, "I started judging my employees solely on merit, not who was being 'buddybuddy.' If I didn't do that, then obviously I wasn't ever going to get anybody to put out any real effort. Because if I only rewarded people who said 'yes' or who kissed my ass, then I was going to attract only the least productive and the ones who overvalued their contribution the most, instead of the most industrious and most honest."

Wilson's meritocratic, risk-encouraging management style attracts numerous inquiries from reporters of the In Search of Excellence genre and has landed him on the cover of a Money magazine issue devoted to "no guts, no glory" entrepreneurs. Soloflex's sales will reach $20 million this year, and the company soon expects to introduce the first "interactive" exercise machine—a computerized robotic boxer. Instead of laid-back basketball games, Wilson now encourages his 100-odd employees to join him in helicopter-flying lessons.

But it was his high-profile involvement—both financially and as a primary spokesman—for an unsuccessful 1986 Oregon ballot measure to legalize marijuana that garnered him appearances not only on local television programs but also alongside Bryant Gumbel on NBC's "Today" show.

"When you hear a whole bunch of stuff coming out that you know is wrong and you know that it's going to do harm, then what choice do you have but to stand up and start yelling back?" explains Wilson.

Did his involvement in the campaign elicit any reaction from other members of the Oregon business community, especially after his televised statement that George Washington himself grew and used the controversial plant? (Citing Washington's own journal entries regarding "hemp," Wilson declared on the air, "If it's good enough for the founding fathers, it's good enough for me.")

"Those who didn't want to hear what I had to say, I think I just angered them. Of course, it seems that anyone who says something in defense of marijuana is viewed as advocating drug use. And it's so silly, because here we are with the worst drug [alcohol] being perfectly legal and decimating our society, while marijuana is illegal even though it's much less addictive and harmful."

Wilson's articulate "yelling" was prompted by a long-held and passionate belief in the sanctity of individual rights. "If we were a nation founded upon principle—and there's only one principle, don't do to other people what you don't want them to do to you—and all the laws met that test, then we would essentially have regulations and guidelines instead of laws," says the former military cadet, who was expelled just one semester shy of prep-school graduation after building a brewery in the chemistry lab.

"But in 200 years we've passed enough laws to make sure everyone in society is a felon many times over—they're just not caught. And when you have that situation, the real crime is not breaking the law but being caught."

Kelly Ross has a public-affairs consulting business in Oregon.