By Casey Jacobus, May 2007
Lou Schwartz, an enterprising Czech immigrant, arrived in New York City in 1953. Schwartz was an excellent craftsman, descended from a long line of tailors, and he founded a company that was to grow and evolve into the official track and field supplier to the NCAA.
Schwartz started the forerunner to UCS in 1967 in an 1,800-square-foot building on River Street in Hackensack, New Jersey. Schwartz had a particular expertise in pattern-making, cutting and sewing and he began manufacturing custom awnings, boat covers and other canvas products, as well as doing contract work for companies that sold laundry bags to the linen supply industry.
Joined by his wife Margaret and son Jeff, Schwartz worked long hours to satisfy customers who ordered custom-made canvas products. The demand for UCS’ high-quality laundry bags, in particular, grew quickly.
One day in 1969, Dick Hitt, the Rutherford track and field coach appeared at the shop with a badly torn canvas bag, containing scrap foam. Coach Hitt told Margaret Schwartz that he used this bag to cushion the landing for his high school high jumpers, and asked if UCS could repair it. They could, of course, she replied, and they did. However, when Jeff Schwartz saw the sad state of the landing cushion, he quickly realized that there could be a market for pole vault and high jump mats that were not only portable, but also safe and soft.
Jeff went to work designing a new pole-vault pit. In 1970 he got permission from Bill Bowerman, the head track coach at the University of Oregon (who later went on to found Nike), to display his pole-vault pit in the warm-up area at the National AUU Championships. Jeff loaded his demo model into a truck and drove it across the country from Hackensack, N.J., to Eugene, Ore. As he was unloading his prototype UCS landing pit, then called the Fall Safe Pit, Bowerman happened to walk by. He examined the pit and promptly invited Jeff to go to the main stadium, remove the existing competition pit, and replace it with his UCS one.
This initial entry in the realm of manufacturing sports equipment turned UCS in a new direction. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1978, younger son Larry Schwartz joined the family business as well. Together, dad, mom and two brothers worked as a team to continue to expand the UCS sports line. Jeff and Larry felt that in order to meet the high quality standards they had set for themselves, UCS had to become more “vertically integrated.” So they expanded UCS’ capabilities from exclusively sewing to metal manufacturing.
A major milestone came when the company was awarded the exclusive contract to supply the track and field equipment for the 1984 Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. Since then UCS has served as the exclusive supplier to the Olympics in Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), and Sydney (2000), as well as every major competition in between.
UCS was also the supplier to the 1994 World Cup Soccer venues across the United States. Not only did UCS manufacture and supply all the goals, but it also designed and produced team benches and revolutionary new weather-and-crowd protective shelters for the players and coaches.
In 1986 UCS engineered the first Spirit Vaulting Poles. Since then, the UCS Spirit Pole has been used by athletes who have broken over 80 world records.
Today UCS products are featured in thousands of American high schools and universities and are exported annually to more than 80 countries around the world.
Positioning themselves well
After an exhaustive search of areas including Memphis, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, Ga., and the Triad area of North Carolina, UCS relocated from New Jersey to Lincolnton, N.C., in July 2004.
“Ultimately it came down to real estate value and the availability of a good labor force,” says Larry Schwartz.
UCS renovated an abandoned paper tube plant on 85 acres and turned it into a 130,000-square-foot modern manufacturing facility. The new plant is located just 30 minutes from downtown Charlotte and the Charlotte airport.
“UCS offered an excellent opportunity for Gaston County,” says Mark Bollick, project administrator for Gaston County Economic Development Commission (EDC). “They took over a 100,000-square-foot industrial plant with no water or sewer, that was basically sitting on a flood plain, and made a significant investment in machinery and equipment, in addition to creating new jobs.”
Schwartz says the company was very pleased with the reception they received in Lincolnton.
“Gaston County officials bent over backward to help us out,” he says. “Not just the EDC, but also county inspectors. Gaston County Community College has a great training program for employees which we’ve been able to take advantage of. We’re glad to be able to help prove that manufacturing is alive and well here in North Carolina.”
About one-half of UCS’ current employees relocated from New Jersey; the other half were hired locally. Schwartz says the hardest part of the relocation was blending the two labor forces together because of the diversity involved.
UCS sells its products to high schools, colleges and universities, parks and recreation programs, fitness centers, Y’s, sporting goods dealers, speed and strength schools, athletes, and professional sports teams. UCS also sells its products worldwide in Asia, Europe, and Canada, as well as in Nigeria and some Middle Eastern countries.
Gene Mullin, head men’s and women’s cross country and track and field coach at Furman University, has had a 10-year relationship with UCS, buying everything from steeplechase hurdles to pole vaulting pits. Most recently UCS installed a rail around Furman’s inside track. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” says Mullin. “They make a product you can depend on. Everyone at UCS, from Jeff down to their sales people, is knowledgeable. And they really back up the product. If you have any kind of problem, they will go out of their way to correct it.”
A winning performance
Today, Jeff and Larry Schwartz lead a dedicated team of more than 70 professionals in both Lincolnton and Carson City, Nev., which is the high-tech home of Spirit Vaulting Poles. Together they carry on their father’s legacy of innovation, evolution and excellence. They also compliment each other’s strengths and work well together.
“Jeff’s the bright one; he’s the idea man,” says Larry. “He comes up with the product and sells it and then my job is to figure out how to make it.”
In the last three years, the family business has expanded to include a third generation. Larry’s son Jason joined the company three years ago and a second son, Zach, will come to work for UCS after completing his MBA at Syracuse University. In addition, Michael and Chris Chappell, sons of Steve Chappell who heads the operation in Nevada, are on board. These young men, all in their twenties, have added strength and vitality to the business.
“We provide a lot of value, a lot of customer service and a great product,” says Larry. “It’s also a real family business; a customer can reach my brother, me or my son Jason on the phone anytime.”
UCS recently purchased the SPS line, considered by many to be the highest quality strength line in the industry. The SPS line, combined with input and innovations from the UCS team, became the UCS Strength and Speed Division. It offers a complete line of racks, glute-hams, platforms, leg-presses, benches, plyo-boxes and other products for the weight room. UCS Strength and Speed equipment is manufactured at the Lincolnton facility, which features water jet cutting, large diameter pipe bending, CNC brake forming, CNC machining, welding, sewing, as well as pre-finish and powder coating.
Recent UCS Strength and Speed installations include: the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Giants, the Cleveland Browns, the Green Bay Packers, the Arizona Cardinals, North Carolina State University, the University of Arkansas, Baylor University, Boston College, and Rutgers University.
Schwartz says quality craftsmanship and superior design set UCS products apart from its competition.
“Our equipment is built to last,” says Schwartz. “We build a great product. It’s a little more expensive up front, but it’s worth it.”
UCS works hard to protect the environment as it evaluates new technologies. The company uses only colors with a biodegradable vegetable-oil base. It in place of utilizing liquid paints on its steel products uses a powder-coating process, which is free of toxic fumes. The company has also instituted an extensive recycling program to dispose of scrap aluminum and steel in the most environmentally friendly manner possible.
UCS has witnessed significant growth of 10 to 15 percent per year without adding to its labor force. Schwartz believes that good acquisition of equipment is a key to future success.
“I believe we can go up 50 percent in revenues while hiring only two to three people,” he says “We have to maximize labor costs through automation.”
In 2000 UCS had four full time cutters. The addition of one machine brought that number down to one.
“A lot of manufactures aren’t willing to invest in state of the art equipment,” he says. “You need to invest in equipment and in educating your work force to use the new machines.”
Schwartz also sees UCS growing by adding new products, expanding its high school and middle school business, and becoming even more global. UCS exports about 20 percent of its products today and Schwartz expects that figure to rise. Within two years, he hopes to have established a manufacturing plant in China to serve the Asian markets. But above all, Schwartz expects UCS to continue to prosper because it delivers quality to its customers.
“There is great potential for our industry,” says Schwartz. “Sports is a growing market. In addition to the professional teams, sports drive a lot of revenue for colleges and universities, even for high schools.”
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