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The UCS Story: Lou’s Legacy

One of our frequently asked questions is simply: "What does UCS stand for?"

The answer contains the story of the late Lou Schwartz, an entrepreneurial Czech immigrant who arrived in New York City in 1953 – and a three-generation family business that continues to grow and evolve. Lou was an excellent craftsman, who descended from a long line of tailors back in what was then called Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). He had particular expertise in pattern making, cutting, and sewing.

Back in 1967, Schwartz, along with his wife, Margaret, and their son, Jeffrey, founded United Canvas and Sling, Inc. Working in a 1,800-sq. ft. Hackensack, NJ, building, UCS manufactured custom awnings, boat covers, and other canvas products – as well as contract work for companies that sold laundry bags (“slings”) to the linen-supply industry.

In 1969, Rutherford (NJ) High School track coach Dick Hitt showed up at the factory with a badly torn canvas bag that he filled with scrap foam to cushion the landings for his high-jump team. Coach Hitt asked Margaret Schwartz whether UCS could repair it. They could, she replied – and they did. As it turned out, that chance encounter and small sewing job would launch a revolution in track-and-field equipment!

When Jeff Schwartz saw the sad state of that scrap-foam landing cushion, he realized that there could be a market for pole-vault and high-jump landing pits that were not only portable, but also soft and safe.

A year into his little side venture, Jeff called Bill Bowerman, the legendary head track coach at the University of Oregon, to ask whether he could display his new pole-vault pit in the warm-up area at the National AAU Championships. Within days, Jeff had loaded his demo model into a truck and drove it across the country from to Eugene, Oregon.

As with every good idea, timing is everything. Just as Jeff was unloading his prototype UCS landing pit (then called the “Fall Safe Pit”), Bowerman happened to walk by. He examined the radically new equipment, and directed Jeff to take it inside the stadium and use it to replace the existing competition pit. Then, after the meet, Jeff was loading his demo model back into the truck when Bowerman walked by again. This time, he instructed Jeff to unpack the truck and leave the pits that he had brought, and to expect a check shortly from the Oregon Track Club.

The rest, as they say, is track-and-field history. Coach Bowerman went on the join Oregon alumnus Phil Knight in the formation of Nike – and Jeff Schwartz went on to build the world’s foremost track-and-field equipment manufacturer.

Even as a young man, Jeff had a tremendous interest in children with learning disabilities of all categories. Working in consultation with Dave Marsh of the Ridgewood (NJ) public schools and with Marsh's Physical Education faculty, UCS began to design and manufacture gym mats and skill-development equipment – such as the Trapezoid and Mat-A-Matics – that were devoted to helping children achieve greater motor and perceptual skills. Jeff and his UCS design team were guided by a single critical principle: "All children do not learn the same, but all can learn." These pioneering (and widely imitated) vinyl-and-foam learning tools were known as UCS Motor Perceptual Equipment. They formed the basis for today’s expanded line of UCS Soft Play Equipment.

Margaret, Larry, Lou & Jeff Schwartz
Steve Chappell & Lane Maestretti

Jeff’s brother, Larry, joined the family business upon graduating from the University of Maryland in 1978. They soon realized that the next logical growth step involved "vertical integration" from sewing to in-house metal manufacturing.

In 1987, the Schwartz brothers joined forces with Steve Chappell, a competitive vaulter through college in England, and Lane Maestretti to create a product that would change and dominate the vaulting pole market just as UCS’ pole-vault landing pits had done almost two decades earlier. Using proprietary fiberglass extrusion technology and customized hand-craftsmanship, UCS Spirit poles maintain maximum energy when flexed. That spring, Doug Fraley of Fresno State won the national championship with a UCS Spirit pole. A year later, Sergei Bubka set the first of 12 world records using UCS Spirit poles that stood for 20 years and subsequently was broken on s UCS Spirit pole by Renaud Lavillenie of France at a height of 6.16m in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Another major milestone occurred when the company was awarded the exclusive contract to supply the track-and-field equipment for the 1984 Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. UCS went on to serve as the exclusive supplier to the Olympics in Barcelona, Seoul, and Sydney, as well as 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.

After moving to a new 130,000-sq. ft. facility in the metropolitan Charlotte, NC, area, UCS expanded again in 2003. The newly acquired of its Strength and Speed division, made an immediate impact at the professional, collegiate, and high school levels. By applying its renowned design, engineering, and quality-control resources, UCS adapted and developed a product line that quickly became popular with world-class strength coaches and trainers as well as elite athletes. UCS Strength and Speed equipment was installed for championship professional sports teams from the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers to the NFL’s New York Giants. In 2004, UCS rolled out its Plyo-Safe™ plyometric training line as a perfect supplement to the weight-training equipment.

The UCS legacy of innovation, quality and craftsmanship began in 1967 by the late Lou Schwartz has been proudly carried on by his sons, Jeff and Larry. In the past few years, Lou’s grandsons, Jason, Zack, and Adam have graduated from college and joined the family business. Similarly, Steve Chappell’s sons, Michael and Chris, have also decided to pursue careers at UCS. This new generation of leadership both assures continuity and commitment while injecting the company with fresh energy and ideas.

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