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Muscletown USA - John D. Fair


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Careful readers of Warren Buffett biographies might recall that sometime around 1945 our adolescent hero hitchhiked from Washington DC, where his family was living at the time, to visit York Barbell in Pennsylvania.  In those days York was the Mecca of physical culture in the US and thousands of young men around the country eagerly awaited each issue of the company’s Strength & Health magazine, which peddled the benefits of strength training along with weight sets and nutritional supplements. 


Under the leadership of founder Bob Hoffman, York sponsored weightlifting teams and athletes racked up an impressive record of Olympic medals and national and world championship wins that is probably unmatched by any other private organization.  Many of the greatest athletes of the golden age of American weightlifting worked in the York Barbell foundry and trained at the company gym, and it was these athletes that a star struck young Buffett travelled to see.  For a time at least York Barbell and Hoffman were what Arnold Schwarzenegger and Muscle Beach would be for a later generation.


In Muscletown USA, John Fair describes how Bob Hoffman, who himself was not a talented athlete or weightlifter, used his unusual gifts for organization and promotion to develop York Barbell into the dominant firm of the fitness industry.  In addition, Hoffman was able to sustain York’s preeminent role for 30 years until the combination of the company’s Olympic teams becoming increasingly uncompetitive against the state backed teams of the communist nations, changing consumer tastes, aggressive new competitors, management infighting, and Hoffman’s declining health combined to diminish the company’s position.


Charlie Munger once mentioned in a Berkshire Annual Meeting that if he ever taught a class in a business school he would have his students go through the history of a company like General Motors along with the associated financial figures and have them try to relate how the qualitative and quantitative factors mesh up.  John Fair seems to have hit on the same idea in this book, and he includes 50 years of York’s revenue history, which is more quantitative data than I can ever remember seeing in a company history.


Fair’s book covers the company’s history from its earliest stages in 1929 past Hoffman’s death in 1985, and gives a detailed explanation of the various factors he believes contributed to the company’s years of success and eventual decline.  I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of US weightlifting or anyone looking for an interesting case history covering a good portion of the life cycle of a business. 


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