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Necessity and ingenuity lift Isolator Fitness to success

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PHOTO/DONNA REED
David L. Vollmer Jr. on the sewing floor of Isolator Fitness in Reading. He is president of the company, having founded it in 2010.
PHOTO/DONNA REED David L. Vollmer Jr. on the sewing floor of Isolator Fitness in Reading. He is president of the company, having founded it in 2010.

Isolator Fitness, which logged $6 million in sales last year, is the result of an accident nine years ago.

David L. Vollmer Jr. broke his right hand, an injury that interfered with his passion for weight lifting.

Applying his brain power to keep his body powered, Vollmer invented the Isolator Proforce, which enables a user to weight train without using hands.

In January 2010, soon after the injury, he incorporated Isolator Fitness, and today the 43-year-old Vollmer is president of an innovative and profitable business on North 12th Street in Reading – in a building on the Albright College campus.

Originally, the company was based in the garage of his Birdsboro home. At the start, a friend’s mom did a lot of the sewing for the Proforce.

As the Proforce gained a following, Vollmer saw a niche for another type of fitness aid: the Isobag. The bag is designed to help folks toe the calorie line by making meal preparation easier and incorporating portion-appropriate containers.

Vollmer created an Isobag prototype and ordered 72 bags from a Chinese manufacturer, which he sold at a fitness-related event in Ohio in October 2012.

That was on a Saturday. By Tuesday, he was fielding calls from 49 customers who said the bags had fallen apart.

Having paid the manufacturer in advance, Vollmer found himself refunding customers’ money.

And there was a bigger issue: a successful pre-sale resulted in 3,000 orders.

Daunted? Yes. Down for the count? Hardly.

“I had to learn how to make the bags here,” Vollmer said.

OPPORTUNITY

Vollmer discovered the Schuylkill County manufacturer of Codi bags (including laptop cases, backpacks) was moving to China at a cost of 250 jobs. Vollmer drove to Tremont and “begged and pleaded” with the director of operations to be his personal instructor on all aspects of the business.

The director gave him 20 hours, two at a time, and Vollmer drove daily to Schuylkill County, matching the miles with his growing drive to be a quality manufacturer learning from the ground up.

“He helped me learn to source, make patterns and how to sew,” Vollmer said.

It took him from October to Christmas Eve to make that first bag, which he, in turn, gifted to the UPS driver.

BUSINESS PARTNER, MENTOR

By February 2013, Vollmer had moved the business – with one employee – to the Albright College location. By May, he had a workforce of 108.

Along the way, he picked up a partner: P. Sue Perrotty, an Albright trustee and a veteran Berks County businesswoman, banker and chief of staff to former Pennsylvania First Lady Midge Rendell.

“She told me what was wrong and what to fix,” Vollmer said, “and she did that several times.”

Perrotty came aboard as an investor. So did former Boscov’s executive Ken Lakin.

MEETING DEADLINES

Those 5,000 bags were made and two new 5,000-bag orders, from Australian and Canadian distributors, followed.

With a guaranteed 120-day delivery, Vollmer took available capital, bought more sewing equipment and hired more employees. Orders were completed on deadline.

A novice in the business with no preconceived notions, Vollmer said he was able to innovate and create, with colleagues, an efficient and quality operation. Isolator Fitness has its own tooling shop and engineer on-site to create patterns for the three- and six-meal Isobags.

The shop also is its own entity – Reading Water Jet and Machining. The quick turnaround on metal patterns, part of Isolator’s efficiency, is a boon for other companies that contract with it.

AMERICAN SOURCED

The bags, available in 27 colors, get their start with the patterns. Then the fabric, imported from American-owned Chinese companies, is meticulously cut in layers of 20.

Fabric components are then carefully stocked to await the sewing.

“We try to have one month’s stock to feed the floor,” Vollmer said.

He takes pride that most of the bags’ components are American sourced: insulation from North Carolina, black film lining from Wisconsin, zipper parts from Georgia.

DOUBLE-SLIDE ZIPPER

A component integral to the success of the bags is a double-slide zipper, also made on-site.

“The only two machines like this in the world are right here,” Vollmer said. “We can make 5,000 zippers in a 7½-hour shift.”

Isolator also does its screen printing, having acquired the equipment and hired employees from the former Play It Again Sports.

MILLENNIALS

Nearly everyone in this plant – from helpers to marketers to sewers to those in quality control and shipping – is relatively young.

The oldest employee is 50; many are millennials. And many are members of the same families, many of whom live in Reading.

Case in point: J.B. (Jilberto) Irineo, 29, a former Marine who is now director of operations, or, as Vollmer says, the “rock star.”

In two years, Irineo climbed from a minimum wage position to top management. His sisters are among his colleagues. Vollmer’s brother also is part of the management team.

SELFLESSNESS, TEAM SPIRIT

As the company’s success is driven by employees, Vollmer focuses on team spirit and personal achievement.

“Honesty, ownership, the willingness to be coached, being a good person, being selfless, a team player with ambition – that’s what we look for,” he said.

Isolator also is a manufacturer and/or marketer for everything from fitness-oriented accessories and apparel to food and nutrition supplements.

Indeed, as visitors and employees enter the plant, they see a “wall of dreams,” a photo galley of sorts of colleagues’ dreams. It can be hikers on the Appalachian Trail, a scene from Disney World, a snazzy car or a happy family gathered around a picnic table.

DAY-TO-DAY INVOLVEMENT

Vollmer, who owned Ecobound, a habitat restoration company, from 2002 to 2012, is a hands-on businessman.

And his garage still occasionally serves as a working site. He and his father-in-law built 60 rolling pallets that help move product in the plant. They are working on another 40.

With increasing automation, the workforce now hovers around 50 full- and part-timers.

Isolator produces up to 200,000 bags a year and markets and sells internationally, with the United Kingdom and Germany the biggest buyers.

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES

Most recently, Isolator started the “thin blue line” and “thin red line” series bags geared to law enforcement and emergency medical technicians.

“A friend of mine … who is a corrections officer suggested the thin blue line in July of 2017, and we ran with it,” Vollmer said.

Vollmer said learning from his mistakes has been the root of his success, and he shares that advice.

“I tell the team: ‘Strive for mistakes and you don’t have to make them again,’ ” he said.

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