Story By Connor Walters | Photos Provided By Concept2

What A Concept

If you’ve ever pulled on an oar or sat on an erg, the odds are pretty good that—at some point—you’ve done so with equipment made by Concept2. Launched in 1975 by brothers Dick and Peter Dreissigacker, the company is largely credited with the transition from wooden to carbon fiber oars, as well as the popularization of everyone’s favorite winter training machine.
In a sport where the tiniest fractions of a second mean everything, Concept2 has spent decades innovating in ways that help rowers of all stripes grab those fractions by the boatload: a lighter oar, a bigger blade, a more accurate erg score, better boat-feel. And yet for all the innovation that the company stands for, it represents durability as well. Concept2 oars and ergs spend decades in use inside boathouses and training centers across the country.
For 40 years, the Dreissigackers and their employees have been testers and tinkerers, creators and craftsmen. But for a company that was practically born in a barn, perhaps Bari Dreissigacker—Peter’s wife—characterized the journey best: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Stanford University in 1975 is where the story begins. Peter Dreissigacker was an undergraduate at the prestigious California school when Dick, who had rowed and earned his engineering degree at Brown University, took a coaching position and began graduate work at Stanford. There, the older Dreissigacker introduced his younger brother to rowing and the two began training in a pair together.
“I was studying product design and mechanical engineering, really focused on the engineering of something that would be a product that would be consumer-oriented,” Peter says. As luck would have it, he and Dick ended up in two of the same classes.
“One was basically invention and the process of invention,” he adds. “The other one was a course on writing a business plan, so that was more of a getting-your-information-together-before-jumping-off-the-edge [class].”
At that point, boat manufacturers were starting to explore working with synthetics, but according to Peter there was not the same sort of interest in doing so with oars. He and Dick saw a void and began taking steps to fill it.
“To start with, we had to learn more about the whole composite material thing, which was, in a way, kind of new at that point,” Dick says. “It was a different time back then—sort of the wild west of composite work compared to now, so we built some homemade equipment to kind of do the shaft layups with the blades.”
After some very early iterations, the two packed up a pair of the first Dreissigacker oars and raced with them at the trials for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, but they did not qualify. However, it would only be another year until Anne Warner and Anita DeFrantz became the first to use Concept2 oars at the world championships.

The Original Concept2 factory

The Original Concept2 factory.

Shortly after trials, having done much of the early inventing in their California apartment, they packed up their operation in a bread truck and drove cross-country, eventually settling into an abandoned dairy farm in Vermont. The move would see Concept2 grow in size, scope, and success.

What’s in a name? Well, if you’re Concept2, it’s basically a brand, a mindset, and a mission statement all wrapped into one. “Our kind of engineering philosophy is to not necessarily take the first solution that comes to your head,” Peter says. “Concept 1 might be the first thing that comes to your head, [but if you have other ideas] from that list of solutions you’ll probably find a better solution.”
“And 2,” he adds, “2 seemed to be a little more poetic.”
As far as mindset goes, the idea of constantly playing around and tinkering with every little thing is a generational trait of the Dreissigackers. “I think both Pete and I have always done that kind of stuff,” Dick says. “Our dad had a shop down in the basement and he was always making stuff and helping us make stuff, so we got hands-on, too.”
This experience served them well as they started working with carbon fiber and other materials, learning from suppliers who showed them how it all worked. The brothers kept trying out new concepts and drove their oars to places like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to have people test them out.
Dick and Peter Dreissigacker test an oar for its durability.

Dick and Peter Dreissigacker test an oar for its durability.

Once they had what they considered a viable product, they had to make a big decision on what to price the oars at. Being made from carbon fiber, they were more expensive to produce than wooden oars, but a few other early testers of composite oars had tried selling them at cost and they didn’t catch on.
“We took sort of the long view and said I think we can get the costs under control, so let’s price them at a reasonable price and figure it out,” Peter says.
Needless to say, it worked. Oakland Strokes rowing club, which the Dreissigackers had a connection with from their California days, was Concept2’s first paying customer, purchasing four sweep oars. In 1978 and 1979, after the U.S. women’s pair first used them, a small group of collegiate crews also invested in some of the new oars and had very successful seasons. As Dick tells it, those early successes led to more orders and started to move the company into a bigger operation.
“As production increased, our original vision was maybe we make a couple sets a month just to put food on the table, but we wound up making more than that so we had to hire some employees to help make them.”
Bari Dreissigacker was Concept2’s first employee. “The cool thing was Peter and Dick used to pay me to work whether I was cooking, grocery shopping, or rolling shafts,” she says. “It was a very unique kind of mid-70s thing. When we first started it was really hard. It was cold in the barn and the house, but we were young and didn’t have any responsibilities. I waitressed. We never felt like we were poor or anything. We had a blast, but we were working really hard.”
The original Concept2 employees photographed with the 1000th shaft.

The original Concept2 employees photographed with the 1000th shaft.

By the end of 1980, Concept2 had eight employees and the company’s production began to hum like the flywheel on an ergometer—except that the modern erg still hadn’t been invented yet.

“Our thought was that if we could come up with an inexpensive training device people like us could use it. We never really thought it would be as ubiquitous as it is.”– Peter Dreissigacker

In Vermont, the average winter temperature is in the low 20s, and it is not uncommon for temps to fall below 0 degrees. Therefore, many take to the indoors for winter training. In 1981, there were some indoor rowing machines around, but nothing that anyone would want to spend a significant amount of time on.
Enter, once again, Concept2.
“The consumer rowing machines around were kind of the classic piston-moving-arm things you slide under your bed and forget about,” Peter says. “Our thought was that if we could come up with an inexpensive training device, since we were young masters rowers and we could keep training, people like us could use it. We never really thought it would be as ubiquitous as it is.”
Testing the erg.

Testing the erg.

By nailing a bike to the floor of their barn and pulling on the loose end of its chain, the Dreissigacker brothers became sort of the godfathers of modern winter training—though they would never call themselves that.
By Peter’s recollection, the first large order for 20 machines took him aback. The Model A ergs look a little medieval, with the racing-tire-like flywheel totally exposed and a bicycle odometer attached to track progress. And yet about a year later, they received a phone call from the Charles River All Star Has-Beens in Boston, who to the brothers’ amazement wanted to have a little race on the machines.

Cari Graves and Bari Dreissigacker race at an early C.R.A.S.H.-B.Cari Graves and Bari Dreissigacker race at an early C.R.A.S.H.-B.

That was the first C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints, which today of course is the de-facto indoor rowing world championship. Bari recalls making the trip down to Harvard for the inaugural event. “There was a keg of beer in the back of the Harvard boathouse. You finished your race and you got a beer.” (And there are pictures to prove it.)
And from there the erg started to take off, too. With two popular products being manufactured out of a barn and demand rising, Concept2 moved its operation into a new, larger facility in Morrisville, Vermont, in 1984.
In 1986, the erg got a makeover that included the performance monitor, which according to Peter was one of the game-changers during the company’s 40 years. “The big thing with the electronics on the monitor was for consistency of score,” he says. “With the mechanical bike speedometer, one’s score could change based upon elevation and air density. In adding the digital monitor, it’s sort of been accepted, the scores and times and everyone knows what that means.”
So are the two brothers to blame for all of the grueling hours that rowers everywhere spend moving up and down the slide each winter? Probably not. “It is a tool and of course everyone uses it in different ways, so in a way it’s kind of a shared responsibility,” Dick says. “We share the responsibility of the torture, blood, sweat, and tears.”
After the first 15 years, once Concept2 was clearly established as an oar- and erg-manufacturing company, the company continued its pursuit of the next big thing. And the next innovation after the Model B erg was so big, in fact, that’s what they called it.
Known as the Big Blade, their newest oar abandoned the traditional, symmetrical Macon blade design in favor of a large hatchet shape. It started “catching on” in 1991 and then became the hot topic in the week leading into the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
Peter says, “That was kind of a crazy spring because people were sort of getting their teams beaten and the other team would have the Big Blade and they would come up and say, ‘Can you change the blades on our oars?’ I hate to even think of how many blades we upgraded during the week.”
In fact, the chatter buzzing about the new blades evolved into serious discussion on banning them from the competition. The Dreissigackers had extra oars available at the Games, and certain crews actually switched to them after preliminary events, having never even rowed with the new blades before. The oars ultimately were allowed.
Going asymmetrical changed the face of blades—literally—and oar manufacturing hasn’t been the same since.
While releasing a new or improved product every few years has continued to be Concept2’s modus operandi, the company has not gone 40 years without challenges.
Bari tells of a 100-year flood in 1983 that caused a nearby creek to swell to such a size that it invaded the old barn. A bunch of brand new rowing machines were destroyed, putting a damper on the company’s efforts to keep up with increasing popularity.
Additionally, they ran into another issue with the erg when a change in fabrication created a stress point on the machine’s frame that would weaken and crack apart—and by Peter’s count it affected nearly a year’s worth of indoor rowers.
“I think it was one of those cases where the best thing you can do is look at it from the point of the customer,” he says, explaining that they treated it like an automobile recall. Concept2 sent out notices, replaced machines and offered a solution for people with affected ergs that hadn’t developed the problem yet.
Keeping the customer first, according to each of the three Dreissigackers interviewed for this article, is perhaps what has helped the company remain at the forefront of the oar and erg markets.
At Thursday staff meetings, they spend time reading letters sent in by customers, and Bari says they take them all seriously, even the occasional letter that is not so positive. You can also find a Concept2 tent at many a regatta with a complimentary service team at the ready.

Judy Dreissigacker working within the Concept2 factory.Judy Dreissigacker working within the Concept2 factory.

“Our strategy to make [the company] grow is to focus on the products and keep making them better, to keep focusing on the customer,” Peter says. “Customer service is like another product that we sell; it goes along with the hard goods.”
It’s a culture that permeates the company, including its interactions with employees and business partners. “The other thing I never expected probably and is also rewarding is we not only have this community of customers that have gained a lot,” Dick says, “But also the employees, local vendors, and far away vendors that we’ve been able to supply good livelihoods for better than I expected.”

A lot can happen in a four-year Olympic cycle, let alone 10 of those in a row, and Concept2 has been a partner to the growth and evolution of the rowing world. The company, coincidentally, launched in the same year that women first rowed at the Olympic Games. Then youth rowing started to grow.
Today, indoor rowing is seeing a growth spurt, especially among non-rowers. Concept2 tried to promote it back in the 1990s, but to little success. “The problem was in the ‘90s people’s ideas of working out was to bring the newspaper while you’re walking on the treadmill,” Peter says. “Rowing is a little more intense.”

“I never expected we’d have such an impact on so many people, and this extends well beyond the rowing community.” – Dick Dreissigacker

And yet indoor rowing studios are popping up just like spinning studios did earlier in the decade, and CrossFit has brought the erg into its popular exercise repertoires. Dick says some of those letters his company receives are from people just trying to get in shape.
“I never expected we’d have such an impact on so many people, and this extends well beyond the rowing community. We get letters from non-rowing people saying [indoor] rowing has changed their life and it’s just turned them around.”
Of course, the company tapped into the popularity of skiing in northern New England and introduced another fitness tool, the SkiErg, in 2009. It was an idea the brothers had way back when the new erg was conceptualized, but at the time they didn’t feel there was a market for it. Then, after 2000, the brothers learned that some skiers had done with the erg what they had once done with a bike: nail it down and use it as they wished.
“The SkiErg is now doing pretty well with the skiing community and general fitness community, Dick says. “It’s a nice form of exercise. It’s a little different than the rowing machine, but in many ways it’s kind of similar. It’s easy to use in some respects—you could do it in different ways. You just walk up to it and grab the handles. It’s things like that that you know we want to keep going to sort of fill the gaps and improve the stability of the business.”
Once again, there the Dreissigackers are, thinking ahead, but at the same time responding to market demands. Perhaps that’s what has helped Concept2 continue to prosper after four decades—listening to what rowers want.
“There’s always challenges,” Peter says. “You think that after making the same products for 40 years, things would sort of be done, but there’s always improvements to make. If there’s not, we sort of come up with them.”

Dick and Peter Dreissigacker continue to test oars.

Dick and Peter Dreissigacker continue to test oars.

But don’t two brothers get tired of working with each other after so long? Hardly. “We have gotten along,” Dick says, adding, “We kind of play off of each other and we’re sort of compromising enough so that we can come to the right solution without getting stuck with one idea—it’s almost the Concept2 thing again. We kind of are able to talk it out and kind of understand pretty easily what the other one is thinking about.”
The company hopes to do a series of events to celebrate 40 years, but doesn’t have any concrete plans laid out just yet. That will come with time, and if history is any indicator, it’s going to be another roaring success.

 

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