Bert Sorin didn’t realize his father’s company was the real deal until Garth Brooks came to town.
Since 1980, Bert had been watching Richard Sorin’s backyard project grow into a weightlifting equipment company with top athletes as clients. He’d been there when his father built the nation’s largest custom weight room in 1987.
But for Bert, a teenager in high school at the time, a Garth Brooks concert in Columbia during the 1990s was the real eye-opener. “He ordered from us for his home gym, and when he came to town to play, he gave us six front row tickets,” Bert says. Later backstage, Bert saw that the country music star was excited to talk to his dad.
“So you’re thinking, okay, this is the biggest guy in music right now. And he’s listening to my dad as an expert, and then he’s paying money to have the things that my family company creates,” Bert recalls thinking. And that’s when Bert says the company’s success and potential finally dawned on him: “The people who can have whatever they want are choosing our stuff.”
Building a Better Way
Sorinex got its start the way many businesses do — with an entrepreneur’s desire to solve problems and create better products. Richard was an athlete, a coach, and a P.E. teacher at Dutch Fork Elementary School. He was also a self-taught welder and owned a company that built playgrounds.
Richard drew on all that experience to fabricate better weightlifting gear. Other athletes he knew liked using the equipment he was making for himself. Orders started to come in.
When Richard’s company landed a contract with the University of Kentucky athletics department, Sorin Exercise Equipment moved into big time sports. In 1992, the company became Sorinex — a name now well known among all the top collegiate and professional teams in the United States. “I think in the last six Super Bowls in a row, one of the two teams, if not both, have used our gear,” says Bert.
Bert used Sorin-designed weights, of course, when he was training for the Olympic trials and competing in track and field for the University of South Carolina, where he was a four-time All-American. He knew in his early 20s that he wanted to join the company his father founded. Today, Bert is president and co-owner, running Sorinex from its headquarters in Lexington where it employs 180 people.
“We build almost all of the Sorinex branded equipment right here at our facility,” says Bert. “We bring in raw steel, and it comes out the other end of the building, ready to go to facilities all around the world. We’re very proud that American hands and American machines are building this stuff, and it’s right here. We can walk out there and check it at any time and have a real hands-on approach.”
Bert says that they sometimes simplify a conversation by saying they just make weights, though in reality Sorinex designs, fabricates, and installs large, complex projects.
One of those is the Ultimate Fighting Champions performance center in Shanghai. At 93,000 square feet, it’s the world’s largest mixed martial arts training facility, fitted out with equipment made in South Carolina and transported halfway around the world.
“We were basically running a portion of a construction project in China. Some of the things we do mimic what you might consider a special operations force in the military. There are a lot of moving parts to get the job done in an environment that’s generally not set up for you to succeed,” Bert says.
The Competitive Edge
How does a company based in Lexington become the provider of choice for a UFC training center in Shanghai? Why do NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball teams choose Sorinex equipment for their weight rooms?
“We’ve been on the cusp of innovation for 20 to 30 years,” Bert says. “Those innovations give teams and athletes an edge in ways that may not seem obvious.”
One is the Sorinex approach to designing facilities that deliver the most effective workout for an athlete in the least amount of time. “Every second is absolute gold,” says Bert, explaining that athletes have to manage training, recovery, and playing time carefully.
For college teams, time management may be even more of an issue than it is for the pros. “The NCAA doesn’t allow athletes to be in the weight room or on the field for a long period of time. That’s something we were one of the first companies to realize because almost my entire staff was either a collegiate athlete or a coach,” Bert says. Designing spaces that can accommodate more athletes safely and allow them to complete strength training as efficiently as possible helps athletes, trainers, and coaches make the most of every minute.
Capturing the team’s culture is another way Bert says Sorinex sets itself apart. Team colors, logos, and other design features create excitement and motivation for athletes. “Culture is the stuff you can’t put your hands around — you can’t count those reps,” Bert says. But college teams, in particular, have other ways to measure the impact of culture. “A major, major part of winning is not only developing athletes, but it’s signing great recruits. So if we can help magnify and amplify their culture through the weight room, it becomes a sales tool for those schools to be able to bring in the next high level recruit.”
Staying Healthy Through a Pandemic
When COVID-19 shut down sports and gyms, it was also shutting down some of Sorinex’s biggest customers. The company, however, was able keep production going.
It helped that professional athletes were placing personal orders for the same equipment they’d been using in the team weight room. For example, this is how NFL linebacker Cole Holman told The Washington Post he responded to the pandemic shutdown: “I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to work out for how long?’ So I called my head strength coach [Chad Engelhardt], and I’m like, ‘Chad, I need the Sorinex rep’s number right now. Like, right now.’ … Had him ship me an entire home gym.”
Sorinex also provides equipment to the U.S. military, and that work continued with no interruption. “We were deemed essential by the government, so that was a blessing,” says Bert. “We never had to lay anyone off. In fact, we hired people.”
They’ve added employees, Bert explains, because they’ve wound up being busier than ever. “We’ve had a much larger footprint within the personal gym space, the garage gym space, and people who want to set up nicer, more professional grade pieces in their homes. If someone down the street calls, and they want the same level of equipment that the New England Patriots or the L.A. Lakers or South Carolina football’s got, that’s totally great.”
The company also designed a new, less expensive rack for home gyms. Sorinex donated a portion of profits from the sale of that equipment — around $100,000 — to support people working in their community’s service industry.
With the stress that COVID-19 has brought to so many, Bert feels Sorinex has been fortunate on many fronts and is proud his company can find ways to help. And he sees positives, too. “It’s been fun to see people taking their health more seriously during the pandemic,” he says.
The Next Challenge: Sorinex Outdoors
While the pandemic has changed how some people think about the gym, Sorinex also appears to be in a good place to capitalize on another shift — the growing interest in exercising outside.
“I’ve been an outdoors enthusiast my whole life, as well as my dad and a lot of other people here at Sorinex,” says Bert. “We’re into hunting, fishing, camping. We also love to train because training helps our outdoor pursuits immeasurably.”
Bert is hoping he can build a bridge between two worlds as part of the company’s future. “Sorinex Outdoors is really just a pet project of mine and my father’s because it’s the two things we love. We’re testing it to see if anyone else also loves this, and we’ve had some great success with it so far.”
Part of the attraction for Bert is the chance to give highly skilled athletes a new set of goals to pursue. “I was a professional track and field athlete. After I was done with that, I needed another challenge.” He’s also keen to help those who enjoy hunting, fishing, and hiking get more out of their experiences through the benefits of conditioning and strength training. “Sorinex is in a unique place because we’re known in both industries. And we love both industries. So it just seemed like a very natural thing to combine our two passions.”
Meanwhile, Sorinex continues to do what it does best — design and build facilities and provide equipment to athletes. “We have universities, pro teams, and Olympic training centers call us, and if they don’t know us very well, they say, ‘Where are you guys?’ We’re in Columbia, South Carolina, and we’re proud to be here. And we like what we do within our community. So part of it is to, hopefully, make our city proud.”