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Insoles support family-run business

Friday, March 25, 2011

PENN RUN -- As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

According to Ron Gresko, director of sales for Paragon Development Corp., it was his father-in-law's need of a quality, comfortable shoe insole that led the company to become a leading manufacturer of insoles with its Ener-Gel line.

Paragon Development Corp. is a family-owned business co-founded by Ed Ratay and his daughter, Gwen (Ratay) Gresko, Ron Gresko's wife. Gwen Gresko also has taken on the role of president, while Ron Gresko acts as director of sales.

Ratay, an avid basketball fan, spent a lot of time on the court throughout his life, both as a player and as a coach. But, as he grew older, he found he couldn't play as regularly as he wanted to because he began to develop pain and soreness in his feet.

At that time, Ron Gresko was working for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a scout in the organization's player personnel department, and he was dating Ratay's daughter, Gwen. Ron Gresko bonded with Ratay over weekends spent playing basketball, and he also learned about his future father-in-law's foot troubles.

Ratay tried to solve the problem on his own at first. He sampled many of the foot support products on the market, but he never obtained the cushioning he desired.

In the early 1990s, Ron Gresko and Ratay conducted a more in-depth inspection of other foot support products on the market.

"There weren't many at that time," said Gresko, 46, of Penn Run. "We tried them and he didn't have any success with them, so he said, 'You know what• Let's try to do this ourselves.'"

With that statement, the seed was planted for the genesis of Paragon Development Corp.

"He's always had an entrepreneurial mind," Gresko said of his father-in-law. "He figured he was onto something and could help other people, too."

Together, Gresko and Ratay began to tour other insole manufacturers on the East Coast. Visiting companies in Allentown and in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, they presented their design ideas, hoping that one of the outfits would be willing to manufacture insoles according to Gresko's and Ratay's specifications.

A few of the companies seemed interested, but Ratay and Gresko found that outsourcing their designs would be far more expensive than they thought.

"The companies that were going to produce the insoles for us were asking for too much money," Gresko said. Shipping logistics added even more to the potential cost, since they would have to pay once to receive the finished products and again to send the insoles to retailers.

"In the end we determined that it would be more efficient to try and manufacture the insoles ourselves," Gresko said. "The added benefit is that we would be able to create jobs in Indiana County."

So, in 1989, Paragon Development Corp. was founded, although the company didn't start initial insole designs until 1991. A year later, and after much trial and error, it had its first rough insole design, and the company spent the next few years perfecting its conception and acquiring the equipment and staff needed to get the company off the ground.

In 1994, the company secured a temporary home in Indiana University of Pennsylvania's small business incubator, and soon after made its first big sale -- 1,000 pairs of insoles for the Israeli military, an order that Gresko still is unable to explain.

"We have no idea how they found us, but they said they got a pair and put them in their boots," he said. "That was our start, our first big order."

Not long after that order was filled, Paragon Development received orders to place its insoles in several Dick's Sporting Goods stores.

Gresko spent much of that first year getting Paragon Development's insoles into the hands of retailers and athletic teams in an attempt to get exposure for the the Ener-Gel brand name.

Penn State University's football team was the first major sporting organization to place an order for the insoles, outfitting the Nittany Lions in 1994.

"They liked them, and have worn them ever since," Gresko said.

Using contacts he'd made through working with the Steelers, Gresko sent samples to many NFL teams.

"We were just trying to get everybody and anybody to take a look at them," he said.

By 1996, Ener-Gel insoles were in the cleats of four different NFL organizations -- Seattle, Denver, Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

Ener-Gel insoles made it onto several college basketball courts and football fields, as well. Florida State, Georgia State, St. Francis University, University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown and Indiana University of Pennsylvania all placed orders, on top of the products already being sent to Penn State athletes.

One of Gresko's biggest personal achievements through Paragon came in 1995-96, when the company outfitted the Kentucky Wildcats, who had fought their way into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA men's basketball championships.

He recalled, "Their equipment manager called and asked if I could send 18 pairs down to San Antonio," where the national championships were set to take place.

It was a classic case of wishful thinking, as the team was still several games away from making it to the championship game.

As Kentucky battled its way to the Final Four, Gresko sent the order to the San Antonio hotel that was set to play host to the championship teams the final weekend of the tournament.

"Fortunately, they kept winning," Gresko said. "So I sent the insoles to the hotel, and Kentucky won the national championship," with Ener-Gel insoles in the players' shoes.

At about that time Paragon received an order that cemented Ener-Gel's place among insole products.

Paragon Development had been selling its insoles at Gatti Pharmacy in Indiana. When one of the pharmacists there left to take a position at the Indiana Wal-Mart store, he talked with his district manager about stocking Ener-Gel insoles in the discount store.

The suggestion resulted in Wal-Mart's area district -- 18 stores in all -- having Ener-Gel insoles on their shelves. The product moved so well that the Wal-Mart relationship expanded; for the past 15 years, Gresko said, Ener-Gel insoles have been sold regionally by the retailer in 60 of its stores.

"One thing led to another, and it just grew from there," he said.

Securing the Wal-Mart order gave Paragon Development the extra income it needed to move out of the business incubator and into its own factory space, allowing for expansion of equipment and employees.

Ratay already owned a building in Penn Run, near where both he and the Greskos lived.

With a little work, including the construction of a 5,000-square-foot addition, the building was converted into an insole manufacturing factory, where all of the manufacturing, packaging and shipping of Ener-Gel insoles is accomplished.

There are many insole support products that can be found on the shelves of local retailers or ordered online.

What sets Ener-Gel insoles apart is the amount of cushioning in the design, Gresko said.

"It has more cushioning, it's thicker in the heels, and is most cushioned in the heel," he explained. "When you walk, you strike the heel first, so that's got to be the most important part."

"We've tried everything that's out there, and we believe it's the most comfortable we've tried," Gresko said.

Paragon Development Corp. prides itself that all of the materials used in making its products originate in the U.S.A. and that the insoles are all manufactured here in America, at the Penn Run plant.

"We've had offers to take our operations to China, to Honk Kong, to Mexico, and we've declined every time," Gresko said. Taking up such offers could have meant a huge reduction in production costs, he noted, but he pledges, "We'd go out of business before we'd take our operations overseas.

"That's all part of why we do this."

As part of its recent "Made in America" series, which took an in-depth look at American-made products, ABC News posted on its website a map of companies that offer such products. Paragon is included on the site, which is a great source of pride for the company and its employees, Gresko said.

Paragon's newest product, Ever-Gel GreenEarth Insoles with Soycomfort Foam, takes the American production process a step further, using only soybeans grown by American farmers.

The original Ener-Gel product looks much the same as the GreenEarth insoles but was made of petroleum-based polyurethane.

The new GreenEarth insoles still use petroleum, but they also incorporate the soybean product Soyol, used in the Soy Comfort foam technology developed by Urethane Soy Systems of North Dakota. This "new use" agricultural product is bio-renewable, meaning the insoles have a content of up to 40 percent soybean oil.

"It's better for the environment, and we're not using imported oil," Gresko said. "It's all grown by American farmers, which helps the American economy.

"It's being used in cars, but we're the only ones who use it in insole production."

Gresko is currently working with his father-in-law to see how high a level of soybean oil can be used in the insoles while retaining their quality cushioning.

Paragon Development meanwhile has made its packaging more eco-friendly, using 60 percent less plastic and recyclable paper. All printing is done with vegetable oil-based ink.

The GreenEarth insoles make up the majority of Paragon Development's production now, though the original Ener-Gel Cushion Maxx insoles can still be made upon request.

In its next step forward, the company is working on a new product specifically designed for dress shoes. It will have the same look as the original insoles, but without a forefoot shock absorber. That will result in a thinner insole of about one-eighth of an inch -- about half the thickness of the original design.

Paragon Development also has discovered a rich market possibility in peddling its products to area factories, the majority of whose workers are standing on their feet for long shifts.

Gresko recently visited many of these local businesses, highlighting the benefits of using insoles to support workers' feet. The result was orders from Gorell Windows & Doors, Clark Metal, Gallikers and other businesses, which all have placed orders for their employees.

"That's a new area we're looking at, and it seems such an obvious thing -- people who are on their feet all day," Gresko said.

At the company's peak of production, it employed 10 people, according to Gresko. Right now, it operates with seven full-time workers in manufacturing and packaging, but Gresko hopes to add to those numbers.

"We're working with other retailers, and as we get more work, we can offer more work to other people," he said. "We certainly don't want to see more manufacturing jobs leaving the United States."

Production varies from week to week, with purchase orders from Wal-Mart submitted every Monday. Typically, Gresko noted, the factory produces about 3,000 pair of insoles a week.

The factory has 25 insole molds each in two sizes -- large and small -- that it uses in its production run, Gresko said. Any overflow that is made is stocked to help fulfill future large orders.

Once the molds are filled with a shock-absorbing poly gel (at the heel and forefoot), a high-resistance poly foam (made of up to 40 percent soybean oil) fills out the rest of the insole. Seven minutes is allowed for the gel and foam to cure and set. The insoles are then removed from the molds, and rough edges are cut away, before they are sent to packaging.

Gresko noted the products can be customized as needed in regard to firmness. He noted many basketball teams prefer a firmer insole for use on the basketball court.

Ron and Gwen Gresko have taken on the majority of the day-to-day operations at Paragon Development Corp., though Ratay has remained on as an adviser and still takes care of many of the equipment needs of the company.

"It's a family affair. We put all of our thoughts and ideas together," Ron Gresko said.

Paragon receives further family support from the Greskos' three children -- Aric, Katee and Ryen -- who help out as needed.

Katee Gresko is a junior at Penns Manor High School and is using Paragon to fulfill her senior project by donating 3,000 pairs of the insoles to the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that raises funding for aid and services for military personnel who have been wounded while serving their country.

"We're a very patriotic family," Ron Gresko said. "That's who we are, and we'll do anything we can do to help soldiers. It was almost easy for her to decide on her senior project."

Indeed, over the past four years, the Paragon has fulfilled many requests from soldiers who were stationed in Iraq, asking for donations for 15-member platoons.

After the devastation of 9/11, Paragon sent 1,000 pairs of its product to workers at Ground Zero, and the gesture did not go unrecognized.

Ron Gresko said the company received pictures from Ground Zero of search dogs with the insoles strapped to their paws, protecting their sensitive feet from the steel debris that had been cutting up their pads, along with letters of thanks from many of the workers.

"When we get letters and such, it makes us happy knowing that we've helped other people," Gresko said. "It's what keeps us going."

More about Ener-Gel insoles can be found at the product's website, .



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