The following is the beginning of a continuing web series by AFM Founder and retired Heatsheets CTO, David Deigan, as he reflects on the history of the company.
In 1978, the Deigan family left Southern California to return to our roots in Northern New Jersey. The motivation was to be closer to aging parents and to accept a promotion that led to two senior sales management positions with vacuum metallizing and coating companies — positions that would trigger the domino effect that made the birth of AFM and Heatsheets® possible.
Being back where my running career started rekindled my passion for long-distance running, and I soon found myself cruising comfortably at a 7 minute/mile pace on 5-6 mile training runs. Three months into my training, a running buddy announced that “we” were going to run the 1978 New York City Marathon, and that he had the plan. Seriously? My favorite competitive distances had been 3-5 miles in college. If pressed, I’d be fine with a 6-8 miles, but 26.2? Next thing I knew four of us were in.
My first finish in New York actually brought tears to my eyes. I think it was equal parts the pain from quads and calf muscles that had seized, and the sheer joy of crossing that finish line, albeit in a shuffling finish after a brisk start, in 3hr 52 minutes. Fast-forward a year.
It was the 1979 NYCM that provided the visual image I would carry with me. The post-finish route had been altered to avoid the runner congestion of 1978. Instead of finishing and turning directly into Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow, we were guided along a winding dirt path among Central Park’s boulders. Everything hurt. But, I soon became fixated on the long line of runners in front of me, shuffling slowly up and down the meandering contours of that trail enroute to the Family Reunion Area.
The sun glistened off the silver “caterpillar” of runners, whose backs were covered in shiny aluminized sheets of Mylar® that proved surprisingly warm. But, it was not the warmth that attracted me. What I saw was an “OPPORTUNITY” for a sale, and I knew exactly how it could be done. What if the NYRR sold the space on the runners’ backs, and I produced a heat-reflective finish line blanket printed with high quality branding a sponsor would pay for?
And like most great ideas, mine gradually dimmed as life absorbed my time and attention. Until a phone call presented a tipping point.
Fast-forward, to 1980. The phone rings in an office next to mine. Sales guy who answers is unsympathetic. His ash tray is over flowing. He knows with certainty that runners are freaks and nuts. “You want what?” he barks, then to accentuate his dislike for runners, he slams the receiver down, seemingly before the person on the other end can answer.
“Who was it?” I ask. “Nobody.” I persist, until finally he says, “Some guy from the New York City Marathon who wants something for nothing. Waste of time.”
That image of the giant silver caterpillar is back and begging to be branded.
“Give me the number.”
“Suit yourself, but it’s a waste of time.” I dial the number. Allan Steinfeld answers. He’s the alter-ego of the NYRR leader, Fred LeBow. Fred thinks stuff up. Allan figures out how to do it.
“If you’ll donate the metallized sheets to us, we’ll give you branding opportunities in our printed program at the finish line.” he says.
“So you need a solution to a cash flow problem?” I ask, intrigued.
“Well, yes.” “I’ve got a better idea. Why not add branding to them and get a sponsor to pay for them?”
“How soon can you be here?”
The next day, I had a five-minute audience with Fred LeBow at the old multi-story brownstone at 9 East 89th Street and walked out with my first order.
Believe it or, that was the easy part. I had my first order. Now, I needed to figure out how on earth I could spin that order into branded, Finish Line Heatsheets…