One for the Gripper

UPDATED 08/19/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/19/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

IT LOOKS LIKE AN ANIMAL HOUSE KIND of house. Six guys in their 20s, old pals who played on their high-school basketball and football teams in Oconomowoc, Wis. (pop. 11,000), now share a two-story, four-bedroom rental in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The living-room decor consists of worn, nonmatching couches on which the six guys lounge when they aren't caught up in their one unifying obsession: Super Grip Ball, a ball and mitt—both covered with a Velcro-like material—that turn the simple game of catch into the even simpler game of toss-and-glom.

On second thought, Adam Smith House is more like it. These guys are marketing whizzes, and what they sell—so far, $9 million worth in just five months with another $20 million projected by the end of the year—is Super Grip Ball, which they have personally demonstrated everywhere from Milwaukee malls to Florida beaches. (Bob Uecker, no less, handles the TV pitch.) At $13 to $20 a set, Super Grip Ball has become one of the definitive summer fads; already there are rollerblade, skateboard and water polo Super Grip teams.

"It's going to be along the lines of Frisbee," predicts Mark Paliafito, 25, who is the chief executive officer (and major shareholder) of Super Grip's U.S. distributor, Paliafito America Inc. He's also a sort of housemother to buddies Mike Barker, 24, vp-operations; Scott Hupe, 24, vp—marketing and sales; his brother, Jeff, 22, marketing assistant; Greg Waylock, 24, vp-special markets; and Jim "Moose" Beattie, 22, customer-service representative. (Paliafito's 31-year-old brother, John, is chief financial officer but lives down the street with his wife and two kids; President Richard Hart, 38, regularly commutes from Chicago.)

Top gripper Mark says he was born to sell. His father and uncle ran a chain of nursing homes that was started by his grandfather in the '50s. "Since I was a young boy," says Paliafito, "I always told my mom I'd find something." Actually it was Barker who, at a street fair in San Francisco, came across what would ultimately be their dream product. (Sticky-surface sporting goods, in one form or another, have been around since the '60s, and there are several rival catch games on the market.) Paliafito and Barker became Super Grip's Wisconsin distributors. Then the Paliafito boys bought the U.S. distribution and marketing rights for a seven-figure sum from MAI Ltd. (Super Grip's Seoul-based manufacturer), hired their friends and set out to Grip the nation.

"My guys from Wisconsin!" rhapsodizes. MAI vice president Joy Lee, 37, who developed Grip Ball from an earlier Korean version. "They are very aggressive and very young." And very nearby. Paliafito decided that his business, and his buddies, should move closer to MAI's U.S. headquarters in Walnut, Calif. The Manhattan Beach place was 40 miles from Walnut and six blocks from the ocean. Plus, as Richard Hart noticed after a glance at the beach, "Everyone was 24 and blond."

The House of Super Grip rises early—5:30 A.M.—and then it's hardball. 10-to 12-hour days taking calls, talking to sales reps and processing faxed orders. "We eat, sleep and breathe Grip Ball," says Paliafito. "Even dream about it." Occasionally, though, they just hang out, the way they did back as kids. "One day a week," says Greg Waylock, "we try to make it to the beach." Where, of course, they play...you guessed it.

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