PITTSFIELD — Paul LeBlanc always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But, it took awhile for him to hit on the right formula.
For a long time, his greatest success occurred in cycling — a three-time U.S. Junior national champion who made the U.S. national cycling team in the early 1990s.
Then, the Waltham native invented a citrus-based cleaning wipe to help cyclists clean their hands of grime after changing a flat tire while on the road. That product led LeBlanc to launch Zogics, a small Lenox-based e-commerce company that makes and sells nontoxic, eco-friendly gym wipes, towels and linens along with a line of fitness and personal care products for several job sectors, including the hospitality industry and the military.
Three of these items — hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and protective gear — are products that are in especially high demand at present because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We talked with LeBlanc recently about the trials and tribulations he went through in finding a business formula that worked, his cycling career, and why he still runs a company with more than $10 million in annual sales without a business plan.
Q: Why did you become an entrepreneur?
A: I've been an aspiring entrepreneur all my life.
When I was a young boy, I remember asking my parents not for toy trucks and video games, but for office supplies so I could play, quote, unquote, businessman.
When I was 12, shortly after getting hooked on cycling, I started a bike-repair business in my parents' basement. ... There's always been this desire to create a business and run a business.
Q: Tell me about your attempts.
A: Now, this is going back to when I was quite young, but they ranged from exporting jeans to trying to export tractors and farm equipment to selling neon sign equipment to selling mobile telephones in Central Europe to developing renewable energy projects in the Middle East, just a whole string of what now seem like a pretty crazy and unfocused collection of attempts.
But, you learn along the way. ... You take something away from it and get to apply it to the next thing.
Q: Did all the trial and error lead you to where you are now?
A: Zogics started after the renewable energy company that I owned essentially went under. I was left here in the Berkshires not knowing what I was going to do next.
I was on a bike ride and got a flat tire and got all dirty fixing that flat tire. So, I decided it would be great to make a product that cyclists like me could carry with them to clean their hands after they got into a mechanical mess.
So, I developed that product; it was a citrus-based hand cleaning wipe. I launched it under the brand Zogics, with really no intention of making a career out of it. I just wanted to keep myself busy as I figured out my next move.
Q: Are you surprised that Zogics has grown as fast as it has?
A: I'm always equally surprised by my failures as well as my successes. Every day I wake up and I think, "Wow, I can't believe that we're here." I'm grateful for what we, as a team, have been able to accomplish. ... I think I've been very lucky assembling a group of people that have been so passionate about creating and building something.
Q: How did you get involved in competitive cycling?
A: I was very bad at every other sport I tried. I was the worst kid on my baseball and basketball teams.
For my 12th birthday, my parents gave me a bike. I started riding it around town and something just clicked. I enjoyed being on two wheels. I enjoyed riding faster and faster.
And I ended up working at a bike shop that had a three-time Olympian (John Allis) working at it. He took me under his wing and brought me to my first bike race and, as a surprise to everyone, I came in first place. ... I got the bug.
Q: How did you get to the national level?
A: I started training a bit more seriously and entering races and again continued to do well, so much so that I ended up going to a training camp.
I was discovered, if you will, by someone at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. So, I shipped out to that training center at the age of 16 and eventually became a member of the U.S. national cycling team. I lived at the Olympic Training Center when I was 17 and 18 years old.
I essentially skipped my senior year of high school and raced my bike full time. I was a member of the U.S. national team for three years.
Q: When did you leave?
A: Basically, I retired in 1992. It was after my best season. I had won my third national championship victory as a junior and had come in sixth place in the world championships in Athens, Greece.
The decision at that time was that I was too young for the 1992 Olympics. I was faced with, should I stick around and hope for the best and take a shot at making the 1996 team or go to college? And I opted to go to college. I don't regret that at all.
Q: You your let employees bring their dogs to work. That's a pretty relaxed working environment. Why did you set it up that way?
A: I don't think I would call it relaxed. If anything, it's quite intense. ... But, what we're known for, I hope, is taking care of our employees.
I aim to create an environment where my staff can do their best work. Those things that we do — like the dog-friendly office and our flexible time off, and the programs that we implement like Culture Cash where we give our employees $500 a year to spend on local culture activities, or our health cash program that pays people to work out, or our company gym, go down the list — this is all meant to reward and support people every day that make Zogics the best company that it can be.
Q: You told me four years ago that you ran Zogics without a business plan and didn't intend to have one. Are you still operating that way, or have you become more structured?
A: If anything, I think we're less structured. I think this environment, especially, highlights the importance of being flexible and nimble and being able to reinvent on the fly because the business environment, the economy, the industries we serve, are changing drastically in unprecedented ways.
By maintaining an open mind, we're better able to identify opportunities and pursue new businesses that, if we were locked into a well-defined road map, we might otherwise miss.