TOP BUN

DENVER VIDEO PRODUCER LEE SPIEKER LIKES BRINGING UP THE REAR.RADICAL CHEEK DENVER'S LEE SPIEKER HAS MADE A FORTUNE BEING A BUTTHEAD.

Heinie headquarters is located in an unpretentious industrial park in the city of Sheridan, overshadowed by a drive-in movie screen and obscured from view by highway ramps and road construction. It is from this unlikely setting that Lee Spieker, the Colorado-based brains behind the Buns of Steel fitness video phenomenon, manages a business empire he has built one behind at a time.

In the world of hard-body wannabes, Buns of Steel is an instantly recognizable name, even if Spieker's is not. The original home video and a long line of anatomical offspring are hot commodities among the workout crowd. Even those people who've never seen the inside of an aerobics studio are probably familiar with the Buns packaging, which features four-color shots of headless, thong-clad beauties blessed with firm thighs and taut tushes. Today even venerable mail-order retailer Columbia House sells videos such as Buns of Steel 3: Buns and More alongside tapes by Cindy Crawford and Fabio, promising purchasers "sleeker, stronger, sexier buns."

The entrepreneurial Spieker produced that video and a handful of others in the late 1980s by shooting back-to-back tapes on tiny budgets in barren Denver studios. Now, after years of near-misses and a close call with bankruptcy, Spieker is basking in a Buns-made bonanza. His productions have muscled their way past such stalwarts as 101 Dalmations and Dumbo to settle near the top of the bestseller charts, earning millions for him and for the Maier Group, his New York-based distributor. Spieker estimates the tapes have reaped $100 million in gross revenues to date.

And there's plenty more where that came from. Wholesale revenues from the overall sale of home videos reached $5.8 billion in 1993, according to Billboard magazine, and an increasing amount of that is being spent on home fitness tapes. But as might be expected when the scent of big bucks is in the air, the business of making and marketing videos has become a volatile, fickle and cutthroat one.

Whether or not there's room in those shark-infested waters for a nice guy--a term even his former business associates concede describes Spieker--appears more doubtful all the time. The Buns phenomenon has inspired numerous copycat releases, including some made by the same women whose bodacious backsides helped catapult the Buns tapes into the financial stratosphere. Now the Maier Group says it's preparing to sell its own line of competing videos, and Spieker worries that he's getting the bum's rush from Maier's future projects.

But Spieker has fought back, producing a new line of fitness tapes that, while not matching the success of the Buns line, has at least allowed him to maintain a hands-on approach to his business. Today Spieker, who hit the big time only after years of pursuing far less profitable ventures, looks back nostalgically on the brainstorm that took him from the bottom to the top of the video business. Says Denver's king of can-do spirit, "I hit a gusher."

He's made his fortune helping America shape up, but the 41-year-old Spieker is no muscle-bound Hulk Hogan lookalike. If he resembles any celebrity, it's Robert Goulet. A young Robert Goulet, that is--and one who's clearly not used to dressing up. Spieker, who drives a Jeep and lives in an unpretentious townhome, constantly tugs at his tie, grabs at the collar of his denim shirt and stretches his neck as if he's trying to stifle a cough. His only extravagance, he says, is hand-tooled cowboy boots. And he has only seven pairs of those.

Though he appears fit and claims to work out every day, customers won't catch a glimpse of Spieker's own buns in the videos. "I have no business doing that," he says. Besides, he admits reluctantly, none of his body parts could properly be deemed "steely."

A love of athletics--or at least the marketing of it--runs through the Spieker family's veins. Lee Spieker's father, LeRoy, worked for Safe-Play, a Nebraska company that made football equipment and gym gear. Three of LeRoy's eight children found careers in athletic gear, including Lee, who originally set out to be a veterinarian but dropped out of Colorado State University after deciding he couldn't face seven more years of school.

LeRoy Spieker helped jump-start his son's career in 1971, when Safe-Play decided to take over the Tuf-Wear company, a New York City firm that made custom boxing gloves and training bags for fighters. The Nebraska company needed someone to move to Manhattan for a year, learn the business, then bring the craft back home to the heartland. LeRoy hired Lee as Safe-Play's boxing heir apparent.

At the time, Tuf-Wear was a one-room shop owned and operated by 77-year-old Gil Spillert, who was looking to retire and move to Florida. There's no telling what Spillert thought when he first set eyes on his apprentice, a twenty-year-old dropout from Sidney, Nebraska, with a beard halfway to his chest. But Spieker was in his "artsy-craftsy-work-with-my-hands" mode, and learning to cut leather and design boxing gloves seemed like a good way to make a living.

To Spieker, it also seemed a glamorous life. Heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner, the "Bayonne Bleeder" who achieved momentary fame in 1975 when he managed to stay upright through a fifteen-round drubbing by Muhammad Ali, would sometimes come by the shop. And new fighters from gym owner Gill Clancey's stable would chew the fat while they were fitted for gloves.

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