By Melinda Collins
The thus far futile search for immortality, or at least the extension of life, is nothing new. Although there is no elixir, a healthy diet and exercise is the closest formula we have to a fountain of youth. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our forebears demanded peak physical performance and, while the pursuit is no longer subsistence-driven, fitness has lost none of its appeal.
Although the individual motives may vary, the fitness industry has forged an almost cult-like following and, while the fads have come and gone, the goal remains the same; to hold the ghosts of entropy at bay.
Even if the ravages of time always win, Les Mills International CEO Phillip Mills is enjoying the battle.
The Les Mills philosophy is simple; as long as people prefer to live than to die and to be healthy rather than sick, fitness has a place. If the five million people in more than 80 countries around the world who pump, pedal and stretch their way to Les Mills programmes every week are anything to go by, ‘alive and healthy’ certainly has the popular vote.
But the real story is how the Mills family parlayed a single downtown Auckland gym into a multi-million dollar business exporting ‘exertainment’ fitness programmes. It is a tale of physical prowess, family tradition and entrepreneurial carpe diem.
In 1968 a man and his wife opened a small gym in Auckland. That man was international level sportman Les Mills, the woman, his equally athletic wife Colleen. The pair represented New Zealand at Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games throughout two decades. Both had successful businesses under their corporate belt. They had a family, they bought a gym.
The Les Mills gym in Victoria Street, Auckland opened in 1968, followed by others in Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin.
Both the Mills’ children, Phillip and Donna, inherited their parents’ penchant for physical pursuits, representing New Zealand at Commonwealth or Olympic level. Phillip’s talents were such that he was awarded a scholarship to the renowned University of California in Los Angeles. It was the late 1970s and the fitness craze in the US was beginning to boom.
Phillip brought back the new idea of group exercise to music programmes firing up in California and Australia — and jazzercised the nation. Four decades later fitness fans in more than 80 countries follow programmes created by Les Mills International. And Phillip Mills is now heading the company his parents started. Now, that’s what you call a legacy.
Inspired by what he witnessed in the USA, Phillip Mills developed his own group exercise system that would later grow to include eight group fitness programmes currently distributed by Les Mills International. The standardised programming and revolutionary system for training instructors are now distributed to 14,000 fitness clubs in 80 countries, with an estimated five million participants a week.
Les Mills’ products — choreographed fitness moves with accompanying music — are a global fitness phenomenon. While it has maintained its 10 gym establishments in New Zealand, its group fitness classes are the real engine of growth and driver of revenue.
A global network of 70,000 trained and certified Les Mills instructors receive standardised choregraphy and further training every three months by the 1000 master trainers around the world. “Essentially we’re a licencing business, licencing our intellectual property around the world — we’re exporting an invisible product of Kiwi expertise,” Mills says.
The aerobics revolution turned gyms into a social and fitness phenomenon. “It was a transformational period in the business for us… and an interesting cultural period for New Zealand too. We had people lining up outside 50 metres down the street to get into our classes.”
And it’s just getting bigger and better. “We’ve developed the critical mass and grunt of a great network of clubs around the world, now we’re ready to roll out heaps more innovation to change the game and shift up a gear. This is set to be our biggest innovation year ever.”
Les Mills is set to launch its ninth programme later in September, the first of five being rolled out over 18 months. Sh’Bam — which is currently being piloted in 70 gyms around the world — is expected to be huge.
“It’s a wild, fun class, but simple enough for anyone to do. The pilot results suggest this will be one of the most popular classes we’ve ever run.”
Following the company’s $16 million Christchurch development last year, Les Mills is already set to open its eleventh gym in April 2011 at the Britomart Precinct. “We get to work with gyms around the world and bring what we see back to New Zealand.
“We’re expecting the new Les Mills gym to be the hippest, most modern gym in the world.”
Despite the business acumen and entrepreneurial nous he undoubtedly possesses, he recognises that it was, in part, a case of right product, right time. “If you look at the home exercise movies of the 1980s, two steps to the left, two steps to the right — when we hit the world with classes like Bodypump, that’s what the world wanted.
“The feminine style aerobics of the time had nothing of the appeal of what we had. People wanted athletic results driven classes.”
An industry in overdrive
Just as there are no shortcuts to health and fitness, there are no shortcuts to forging a successful business empire. It is much like the evolution of the fitness industry which is constantly growing and evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of a global marketplace.
The gym concept of yesterday has been flipped on its head, Mills says. “Traditionally, gyms were pretty boring. When I started working in the gym all we had were freeweights, barbells, dumbells and those little old exercise bikes with a speedometer. As a gym instructor, a big part of my job was to take magazines around to people so they wouldn’t be bored to death.”
With the 1980s came computerised bikes and in the 1990s, cardio-theatre. “There would be lines of televisions in front of your bikes and you could plug your headphones in.”
Next came RPM classes, Les Mills’ take on spinning classes. “All of a sudden you moved to music motivating you, a teacher motivating you, people motivating you, a social atmosphere, a cool, interesting studio design with wild lighting.
“The transition from the old exercise bike with a two inch pedometer on it to this whole new activity which instead of hating — people loved. They started coming along for fun, and interestingly, they will burn two or three times more calories than they did on the old bike.”
Les Mills can also lay claim to employing New Zealand’s first personal trainer. “Twenty years ago, personal trainers didn’t exist. We introduced the first personal trainer in New Zealand to our Auckland gym in 1990 and today we have 80 full time personal trainers in that same Auckland gym.”
It’s given rise to the latest trend — small group personal training. “You have a personal trainer, but you’re working out with half a dozen other people to push each other along.”
He’s often asked why a personal trainer is more effective and is amused by the question. “It’s an appointment in my diary,” he laughs. “If I was going to be working out by myself, I could find a million reasons to not work out that day. With a personal trainer, it’s a scheduled time and day.”
Father of fitness
Phillip Mills is one of the pioneers of the international fitness industry and a driving force behind the popularisation of the modern group exercise experience. He was Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for 2004 and co-wrote Fighting Globesity with wife, Dr Jackie Mills.
But there’s much more to this father of fitness than meets the eye, as his definition of success reflects. “My definition of success is making the world a better place.”
He’s a staunch advocate for ‘green business’ and all it entails. “I’m very concerned about the ecological changes in the world now — we’re running out of natural resources; oil, farmable land, water, fish in the oceans, mineral resources. We have to learn to use resources much more efficiently and use more renewable resources.”
Mills is working with a group of senior business leaders lobbying the government to develop green business policies in New Zealand. “This is important to the future of our economy and to the future of quality of life in New Zealand.”
Operating under the Cleantech banner, the premise is simple. The world economy grew in the 20th century on the back of a carbon economy, fuelled by cheap fuel. The megatrend of the 21st century will be a low carbon economy, he says.
The transformation the group is lobbying for, is the move from oil-fired growth into clean technology, and they predict it will be the largest economic transformation the world has seen since the industrial revolution. “This is the coming economic boom in the world and the countries who get onto this boom early will be very successful — the leading economies of the future.”
But his biggest battle to date, as one would expect, is the obesity pandemic. He says there is a moral imperative for people to look after their own health. The cost of healthcare is rising so fast the country can’t afford a continuation of the “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” philosophy. “Countries are spending more and more money on their health systems, yet people are getting sicker and sicker. This is said to be the first generation that’s going to die younger than its parents.”
It’s a tough war to wage, he says, but suggests incentivising people to eat better, taxing “junk” foods, legislating physical education in schools and adopting a cycle-friendly society. “Otherwise the cost to the health system is going to increasingly strain our economic system and we’ll be inefficiently and unnecessarily spending money that we need to be spending on other things.”
It’s what has driven his ambition. “The very first thing we did right was to have a strong belief in what we were doing, a strong sense of purpose which is essential in any successful enterprise — it’s never been about the money for us.
“It’s about improving people’s health, improving people’s physical results, their self esteem.”
The final word on immortality may lie in the hands of science, but Phillip Mills life’s work has surely added a multitude of years to those of individuals the world over, and this is as close to a fountain of youth as we’ve come.