World’s largest group fitness provider turns 50
Marking half a century in the fitness industry this year, the family behind Les Mills, the world’s largest group fitness provider, have shared their remarkable story of struggle, success and striving for a fitter planet.
Behind every business sits a defining core belief that drives the company forward. For the Mills family, it’s a passion for improving the health of others, teamed with the unyielding competitiveness stemming from their rich sporting heritage.
In a Blog on the company website, Les Mills International (LMI) Managing Director Phillip Mills explains “it’s something my dad said when he opened our first club in 1968.
“The job of the fitness industry is to help people fall in love with fitness and that’s a mission we’re still driven by today.”
5th February 2018 marked the company’s 50th anniversary – a rare feat in what is still a young industry. Les Mills started as a tiny gym in Auckland New Zealand and has evolved into a global fitness movement, spanning 23 different programmes including BODYPUMP, BODYCOMBAT AND BODYATTACK.
Today, Les Mills workouts are licensed in 20,000 clubs worldwide, with a team of 140,000 instructors delivering group fitness classes to over six million people a week.
However, it could have been a very different story. Over the past half century, Les Mills has battled banks, con-artists, hostile rivals, natural disasters and personal demons – all of which have shaped the family-owned and operated company that exists today.
At the centre of the Les Mills story are three men and three women – split across three generations – whose lives have all been shaped by their elite sporting backgrounds. These are company founder and four-time Olympian Les Mills Snr, his wife Colleen, who also represented New Zealand at the
Commonwealth Games and who died in 2005, aged 71; their son Phillip and his wife Dr Jackie Mills; along with their two children Diana and Les Mills Jnr.
The origins of modern group fitness can be traced back to 23 Victoria Street West in Auckland. It was here where Les Snr and Colleen opened their first gym in 1968.
Overcoming a tough start in life – his father died when he was 11 – Les had become a celebrated New Zealand athlete and hardworking businessman who decided to branch out into fitness. He’d long had a passion for exercise and strength training, stemming back to his early teens.
Les, who at 83 still rides an indoor bike while watching TV and often lifts weights in his garage, recalls “I was fascinated by strength particularly – always have been.
“So as a boy I sent away for the Charles Atlas course I read about in a magazine. I wanted to kick sand in the bullies’ faces like Charles Atlas did and find a girl on the beach who would smoke cigarettes with me!
“Then during the 60s, I was in the States on an athletics scholarship and there was a sunrise culture of gyms growing, so I decided to bring it back to Auckland.
“We found a gym in Auckland which had just gone bankrupt - the American chap behind it was a fly-by-nighter who sold life memberships and ran off with the money - and we bought it off the liquidator for about $3,500.
Opening in February 1968, Les was confronted with a large line of angry people wanting to workout and refusing to pay any more for the privilege.
He struck a deal to honour their memberships for a year if they’d commit to the gym beyond that and then set about adding new members to boost cash-flow. The gym started out as a sport-based facility, mainly employing athletes the family knew through competing as staff.
Les Snr remembers “we did a lot of circuit training there.
“We didn’t have aerobic classes as such, but we ran circuits for the rugby trainers, the rowers, time circuits, just like the circuits you see now.
“Colleen put a huge effort into getting the gym off the ground and everyone helped with everything. We had to work pretty hard at it and there was no goofing around – times were tough.”
After a less than auspicious start, the gym gradually began to take off. Further sites were added across New Zealand and Australia, forming the basis of the 12-strong Les Mills NZ club chain that still exists today.
Strength training was, and still remains, a big part of those gyms, but it was the high-octane group exercise classes which really put them on the map.
Having moved to larger premises on Victoria Street West (where the club remains today), the family converted the original Auckland site into a small group exercise studio.
Phillip, who had returned from an athletics scholarship at UCLA and was on the cusp of the company’s eureka moment, remembers “it was very much in the mould of the boutique clubs you see today.
“I saw the birth of aerobics in the US and brought a friend from the UCLA track team who had been teaching classes out to New Zealand to help us get it started.
“I’d just spent a year in the music industry managing a rock band, so we brought in these dancers and actors who were incredible performers to teach classes, plus a lot of elite athletes. This was possibly the first time fitness and entertainment were brought together.
“We took the old aerobic dance-type classes and transformed them into sports classes with dumbbells and machines for circuits. Jackie and I would spend hours trying out different moves in our living room, to the point where we actually wore out the carpet!”
“The classes became so popular we were bursting out through the walls of our studio. We built another studio, then another, and a fourth on the roof, but still we were full to bursting. That’s when we thought, we’re on to something here.”
Fitness meets feminism
What was notable about these classes right from the start of the 1980s was their appeal to women. Here was an offering that brought women into the gym and opened up fitness to a whole new market.
For Jackie Mills, who as LMI Chief Creative Officer oversees creation, production and training of all Les Mills workouts, it was a product of a wider societal movement.
Jackie, who for many years combined her role at Les Mills with a career as a doctor, advises “the 1980s felt like a real time of revolution for women.
“It was a time where women could create their lives with greater freedom and employment opportunities – a time of empowerment.
“It was group fitness that really brought women to gym, because women really liked the social aspect of working out in groups, while developing physical strength was another aspect of the movement.”
Boom and bust
As the classes took off with both sexes, Les Mills began to license them for use by other clubs, first in New Zealand then in 1981 in Australia.
Continued growth saw Les Mills go public in 1984, while a 1987 investment company buy-out enabled Les Snr and Colleen to divest and pursue new adventures. However, things then went badly wrong.
One month after the takeover, the 1987 financial crash wiped out the stock market and left Les Mills’ new owners in financial ruin. Having stayed in the business with a small shareholding, Phillip was thrust into buy-back talks with liquidators in a bid to save the family firm from oblivion.
Phillip explains “I was in my early 30s with a young family, looking at a loan $10 million to save the business – a hell of a lot of money back then.
“It was a scary decision and a big gamble, but the family name was above the doors and I wasn’t about to let it shut.”
Through a loan from the liquidators and the sell-off of Les Mills clubs in Australia, Phillip took charge and the company was saved. Yet, despite Phillip and Jackie’s bold vision for a turnaround and their gift for group exercise programs, the tough times continued.
With the business heavily in debt and banks unwilling to back a niche fitness concept, Les Mills spent six years struggling to pay wages and keep the lights on.
Phillip comments “by ’93 I was so burnt out that I’d become pretty depressed. I’d put on weight, wasn’t exercising and it took Jackie to grab hold of me and say ‘Philly, you’ve got to get a grip.’
“So I set myself some goals and one was that I was to make my way up to A-Grade tennis. Of course, I never made it past the Whangarei Open, let alone Wimbledon, but within a year I lost 15 pounds, the depression lifted and the business started to turn a corner.”
Having spent decades honing its standardised exercise programming and teacher training system, the easing of the debt mountain meant Les Mills could once again dare to dream globally.
An Australian partnership with national swim coach and Canberra gym owner Bill Robertson led to the development of the model that took the licensing business worldwide.
In 1997 Phillip founded LMI as a separate company from the Les Mills NZ gyms, to focus on the global licensing business.
However, once again, things were far from straightforward. Having underestimated the required levels of investment, LMI soon started to look like a bridge too far.
Philip recalls “what we thought would cost us $10 million a year to make a success, ended up costing $100 million.
“We badly underestimated the scale of the challenge at the start and actually LMI lost money for its first eight years.
“Having to some extent, nudged my dad out of the business before, I had to ask the old man to come back and help us steady the ship.”
Having recently concluded an eight-year term as Auckland Mayor – one of many colourful career choices that have included Coach, TV Commentator and National Sports Director for Papua New Guinea - Les Snr returned, bringing with him Jill Tattersall, who became LMI Chief Executive from 2001 to 2010.
Les Snr remembers “I’d just lost re-election as Mayor and when Phillip called I thought ‘hang on fella, you don’t have to offer your dear old Dad a job just because he’s out of one’.
“We needed to free up Philip’s creative genius, so he could develop the products, programmes and all the magic. Jill took over the nuts and bolts of the management and I scooted round the place doing contracts and trying to sign the Germans and the French up.”
Inch by inch, the Mills family put LMI back on track and by this point it had become clear that there was an insatiable appetite among club members for these fresh new workouts from New Zealand.
Appealing to both sexes was no doubt an important breakthrough, but that’s also been true of many other workouts since, so what is the secret behind the huge popularity and longevity of Les Mills programmes?
The Secret Sauce
Jackie states “I think for class participants, the appeal is that the programmes deliver great results, create an incredible energy and they stay up to date with the latest moves and music.”
Staying ‘up-to-date’ requires each of the 23 Les Mills programmes to be updated every three months with completely new choreography, music and instructor training.
The Programme Directors scour the globe for the latest learnings, trends and ideas to feed into this creative process. They also listen to hundreds of hours of music in search of the hottest tracks and then it’s the job of the Music Licencing Team to gain permissions from the record labels, or Les Mills Music (the biggest employer of New Zealand musicians) will create cover versions or an original composition.
Explaining that science is the real cornerstone of the results, Jackie adds “we’re always very open about what it takes to put our programmes together as it would be very tough to replicate.
“Our Head of Research Bryce Hastings works with leading academic institutions like Penn State University to make sure all Les Mills classes are independently-tested and this data is used to produce peer-reviewed studies published in academic journals.
“The research insights are harnessed by a team of experts to devise safe and effective choreography for Les Mills programs, which are then screened through thousands of hours of in-club trialling before being released to the wider market.”
Images: Phillip, Jackie and Diana with Les (top); Les and Colleen Mills opened their first gym in 1968 in Auckland (middle) and one of LMI's contemporary program (below).
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