Five Days In Europe: The Fitness Industry Is Alive And Well Across The Globe

Yes that is me in a coffee shop in Amsterdam and no not one of THOSE Coffee Shops ;) . I love coffee and was in that business for six years running a chain of cafes and a full roasting operation. So heading to Amsterdam I always enjoy some great espresso, after all Amsterdam is where coffee was spread around the world from in the 17th and 18th centuries. But that's not why I went this time. It was for a more interesting reason.

When one of the biggest players in the global fitness business invites you to come along to Europe and lend a hand, well who's to say no ? Getting to meet executives from some of the leading clubs chains in the UK and EU in general as well as distributors for Star Trac in the EU, Middle East and Africa is a wonderful learning experience. The information gleaned tells you something about where the bricks and mortar fitness business is heading from a global perspective. That helps me keep a perspective on trends and enables us to serve our customers at Fitmarc, Integerus and Fitsomo even better. More than anything seeing the turnaround at Star Trac continue through the eyes of its owner, Michael Bruno, as I have over the past few years, continues to be a motivating experience. There is no one I've met or known, save a handful of people including my partner and friend Robert Dyer and my wife Maureen O'Rourke, who are as committed to success and the customer as Michael Bruno. That he invites me to contribute to his global business is an honor I relish.

What's On The Mind Of Club Owners and Operators

In the interest of confidentiality, I can't disclose who we met with exactly, but what I learned was that many clubs are focusing on i) elevating their group fitness and in particular indoor cycling studios and classes and ii) focusing on small group training. Sounds like the US a bit doesn't it ? There is also keen interest in alternative cardio, particularly around Star Trac's approaching launch of the Commercial Treadclimber, which is likely to be a significant home run for the Star Trac brand. As with most mature markets, the UK market is going through the bifurcation trend of consumers, with budget and niche studios taking larger share. This only serves to reemphasize the need for smart competitors to get very focused on their core business models.

In 2010 IHRSA's Alison O'Kane has this to say about the European market in the Reuter's article Tighter Belts Shape Health Club Industry:

"Clubs doing well in Europe and the United States are either high end or budget clubs, because people want to cut back while still keeping gym memberships," said IHRSA spokesperson Alison O'Kane. "It's squeezing the middle market a lot...."Europe and the United States are the most advanced markets, so the trends will start there," O'Kane said. "There are more clubs open in Europe but America has more club members on average."

According to the European Health and Fitness Associations Annual Report the EU marketplace generates 22 Million Euros in annual revenues with 40,000 public and private facilities that serve 44 million members. This is of comparable size to the US market. Despite recent economic struggles things are looking up. There is a lot we can learn by paying attention to the European marketplace.

What do you think about the health club industry in Europe ? Do you see a similar focus on group fitness and small group training in the states ? I think there are many similarities and some differences but I'd love to hear your point of view.

About the author:

Bryan O’Rourke is a health club industry expert, technologist, financier, shareholder and executive in several fitness companies. He works for Fitmarc, which delivers Les Mills programs to over 700 facilities in the US. He advises successful global brands, serves as a member of the GGFA Think Tank and serves as CEO of the Fitness Industry Technology Council. To learn more contact Bryan here today .

Club Industry 2012 - A Great Industry Event In Vegas

Club Industry 2012 was another great event in the health club industry. While the move from its traditional Chicago base surprised some, I frankly found the event venue to be fantastic. It certainly was for Michael Bruno and several of his global brands, including Star Trac, Stairmaster and Schwinn. Mr. Bruno was very happy in particular about Star Trac winning Club Industry's Best of the Best awards for his E-TRxe Treadmill. He was also excited about displaying the soon to be released commercial TreadClimber . I'm hearing there is a lot more to come from this industry visionary.

During a Thursday evening dinner at Cafe Chloe, owned and operated by Michael Bruno's long time friend Chef Piero Broglia (the chef was Sinatra's favorite chef in Las Vegas by the way) Michael played host to a list of industry leaders and celebrities. David Patchell-Evans, ("Patch" as many friends call him) CEO and founder of Good Life Fitness was there, among many other health club industry titans. Retired lightweight champion Ray Boom Boom Mancini was also in attendance. By the way, if you like Italian food check out Cafe Chloe next time your in Vegas; and thanks Michael and Lin Quing for being such wonderful hosts and industry leaders.

So what did you think about the Club Industry show this year ? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

 About the author:

Bryan O’Rourke is a health club industry expert, technologist, financier, and shareholder and executive in several fitness companies. He advises several successful global brands, serves as a member of the GGFA Think Tank and serves as CEO of the Fitness Industry Technology Council. To learn more contact Bryan here today .


The 2011 Club Industry Show In Chicago - A Few Highlights

A lot went on at Club industry this year. Perhaps you read my prior post regarding the roundtable conducted by Michael Scott Scudder on what is happening in the fitness industry, if not check it out here. There were other interesting developments at the show so I thought I'd share a few highlights.

First, kudos to my friend and colleague David Wright for his MYZONE concept. MYZONE is a unique solution that I think a lot of club owners should check out. When I talk about the health club business needing to deliver member service both inside and outside the four walls and on a 24/7 basis, solutions like MYZONE represent what I am referring to. I was also glad to see Mike Leveque, who I was able to work with at Star Trac, involved with this company. Learn more about MYZONE here.

Second, it is always a delight to see someone you respect so much at a show like Club Industry and that certainly applies to my colleague Denise Lee Yohn. I follow her writing and views closely. Marketing and branding are changing for a lot of reasons, therefore I enjoyed seeing her presentation on how customer experience is marketing. Check out Denise's videos here to learn more. Operationalizing brands is an important concept more health clubs need to understand and embrace.

Third, Cary Wing's presentation on physician referral programs was a great one (to learn more visit Cary's web site ). Medically integrated fitness centers are an important and interesting trend and so are physician referrals . I also really enjoyed spending time with Star Trac owner Michael Bruno. Star Trac's turnaround is certainly underway and a slew of new customers and new products is moving that company forward ! We had a great dinner and I loved spending time with Michael, my friend Sal Pellegrino and others from the Star Trac team. Many thanks to all of you, including my partner and friend Robert Dyer, for making this years Club Industry a great one.

So tell me Bryan O'Rourke, were you able to attend Club Industry this year ? What do you think about it being relocated to Las Vegas in 2012 ? What things did you discover at Club Industry this year ? I look forward to hearing from you !

About the author Bryan O’Rourke:

Bryan O’Rourke is a health club industry expert, technologist, financier, shareholder and executive in several fitness and health club business service companies. He is also a partner in The Health Club For Women and Chairman of the Medical Fitness Association’s Education Committee. To learn more contact Bryan here today .

Mike McSweeney - Fitness Legend And Difference Maker

Heading back to the U.S. today from China but not before getting to visit with one of the world's great ambassadors of fitness - Michael McSweeney. My partner Robert Dyer, and I have gotten to know Michael over the past few years in our work with Les Mills, which we distribute through Fitmarc in 12 states in the south central U.S.

Michael was an early creator of the BODYPUMP program, he also helped to create RPM and BODYATTACK, among many other accomplishments. The man was behind training and inspiring tens of thousands of people who now spread a fitness and healthy living philosophy around the world. More than that Michael is a great person. He, his wife Mary and two sons live in Hong Kong and he remains active in the health and fitness community. Follow Michael McSweeney on twitter if you can.

The health and fitness industry is made up of many people like Mike McSweeney, although not all of them as accomplished. They made and make a difference in so many people's lives. This leads me to a question.

If you are in the health and fitness business who was your Michael McSweeney ? Contact me, Bryan O'Rourke, and share your story. Who inspired you and made a difference in your career in health and fitness or in your regime to become healthier ? Let me know and thanks Michael for taking time out to say hello.

PS: I want thank Michael Bruno who contacted Carlo from Isola and insisted McSweeney and I visit him for dinner. Isola is the best Italian restaurant in all of Hong Kong. Thanks again Michael Bruno - Carlo Speranza was terrific and the great fresh Italian food at Isola's in Hong Kong was outstanding !

Michael Bruno - The Man Behind Star Trac's Future

It was a pleasant evening in Chicago at Club Industry last year when an associate asked me to join him for dinner; he wanted to introduce me to someone. At the time I wasn’t certain who I’d be meeting but it turned out to be Michael Bruno, the recent acquirer of Star Trac and as I later discovered a legend in the fitness industry.

Early in my career I worked for Al Copeland, the Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken founder and entrepreneur. He was a self-made, charming, street smart visionary. I had not met many like him before or after my nine year run as one of his key executives, that is until that night in October over dinner at Club Industry. Certain things about Michael reminded me of Al.

“You need to come see my factory in Xiamen”, Michael said to me, after explaining his thinking behind the Star Trac acquisition. I thought it a kind offer, one that some people might extend out of courtesy but not seriously. However, Michael Bruno isn’t “some people”. Months later, after learning of my plans to speak to his business development team, I got an email; “Bryan, I’ll be heading to Xiamen following the Star Trac meeting. Why don’t you tag along ?” True to his word he invited me to China to see his factory, and so in my quest to understand more about the global fitness business, I made the travel arrangements. Little did I know what I would find.

Michael's Company Land America

“Bryan, why don’t you get over to the hotel and clean up?”, Michael asked me after landing in Xiamen following eighteen hours in the air with a quick connection through Hong Kong. “I’m heading to the factory. Call me when your ready and I’ll have you picked up.” 

One thing I can say, having spent time with many accomplished business people, is that Michael is one of the most gracious. He proudly tells of his annual company party held at a stadium in Xiamen where thousands of his employees and their families celebrate each year. Michael calls it his birthday party. But today there wasn’t a party, his focus was getting to his factory, a huge nearly million square foot operation that he built from scratch.

I took Michael’s advice and after a shower met him at his offices where he was deeply engaged with his managers and engineers. He was working on innovation for his Star Trac line of cardio and strength equipment and the mantra, which I heard over and over again during my time with he and his team, was “quality”.

In the deepest and best sense Michael is old school.He believes quality in the long run is the greatest competitive advantage. I recall reading a quote from Power Plate International CEO Gregg Hammann in a Club Industry release. Hammann was the CEO of Nautilus in 2007 when he helped persuade the Nautilus board of directors to buy Land America for $72 million. That deal was terminated after Hammann left Nautilus, and Sherborne Investors took control of the Nautilus board. Here is what Greg shared with CBI:

“Michael's highly intelligent. He was always a guy that you could have very direct and frank conversations with. Michael doesn't pull punches with people. He's a man of high integrity. He does the right thing for the customer. The more he's involved in the fitness industry, the better it is for all of us. He's a not a public relations CEO. What you're going to see is him do the right thing for the business, the right thing for the industry, the right thing for customers.”

Greg was right and interestingly in January, my friend Stuart Goldman wrote an article, “Nautilus Commercial Buyer Remains A Mystery To The Fitness Industry”. Indeed Michael and his companies were not known to many, except those in the highest posts of the global fitness equipment business.

Few people make lasting impressions on me but as I followed him along on the factory floor I recalled my days with my former boss Al Copeland. Michael knew the names of many of the 1,400 workers in the plant, who greeted him with affection. It became apparent that the man has a deep understanding of all aspects of manufacturing as he personally inspected equipment and queried his team on various procedures and process improvements. The factory employs 90 engineers and applies state of the art manufacturing equipment and practices: from automated robotic welders to intense quality systems (the facility is ISO, ETL, CE, ECI and FDA certified). Strength equipment, treadmills, aircraft components and medical equipment devices, Land America builds them all and has got to be one of the finest manufacturing companies in the world. You have to see it to believe it. Now I knew why he was so proud and now I think I understand what Greg Hammann was talking about.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Michael knows what he’s doing and it comes from well over twenty years experience. He had a string of business relationships that involved producing for many well known brands - he just didn’t own the brands himself. He was and remains a major manufacturer for Nautilus among others and has been courted by several well known fitness equipment suppliers at one point or another. He more boldly and strategically entered the fitness business by acquiring the StairMaster and Schwinn brands from Nautilus Inc. earlier in 2010. His more recent acquisition of Star Trac was another aggressive move, as Michael had increasingly and strategically upgraded the innovative capabilities of his team over the years, providing him with a unique global position to achieve vertical integration. The hard work seems poised to pay off. Now not only does Michael Bruno make the product, he owns the brands as well.

Star Trac

When you spend time with a person like Michael, one raised as the son of a police chief in Youngstown, Ohio, whose first job was in the concrete business and ultimately made his way to live in China for over twenty years building a huge company from scratch, you might hear a good story or two. So when we visited about his acquisition of Star Trac Michael asked me, “Have I told you about the fortune cookie?” Apparently, when evaluating the Star Trac opportunity, Michael reached out to speak with Jim Doody, Star Trac’s former CEO and owner. He arranged to meet Jim in San Francisco to discuss a potential transaction. The next day Michael had Dim Sum with his family, whom he took along for the trip. “It was the best Dim Sum I ever had and that's saying something”, Michael said referring to his long history in China. “The funny thing was they brought out these fortune cookies after the meal. Its amazing how good the food was, but ironically there aren’t fortune cookies in China Bryan”, he laughed. Out of his wallet Michael pulled out the fortune, which he keeps laminated to one of his business cards. It said: “The next few days are a lucky time for you. You can take a chance.” With that Michael took the chance and structured the business deal which added another valuable brand, Star Trac, to his portfolio. Indeed, a great story and one of several I was able to hear.

Star Trac has had a bold and progressive past that hit a speed bump in 2010 under its previous leadership. The business had been undercapitalized and was loosing money amid tough economic times.  Michael was one of a few strategic industry players capable of pulling off the deal. Now a lot of work is going into Star Trac’s offering and it is a big focus of the organization. In inspecting the factory and meeting the man who is now behind the business I am thinking that the Star Trac organization has been acquired by someone who can make good on its future. Over dinner in Xiamen one evening watching Michael interact and catch up with his Vice President Luca Tonarini, assistant Leon Chen and friends and associates I felt pretty certain about Star Trac and from what I’ve learned, I’ll pay closer attention to my fortune cookie when I next dine on Chinese.

Please contact me, Bryan O'Rourke, and tell me what you think. I'll be sharing another post on my trip to China later in the week. Thanks for reading and following along !