She started a jazzy little fitness class in 1969. In 2006, Judi Sheppard Missett's Jazzercise generated $76 million-its most successful year ever. Now, that's staying power.
“Where do you begin?” muses Jazzercise president, chief executive officer and founder Judi Sheppard Missett, 62. “In 38 years I’ve been through everything. When I first started doing this program, I was a professional dancer in Chicago and my dancer friends were grumbling about [Jazzercise] because it wasn’t for people who wanted to dance for a living—it was for people who just wanted to have fun dancing. People still don’t always know how to fit us into a category—maybe because we reach out to such a diverse community and have so much variety.”
Because of Missett’s fervent belief in mixing it up, Jazzercise may be the original fusion program. “People might really like hip-hop or Latin dance, but how many people want to do just that all the time? And what if you like lots of styles of movement? How do you have time to go to all those classes? So our programs include a wide variety of dance, resistance training, Pilates, yoga and even kickboxing moves. Our music varies from Diana Krall to the Pussycat Dolls to Gwen Stefani. Our customers’ taste in music is as varied as their ages and sizes. The idea is to have something for everyone, and for everyone to have fun and feel good about themselves.”
Missett notes that many fitness businesses make the mistake of trying to bring people in with gimmicks, instead of with sound, proven programs. “In this business, fads come and go constantly, but that’s not the secret. What really draws people and sustains growth over time is quality, consistency and strong customer service.”
Missett, who won the IDEA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, remembers when IDEA co-founder Kathie Davis came to Jazzercise’s first offices in Carlsbad over 25 years ago to discuss plans to launch IDEA. “Over the years it’s been wonderful to watch the association grow. I appreciate IDEA’s integrity, because I know what that takes. It’s always harder to fight for quality—but it pays off with longevity and success in the long run.”
Missett has learned other valuable lessons as she’s developed Jazzercise into a top-ranking business with over 6,800 franchises in all 50 states and 30 countries. Around the world, 30,000 classes are taught weekly. Missett regularly teaches four classes a week, still choreographs the programs and is firmly at the helm of the organization, which has over 150 corporate employees.
“One of the hardest challenges is saying no to people or ideas that aren’t right for the business. But I’ve learned that you can’t keep negative people around you just because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
She recalls that consultants once gave her dubious advice that she followed—for a while. “At first I thought they must be right; after all, they have MBAs! So we spent a good deal of time and energy, but I finally realized that it never felt right to me. When I pulled the plug on it, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. I learned how important it is to follow your gut instinct.”
Staying positive and following your passion are ideals that Missett values in her own Jazzercise management team and that she passes on to aspiring fitness entrepreneurs. “When I started, there were people who said Jazzercise couldn’t work, but I didn’t pay attention because I was too busy! I was like a whirling dervish. I learned from my mom that if you love it and believe it, you do it. The desire to fulfill a dream can make all the difference. I’ve been able to do my passions—fitness, dance and theatre—and combine all three. How lucky can you be?” she asks.
Knowing Missett’s power of conviction and remarkable determination, and given the nearly four decades of hard work behind Jazzercise’s success, it seems doubtful that luck had much to do with it.