Icons & Innovators
Call it a destination, a haven, a community or even a resort—but the one thing you won’t be calling Life Time Fitness is just a gym. With attractions ranging from indoor/outdoor water parks to hair and nail salons, basketball courts to rock climbing caverns, a kids’ computer center to a full-service spa and café, Life Time Fitness creates a complete family wellness experience that is the unique vision of its founder, chairman and chief executive officer, Bahram Akradi.
“Our success is a function of our commitment to our customers’ experience,” he says. ‘When you do what’s right for the customer, the other success measures follow.” Since Akradi founded Life Time Fitness in 1992, the company has grown to 72 locations in 16 states, with more than 15,000 employees and over $650 million in annual revenues in 2007. Today Akradi is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in fitness, and the company’s phenomenal growth routinely creates headlines on financial pages.
Not bad for someone who started his fitness career selling club memberships while he was still in college. Originally from Tehran, Iran, Akradi came to the United States at the age of 17 and began his health club career in sales at Nautilus Fitness Center while studying engineering at the University of Colorado. He became a part owner of the company, which was renamed U.S. Swim and Fitness, and was instrumental in its growth before the company was sold to Bally’s and Akradi went on to launch the Life Time Fitness brand.
Akradi’s legendary dedication to the customer experience began early in his career. “I noticed that so much of what we were doing in this industry 25 years ago was centered on the club’s point of view, not the customer’s. We sold long-term contracts that protected us, but not them. People only had 3 days to cancel, and I knew no one could get to know a club very well in 3 days. I thought, ‘I can’t believe how we treat members this way and they keep coming in. I wonder what would happen if we treated them the right way?’”
Akradi decided to find out when he opened his own club—with no long-term contracts and a 30-day money-back guarantee. “A lot of people who work for me today still remember those days, when people told us we wouldn’t be in business more than 6 months.”
The mission of Life Time Fitness is to provide an experience for the whole family that is “educational, entertaining, friendly, inviting, functional and innovative.” Continually enhancing and evolving that experience is an ongoing challenge for Akradi and his staff. “Our focus hasn’t wavered from the inception of the company, and we’re continually modifying our programs and facilities so that they improve and don’t go backward,” says Akradi. “It’s a relentless effort and a lot of work. I think as a team we work more hours than anyone else I know. It’s like anything else that requires commitment. You can’t win the Tour de France just because you want to. You have to train, sweat and endure some pain.”
Akradi knows what he’s talking about when it comes to cycling; he is a cyclist who regularly rides for hours, even in the brisk weather of Chanhassen, Minnesota, where Life Time Fitness is based. He regularly teaches cycling classes at his facilities, and he’s the founder of the highly successful Life Time Fitness Triathlon Series.
Akradi believes the future of the health and fitness industry will depend on its priorities. “I hope that we don’t follow the path of the airline industry, for example, and get into price games. We do more service for our customers and communities by focusing on delivering value rather than deals and by providing great places for people to get and stay healthy.”
His advice for fitness professionals is straightforward. “Do the
right thing,” he says. “Avoid gimmicks and short-term strategies.” Success
isn’t about any one thing, Akradi believes. “It’s about the way you have to
think. You have to focus on long-term value to the customer, even if it means
you don’t get big rewards right away. You know when you’re taking a shortcut,
whether it’s in your workout or in business. If you just take a minute or 15
minutes of quiet time, you know what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s no mystery.
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.