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 caf├®, 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. ÔÇÿWhen 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, ÔÇÿI 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.
Everybody knows.”

Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.