Chris Clawson where he 'belongs’ at Life Fitness

Seems Chris Clawson was being groomed for the top job at Life Fitness starting a dozen years ago -- he just didn’t know if he’d really get it. Read more from SNEWS’ chat with Clawson about his return to the company.
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A dozen years ago, when Chris Clawson was treadmill project manager at Life Fitness, he sat down with company founder Augie Nieto and executive vice president Herman Rutgers to discuss his future.

“Where do you see yourself at Life Fitness?” Nieto asked him.

Clawson let a small smile sneak across his face and looked at Nieto, pausing briefly before answering. He noted a smile creep onto Nieto’s face, too.

“Where you’re sitting,” Clawson answered, perhaps a bit cheekily.

“Right answer,” Nieto responded.

Clawson, who was indeed named president of Life Fitness the first week of August, related this story to SNEWS® about his 1998 conversation as he was driving home from a trip to Australia, among other places. In the two-plus months since he’s been at the helm, he’s spent more time on the road than home and this quick trip meant only two days there before he was off again. In the next three months, Clawson reported he has trips planned to Japan, Hong Kong, Netherlands and other parts of Europe, not to mention the company’s plant in Kentucky and other U.S. destinations -- all to meet with just about every last employee he can.

Still, making his way into the president’s suite at the Schiller Park headquarters near Chicago was never a given. But he had spent time in various positions as a part of the grooming until he left Life Fitness in 2004. In early 2007, he was named president of Matrix and, when the Johnson Fitness brands merged under one roof a few months later, he was named president and CEO there.

Leaving Johnson, he said, was one of the most difficult and wrenching decisions he had to make.

“The only position I would have left for was the one I was given,” he said. “It was a terrible decision to have to make to leave there.”

Wrenching aside, rumor has it that a cheer actually arose from inside the Life Fitness headquarters when the company-wide email announcement went out. Meanwhile, Nathan Pyles returned to the president’s role at Johnson. Click here to see that Aug. 25, 2010, SNEWS interview with Pyles

Now what?

After stints for the last 26 years at various fitness retail and manufacturer businesses -- first being as a sales clerk at Oshman’s in 1984 -- he landed at Life Fitness in 1994 when it was an $80 million company.

“It was a pretty cool place,” he said, because it was just completing its move back to the Chicago area after being in California. “There was a lot of energy.”

Today it’s nearly a $500 million company and it’s still a cool place with a lot of energy, he said -- and one where it felt like a homecoming when he walked through the doors again.

What will he do now that he’s in charge? Keep things running as they are.

“The road it’s been on is a good road,” he said. “I want to be confident, but I don’t want to be seen as anything more than confident.”

Over the years, Life Fitness went through some phases where respondents to SNEWS’ Fitness Retailer survey even called it “arrogant” -- and that’s not something Clawson wants to have people feeling either at retail or in commercial arenas, he said.

“I want Life Fitness to be the easiest company to do business with. Period,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

From getting parts to talking to customer service, he wants to be sure customers like to work with the company.

“We’re poised to do that,” he said of the recent improvements that are on track to make it even better.

Clawson also said he stands behind the Life Fitness retail distribution policy that allows more than one retailer in select markets, as needed. (Click here to see a SNEWS story with Brent Hutton, vice president of the consumer division, on April 16, 2010, discussing that strategy.)

“We may sell to one retailer in a market,” he said, “and that’s true in any industry. Pick appliances. Pick watches. Pick whatever.

“Our job is to create creative and compelling products,” he said, “that allow retailers to be successful.”

Then it’s up to the retailer and the market to decide what happens since Clawson said he believes it’s the experience a customer has in a store that has the largest impact on his or her decision-making process.

“Our job is to pick retailers who can effectively represent our brand,” he said. “Their job is to differentiate themselves in the market.”

Life Fitness will be there for retailers with displays, brochures, its website and other support areas because, in the end, “we’re all pulling for specialty retail.”

--Therese Iknoian

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