Nathan Pyles back at Johnson Fitness helm -- for the fourth time

Nathan Pyles, who stepped back in as president of Johnson Fitness North America in early August, is no stranger to the leadership role there. But the days of all-hands-on-deck have changed since the mid-90s. Pyles talks exclusively to SNEWS about his role and the company.
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Nathan Pyles, who stepped back in as president of Johnson Fitness North America in early August, is no stranger to the leadership role there. Over the years, he’s been the president for various segments or for the company overall four times. But who’s counting.

These days it’s changed a lot since he headed up the founding of Vision Fitness as a spin-off from Trek Fitness in 1996. It’s even changed a lot since 2002 when Pyles started laying the groundwork for what was then called the Global R&D Center in North America for Johnson Fitness Health Tech (click here to see a June 2003 SNEWS® story, “Johnson to set up ‘global center’ in U.S”).

Indeed, it’s certainly changed since the company’s three brands -- Matrix, Vision and Horizon -- moved into one building outside of Madison Wis., in 2006. And its biggest change likely came in 2008 when the three brands merged under one Johnson Fitness umbrella (click here to see that SNEWS September 2008 story).

And through it all, Pyles is still there, floating through the offices, moving from one brand to the next, self-deprecating sometimes in his humor and lack of ego, a bit of a Godfather to the companies -- if a man as young as he can be a Godfather a la Marlon Brando.

“It’s a different experience this time around,” he told SNEWS after settling into the president’s role. Before it was entrepreneurial, all-hands-on-deck. Now, there is an executive team and a “good division of labor,” he said.

But in the past two years as more of the North American chairman of the board and a member of the Johnson Fitness board, he itched for more contact, it turned out.

“I really missed being involved…the day-to-day,” he said. “I was having a lot of fun, of course, but it wasn’t as engaging, and I’m glad to be back.” Let’s be clear: Pyles likes product. He likes pondering over something new and seeing how it will work. He likes the challenge of pushing the envelope of concepts and design.

But, here comes the self-deprecating part again: “The products have gotten better since I’ve been gone.”

Pyles returned to the helm somewhat by chance. Chris Clawson, who first came to Johnson (www.johnsonfit.com) as president of Matrix in February 2007 (click here to see a SNEWS story) before becoming president of the merged Johnson group, accepted a job as president of Life Fitness, where he had spent many years prior to Johnson. Pyles was the logical choice to step back in.

A global corporation

Pyles said he has two areas to continue to emphasize as he moves forward: leading a quality company and “meeting and exceeding our customers’ expectations.”

“We need to make sure we’re meeting these goals,” Pyles said.

There were some bumps in the last few years: Horizon’s initial launch of the Livestrong brand of equipment (www.livestrongfitness.com) turned into one of equipment recalls where Pyles said they took some hard knocks and learned some lessons. For one, he said, the company has put a stronger emphasis on QA, given the QA team more power, and become more vigilant.

Some of the brands’ ratings in the annual SNEWS Fitness Retailer Survey (www.snewsnet.com/surveys) have sunk a bit in the last couple of years. Although the company does its own surveys, he said, the SNEWS version is still important as a gauge of retailer reaction.

“We were disappointed we didn’t do better, but customers decide what we did and didn’t do,” he said about this year’s findings, just out this summer. “We are committed. We are going to listen more,… and our goal is to be one of the best (suppliers) on this survey next year.”

Still, sales are up globally and the Livestrong brand, now applied to Matrix equipment too, has continued to be successful, he said. In numbers just released by the company in mid-August, year-to-date sales were up 29.5 percent globally, with sales up 31 percent in North America.

With Pyles pegged for the role from the inside, one wonders if he will only hold down the fort while a search continues for another. He said that’s not the case.

“I would hope,” he said, “to be here in this role for awhile.”

--Therese Iknoian

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