Nautilus founder Brian Cook retires, Hammann takes reins

Telling SNEWS® he's ready to spend time golfing, traveling, and enjoying his family and his 11 grandchildren, Brian Cook -- founder of the Bowflex company, chairman of the board and former CEO -- will retire as of March 1, handing over the chairman's duties of The Nautilus Group to new CEO and president, Gregg Hammann.
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Telling SNEWS® he's ready to spend time golfing, traveling, and enjoying his family and his 11 grandchildren, Brian Cook -- founder of the Bowflex company, chairman of the board and former CEO -- will retire as of March 1, handing over the chairman's duties of The Nautilus Group to new CEO and president, Gregg Hammann.

"The team's there, the company's in great shape, and it's ready to be led into the future," said Cook, 54, who will remain a "significant shareholder" in the company he began in 1986 with the Bowflex product. "I'm looking at this as a culmination of 18 years of hard work by a lot of people.

"This gives me a lot more time to enjoy things outside of business," he added. "I'm retiring because I want to."

It's not as if this is a surprise move. When Hammann came aboard at The Nautilus Group in July 2003 and took over as CEO and president, the plan was for Cook to eventually retire, Hammann told SNEWS®. First the fitness newcomer, with Cook still around as chairman of the board, had to learn about the company and the industry, and all parties had to be sure the fit was good and a plan for the company's future was underway.

"Learning the industry and making sure we had a good solid plan in place was most important," Hammann said, only hours after the announcement was made public. Cook, who was CEO from 1986 until 2003, will remain in touch for any questions or advice during the transition, they both said, but from a couple of hours away at his home on the Pacific coast -- conveniently no more than about 100 miles from any of his four kids or many grandchildren (with another on the way).

Hammann, known as a brand strategy expert who was most recently president of Latin America and Canada for Levi Strauss & Co. as well as chief customer officer of North America, wasted no time in his role.

Within weeks, he had restructured the company and instituted corporate layoffs while still going forward on product plans. He also implemented consumer focus groups and research as the paving stones for additional product and development modifications. By October, he announced a three-phase turnaround program, called FIT1, which has already begun. The program involves gaining control over direction and stabilizing the business before it can again grow -- expected by the end of this year. Already, Wall Street has responded, with stock prices climbing gradually upward again and even responding to the current announcement with slight gains before closing at 14.90 on Feb. 17 -- certainly no where near its sweetheart stage where prices soared into the 40s and beyond, but a positive step. (By noon ET on the day after the announcement, stock prices had climbed just over 16, or up another 7.8 percent over Feb. 17's close.)

"At this point, it's just delivering and executing what we've talked about," Hammann said. "This (announcement) doesn't slow us down or speed us up. There'll be no major shifts."

These changes are the final strokes on nearly three years of building and restructuring that began when Kevin Lamar, who is still president of the retail and commercial fitness divisions and a company officer, took over the Vancounver, Wash.-based, company's helm in June 2001 when it was known as Direct Focus. The company changed its name nearly a year later to The Nautilus Group (NYSE: NLS). It bought Schwinn Fitness (September 2001) and StairMaster (January 2002), and took Bowflex to retail (broadly in early 2003) from its prior strictly direct-to-consumer model. It had acquired Nautilus in 1999, still operates its Nautilus Sleep Systems division, and has an option to acquire sports nutrition company Champion Nutrition.

Above all, Hammann said, the company's role will be to educate the public about being fit and leading a healthy lifestyle, which for Nautilus means exercise, rest and nutrition.

"This could be a $3 billion company," he said, "if we do it the right way."

SNEWS View: Partly because he IS from outside the small but growing fitness industry, Hammann has been able to bring a larger vision to the company's plans. OK, so $3 billion may be a bit zealous, but half of that shouldn't be so far-fetched -- especially with a long-term look aided by other officers such as Lamar who do know the industry. With Bowflex being one of the few fitness brand names that the public recognizes, a pretty hefty weight is on the company's shoulders to live up to the potential influence of that recognition -- and to use that power to educate consumers about fitness. Any education undertaken may mean consumers could purchase and use Nautilus products, but it could also just push them into action to undertake a healthier lifestyle -- even with another company's products. Either way the industry could get the kick start it needs to move back into growth and, in the end, the entire industry would win.

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