New Star Trac VP unifies strategy, sets lofty goals

Only weeks away from the 20th anniversary of its first treadmill, Star Trac wants to break out of its conservative mold and take the world by storm, growing more strongly, introducing more new products across categories and becoming a "world-class player."
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Only weeks away from the 20th anniversary of its first treadmill, Star Trac wants to break out of its conservative mold and take the world by storm, growing more strongly, introducing more new products across categories and becoming a "world-class player."

So says the company's executive Vice President Steven Nero, who was hired in late June to analyze, strategize, set common goals, provide focus to what he calls a passionate and talented staff, and take the company 10 giant steps forward.

"I think you're going to see an amazing 2004 for Star Trac," Nero told SNEWS. "We're going to take the company and make it a world-class player."

Nearly two decades ago Star Trac -- then known as Unisen, an organization with a background in electronics and motors -- introduced its first treadmill. Despite being recognized as producing superior and solid machines, other companies came along and began to offer more products and fuller product lines -- with just a touch more glamour and trendiness that seemed to leave Star Trac in the dust.

All that will change if Nero has his way -- and assuming a renewed company passion works how it should. The goal? To double current market share in the next three years.

How a fitness outsider gets the driver's seat

Nero's position was created for him by Jim Doody, chairman of the board and CEO, and the rest of the Irvine, Calif.-based, company including President and COO Jim "Mac" McPartland. Although coming from outside the industry, Nero had enough background and enthusiasm that the relatively conservative Star Trac was confident not only to invent his position with the title "vice president of marketing and engineering," but also to fill it with someone with a non-fitness history.

Nero spent a dozen years in medical imaging with a company called Adac in the San Jose, Calif., area as the, yes, vice president of marketing and engineering. During that time, it won international awards, beat out the big guys in David-and-Goliath-like competition, and grew from about an $80 million company to a $500 million company. When it was sold to Philips in 2001, Nero said the energy of a startup and the focus on innovation slowly were replaced by the mire of big-company bureaucracy. So he left and began looking for another company that was like Adac's in background -- about $70 million or so in business, passionate people, an enthusiastic environment, and a focus on instrumentation, which plays into his knowledge of electromechanical engineering.

The other characteristic he looked for? A management group that lacked someone who focused on direction, strategy and strengths, then unified everyone to take the company to the next step.

"At Star Trac, I saw the passion I saw at Adac 10 years ago," he said.

It didn't take long for both sides to shake hands on the deal, with Nero becoming the unifying and forward-moving force.

Company insiders told SNEWS they think Nero has brought long-term vision into the company's planning for 2004 and beyond and is a position to truly "shake up" the way the company has been run, as well as its long-held patterns and habits, in order to set up Star Trac for a new level of growth.

Although a fitness industry outsider, Nero still had a connection to exercise. He worked out regularly (Claiming that while at Adac, "I was the weirdo who worked out."), including at a San Jose area club with a strong relationship to Star Trac. He said he exercises to be able to indulge well in his passion for rock climbing and mountaineering throughout the world.

Maturing of business processes

One of the first things Nero said he did was come up with a strategic plan for the next three to five years, looking at common goals, adding incentives, eyeing the marketplace, tying in the company's past with its present and examining its possible future. Part of that plan included making a list of 50 things the company should do.

"The challenge is to distill that down to two to three things it must do to win," he said. That short list, he calls the "Vital Few."

With a Star Trac Vital Few now set, he and the company have moved forward with several goals. The ones most visible to the industry and its customers will be the mission to have a complete cardiovascular line with a "best of class" in each category.

"We don't want to be all things to all people," he said. "We don't need to be the strength company. We don't need to have computer screens on every piece of equipment," he said, adding that the company will continue to focus on the commercial and vertical markets as well as on high-end home users who will invest in this kind of equipment.

Already begun…

Not that Star Trac wasn't already "pre-Nero" starting to move forward. In the last 18 to 24 months, the company had entered a partnership with Johnny G's Mad Dogg Athletics Spinning program, redesigned its indoor cycling bikes, upsized its booths and added more entertainment and pizzazz to its presentations, collateral and photography. And that "thinking bigger" scenario also included product with the introduction of the Pro Elite treadmill that even made it onto CNN nearly a year ago with its flowing lines, built-in fans and PDA compatibility.

Nevertheless, the goal is more breadth industry-wide, with at least one "best of class" product in each of the following categories: treadmills (the Elite Pro's soft launch was a year ago, with a grand introduction at the IHRSA show last spring), indoor cycles, ellipticals, upright bikes and recumbent bikes.

In addition to developing more products, the time it takes to get from drawing board to health clubs will be greatly compressed, he said.

"We need to accelerate dramatically our time to market," he said. "We have to hit home runs much faster.

"We want to stick with our core competency," he added, "focus our energy and better execute."

SNEWS View: We've always been a fan of Star Trac's equipment. But it was sometimes easy for the company to get lost in the crush since it rarely tooted its own horn very well. Nor did it seem terribly organized in its actions and introductions. The company departments seemed to run in 10 different directions sometimes -- one season introducing an item or program with as much ta-da as it could muster, then just dropping it without a reason a year later, only then to tout the next big thing. Honestly, it seemed a bit like a hyperactive kid who couldn't decide which toy to play with, or a teenage girl who jumped from boyfriend to boyfriend each week, proclaiming each one The Best … before moving on. We think someone who can oversee the passions, energies and ideas at Star Trac to unify the team and keep it moving on one track toward common goals could indeed help grow it dramatically in the next few years. All the pieces are there -- commitment, product, solidity and reputation. Capture those, and wrap up those characteristics with stronger direction, company-wide goals and communication, and better management of employee focus and energy, and the future could be bright indeed.

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