SNEWS Qs: Chris Clawson's talks Life Fitness and awards

Life Fitness President Chris Clawson talks about his history with Life Fitness and recent nomination for a prestigious award.
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At the last few IHRSA and Club Industry trade shows, the Life Fitness booth has been buzzing with people, with staff busily answering questions about the LFopen platform and Synergy360 functional training gym.

President Chris Clawson has been a major force in driving the company's embrace of technology. He came to the fitness world following a career as a Single-A player for the Braves and Astros. When injuries kept him from playing baseball, he continued to work in the sports and fitness industry through connections he had made while working an off-season retail job. In 1994, he was recruited by Life Fitness to work in project management.

Life Fitness Co-Founder Augie Nieto himself asked Clawson one day, three years into his career with the company, what he wanted to do.

“I want to be sitting where you are,” Clawson said he told Nieto.

“That’s the right answer,” Nieto responded. Nieto guided Clawson to go back to school, and he earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, then moved from sales to marketing to prove himself.

The strategy paid off for Clawson — he was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 Finalist. The Entrepreneur Of The Year Program recognizes business leaders in 140 cities in more than 50 countries around the world. Awards will be presented at a gala on June 27 at the Hilton in Chicago.

SNEWS chatted with Clawson about his nomination, his history with Life Fitness and why donating time to nonprofits is important to him.

Tell us about your history with Life Fitness.

When I came back to Life Fitness, I wanted to return the company to its roots as innovators and industry leaders. We were in the middle of a recession and had moved away from product development as a core focus of the company. That was what set us apart from our competitors. So we had a decision to make: Be conservative in lean times or make stronger investments in product development and research so we would come out of the recession with bold new industry power.

We restructured the company, merging marketing and engineering, so Life Fitness products truly met the needs of customers, both globally and locally. And we worked to re-position Life Fitness as tech leaders in the fitness industry, while also creating products that would dictate the market, as opposed to react to it. We began plans for LFopen and became the first manufacturer in the fitness industry to operate on an open business platform. We also introduced the industry to a new synergy exercise trend in 2012 with the Synrgy360 group training system, which responded to the fitness community’s growing demand to experience active, outdoor-style exercises inside a facility.

In 2011, we saw the second-highest year for total exercise units sold in the company’s history. Life Fitness also increased sales by 17 percent, or $93 million. And, we continued to increase sales to approach record levels and stay on the cutting edge of industry technologies . Today, sales for Life Fitness represent security in diversification with profits nearly split evenly inside the U.S. (48 percent) and outside the U.S. (52 percent), truly an anomaly for a fitness manufacturer.

How do you feel about being a Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist?
This pool of candidates is truly a competitive but reputable group, and I’m honored to be among them. This recognition is a reflection of our company’s resurgence in not only executive leadership, but also industry leadership.

What are some things you feel qualify you for the award?
I think one of the reason’s I’m being considered, and what many of the finalists have in common, is that we’re comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s something we say a lot at Life Fitness to push ourselves beyond average to meet greatness.

Which career accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that I’ve been able to follow the career path that Augie and I mapped out when I was so young in my career. Goal-setting at every level is something I truly believe in, and I feel blessed to be back at Life Fitness continuing Augie’s dreams of changing the fitness industry and helping people to live healthy lifestyles.

What do you love about working in the fitness industry?
I love the passion people bring to this industry. For many, fitness is a lifestyle and being able to lead a company where so many of my peers have made our own industry their lifestyle is very motivating.

Why do you enjoy serving on boards of organizations like the Sports and Fitness Industry Association and Muscular Dystrophy Association?
Beyond a genuine interest that I have in both organizations, as a global leader in the fitness industry, we take on a responsibility to give back to our industry and our community. Through my work with the MDA, I’m able to honor our company co-founder Augie Nieto who started Augie’s Quest, a fundraising initiative with the MDA.

I’ve worked with the MDA for eight years. Today, I sit as a national vice president on MDA’s board and serve a broader group of vice presidents nationwide to provide expertise, guidance and advice to the MDA’s leadership on matters that ensure the organization continues its ultimate mission of finding treatments and cures for neuromuscular diseases.

Separately, working with SFIA extends our company’s reach in helping to share our industry.

What challenges is the fitness industry facing — and how can we overcome them?
As the world continues to open its eyes to the benefits of fitness, we’ll be increasingly challenged to live up to our promise of providing the best customer support no matter where in the world a customer is. We work to overcome that challenge by working with world-class partners, analyzing our business operations and looking for improvements, and expanding our reach into new markets. Currently we operate in more than 120 countries and only expect that to continue growing.

Another challenge that the industry will continue to face is technology. Exercisers expect personalized content on the go and that applies to workouts in an increasingly more relevant way every day. With device-agnostic users and an explosion of new technologies, manufacturers will be tasked to make smart decisions about which technology to adopt and which to pass on. One way we’re working to support personalized content is through our LFopen product platform, which as I said, allows any developer to create programs that work with our equipment and offer exercisers unlimited choice.

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