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One-to-One: Now & Forever

By Daniel Cooke

Editor’s note: Industry pioneer Joe Weider passed away on March 23 at the age of 93. The following is an excerpt of an interview with him that was conducted in 1988 by Daniel Cooke, then the associate editor of Club Business (the predecessor of Club Business International).

Club Business: Your name and the image that you’ve created are perhaps better known than those of any other individual involved in the fitness industry. Many people might simply think that you crave the spotlight. The real reason?

Joe Weider and Lauren HuttonJoe Weider: I don’t promote myself for the sake of promoting myself. After having been a part of this business for 51 years, I can get all the awards and honorary degrees that anyone could possibly want, but I’m not interested in things like that; I’m not interested in personal glory. People may think it’s a matter of ego, but the reason I use Joe Weider on everything is because it’s important to our business. Otherwise, my name wouldn’t be on anything.

CB: But why are your name and image so critical to the success of Weider Enterprises?

JW: It has to with the fact that the world is a very impersonal place, and has been for quite a while. If you look at much of the art that’s been produced since World War II, modern art, you can sense the growing alienation; you can see it in the blank faces and the disjointed cities. Businesses—General Motors, Exxon, IBM—have also become very impersonal. But I’ve always believed that everything in life is personal; and people, when they’re dealing with one another, like to deal with a human being—they want to see them, to hear them, to feel them. I felt that, by being personal—by using my name and my personality—I gave people someone to relate to.

CB: Your magazines – Muscle & Fitness, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Flex – certainly do convey that, particularly in the columns that you write.

JW: That’s true. In all of my writing, I’ve never written in a general manner, because then I’d be writing for everyone. I’ve always written for the individual; I’ve always played up the “you” in all of the articles. The result is that my readers have become attached to me in much the same way that I’m attached to them.

CB: In essence, then, what you’re saying is that you’re not promoting yourself; what you’re doing is providing the consumer—in this case, a reader—with someone with whom they can identify?

JW: Exactly, but you have to remember that that person—the individual who, in many ways, is going to come to personify the product—has to be a person of substance. Otherwise, the entire notion becomes a hollow and, therefore, an unproductive one. I have my name, but I have to prove it over and over again—with the quality of my publications, my products, the contests that I’m involved with. Weider Enterprises is basically about champions—bodybuilding champions—and we have to deliver: we write about the ones that have already arrived and for the ones that aspire.

CB: Running a club is obviously a great deal different than publishing a magazine.

JW: It depends, in part, on the size of the club. If a club is small, management can have direct, one-to-one relationships with individual members. If it’s large, then you’ve got to have creative men and women working for you who can forge such relationships. You can’t hand a member a card, and simply run them through a routine, when all you’re really concerned about is signing up your next member. You need instructors who take an honest interest in members, who listen to their problems, give them hope, provide them with a reason to continue training. It helps more than you can imagine.

CB: Do you recall when you first became aware of the importance of this sort of one-to-one relationship that you’re describing?

JW: It was probably when I first got involved with publishing. I was just a kid, 17 years old, interested in bodybuilding, but very poor. At the time, there was only one magazine on bodybuilding, which cost 10 or 15 cents; to me, that was a lot of money, because I was earning $2 for an 80-hour week. And I’d read an article, for instance, on how to develop your arms; they’d tell you a little bit, and then they’d say, “If you want to know more, buy our book for $2.” I felt cheated. I was all alone, looking for information, and they wouldn’t provide it. When I began publishing Your Physique, a 12-page newsletter, I vowed that I’d interview every champion bodybuilder that had anything to say, and give them to my readers. I’d make it possible for that one-to-one exchange to take place.

CB: At the time, were you consciously thinking about the importance of self-promotion, or was that simply something that happened as you began to create that dialogue between champions and readers?

JW: I think I was intuitively aware of the value of putting myself out front, or making a statement about what I intended to provide, and then taking responsibility for delivering it. Bodybuilding was in its infancy then, and appealed, for the most part, to boys between the ages of 13 and 21 … and they needed heroes to look up to, to emulate. That was why, in my magazines and in the contests I sponsored, I consciously attempted to create so many individual heroes. But I also reasoned that I might as well be one of those heroes myself. If people could see me, read columns by me, read articles about me, then they’d be able to feel a rapport with me. I was positioning myself in a very personal manner.

CB: A personal commitment, substance, self-promotion, responsiveness— it sounds as though you’re outlining the requirements for a leader as much as for a successful businessman.

JW: You’re right, I am. In order for people—whether they’re colleagues, or employees, or customers —to look up to you, to have confidence in you, to be willing to take your direction or advice, you have to be a leader. But that carries a tremendous responsibility. You don’t become a leader by forcing your opinions on people who don’t agree with you; you become a leader by representing their hopes and ambitions, and by helping them to achieve their goals. For instance, the average individual who wants tax cuts knows that he can’t do it himself, so he ascertains which of the Presidential candidates feels the same way and supports him.

CB: How do you relate that theory of leadership to you own career?

JW: As indicated, when I started out, bodybuilding was a neglected sport, and bodybuilders needed someone to represent their needs and interests. They needed information about exercise, nutrition, the human body, and I provided it in my magazines. They wanted to elevate the public’s perception of bodybuilding—the magazines helped facilitate that. As they became successful, they wanted to be able to display their bodies in contests, and we were able to make that happen; then they wanted to be able to make some money at what they were doing, and by broadening the base of support for the sport, we’ve accomplished that. Today, top bodybuilders can make a very good living—anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000 every year. In each case, I’ve helped to fulfill their wishes, and so they’re with me—they want me to succeed. In the same way, club owners have to be constantly thinking about, and responding to, their members’ wishes.

CB: Fortune magazine wrote that Joe Weider was “selling a dream”—selling the dream of a perfect body, but it doesn’t sound like that at all.

JW: Dreams are sold by fakirs. A dream is a longing, a goal, that, by definition, you can’t accomplish. I’m selling hope to men and women; and I’m selling them the means to achieve those goals. I’m telling the average person that they don’t have to go through life fat, or scrawny, or with a bad self-image; they can strengthen their bodies, improve the quality of their lives, and live longer … if they eat properly and exercise. I’m not selling them a dream. I’m selling them a reality. That’s what I’m doing.

CB: Bodybuilders are obviously the foundation of Weider Enterprises, but some of your more recent endeavors—Shape magazine, which puts less emphasis on pumping iron, the new magazine which you’re preparing for individuals over 35, and your possible involvement with club franchising—suggest that your horizons are still expanding. Where do you see the future of the industry leading?

JW: Years and years ago, when muscles were the only thing that anyone seemed to be thinking about, I had a conversation with Vic Tanny (the founder of a 100-plus club chain which folded in 1962) in which I told him what I thought the future held. And it wasn’t just muscles. It was fitness; it was weight control; it was self-image. And, obviously, much of that has come to pass. And as the public becomes more and more aware of the benefits of exercise, total health, overall fitness will become even more important … And, obviously, a large portion of the population, and of the potential market for clubs, is getting older. These men and women are also interested in looking good, in remaining active, in enjoying their lives. What we’re talking about is a complete, health-and-wellness lifestyle. If clubs can get a handle on these things, I think that they’re going to do very well in the future; I think they’re going to become even more popular and profitable.

CB: Are those changes going to have an impact on your one-to-one strategy?

JW: They’re going to make it more important than it’s ever been before.

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