Pumped up and ready to go

How a Montreal teen became master of a worldwide empire of health clubs



Tibor Krausz

The National Post, Saturday, March 06, 2004


HONG KONG—When his parents asked him what he wanted for his bar mitzvah, Eric Levine didn't think twice: "I want a Joe Weider workout set," he said.


Not every 13-year-old is bent on becoming a steely muscleman using Weider's "create your ultimate body" exercise charts, much less so in 1968. But his request came as no surprise: His father, Meyer, was an all-round athlete, a semi-professional bodybuilder and a friend of the Joe and Ben Weider, fellow Montrealers who have gone down in sports history as the fathers of modern bodybuilding.


Today, Levine, 48, is co-founder of the world's largest fitness chain -- 24 Hour Fitness Network -- which boasts 350 clubs in North America and Europe, more than three million members and annual earnings of US$1-billion. And he's CEO of its spin-off, California Fitness Centers, Asia's leading and fastest-growing health-club chain, with 13 posh clubs located in such places as Hong Kong (five), Taiwan (three), Singapore (two), South Korea (two) and Thailand (one).


Stroll around downtown Hong Kong, Taipei or Seoul and chances are you'll come across a giant backlit California Fitness sign over a nightclubbish portal, the sounds of thumping dance music all around, leading to a designer foyer bedecked with plush leather armchairs and swarming with buoyant "personal trainers" in track suits. Some are as large as 80,000 square feet over several floors. All offer state-of-the-art fitness and bodybuilding terminals, mirror-walled and sprung timber-floored spinning and aerobic studios, cardiovascular conditioning "theatres" and Jacuzzi whirlpools.


Clearly, the bar mitzvah present worked out well.


A tireless promoter of healthy living, Levine peppers his fitness-guru-speak about "body-fat ratios," "cholesterol levels" and "positive attitudes" with liberal doses of New Ageist philosophy: "We're making people healthier and happier by giving them healthful vibrations. It's almost like a spiritual quest," he explains in his high-rise office overlooking his health club in Bangkok. He's on a brief visit here, before jetting off to the other Asian metropolises where his centres are situated or where new facilities are planned. "We're here to make money, yes, but we sell health and good feelings, and that's a damn great thing to do."


He says he was inspired by the late Claire Nuer, the French cancer survivor and renowned advocate of repair-the-world interculturalism. Nuer founded Learning As Leadership, an organization that promotes humane corporate practices. "Claire told me that as my Noble Goal, I must try and change people's lives through fitness," says Levine. "I've based a company on that."


His current campaign isn't his first Asian escapade. Within a year of getting his workout set at 13, he had dropped out of school, withdrawn $3,600 from his piggybank, run away from home and gone to India. He wanted to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Beatles mentor and founder of transcendental meditation) at his ashram in Rishikesh. He fetched up instead in Goa, a hippie haunt. He returned to Canada when his parents agreed he didn't have to return to school. "I've always been an adventurer who likes to stay, and think, outside the box," Levine says.


Levine, who had first been on stage at age five, was soon touring the world with a troupe, gypsy-style, from Tahiti to Martinique, emceeing and singing and dancing in cabaret shows at Club Med resorts. In his late teens, he bared his chiselled form in the Chippendale and Beefcake Review male striptease ensembles on tours through the United States.


When he'd put together $60,000, he set course for Muscle Beach in Venice, California. It was 1977, the birthing era of Jane Fonda's aerobics videos, Arnold Schwarzenegger's rise to fame with his Pumping Iron documentary and the fitness-cult flick Flashdance soon in production.


"The hard-body look was just starting to take shape and become popular," he says. "I knew fitness was going to be big. I guess I was the first to see just how big."


Most gyms then were ill-equipped, drawing only fanatical bodybuilders. Levine approached the famed Gold's Gym in Venice and offered to turn it into a lucrative franchise. This he did, leasing weightlifting equipment from manufacturers and opening six Gold's Gym outlets in his native Montreal as well as Toronto and California.


"The whole venture just took off," he says, his hand swinging away like a plane at liftoff. "One month after I'd opened the first gym, I was making serious money."


In 1995, Levine joined his northern Californian gyms with fitness pioneer Ray Wilson's southern Californian network of Family Fitness Centers, then the largest privately owned chain, with US$100-million in annual profits. Thus was the 24 Hour Fitness empire born. Today, the ever-expanding chain rules supreme in the United States and Europe. With the West firmly under control, Levine turned his gaze eastward. One day in early 1996, he landed in Hong Kong on reconnaissance. "I took a glance around and saw all these stylish young women with Louis Vuitton bags -- signs of ample disposable income," Levine recalls. "Then I checked out some health clubs and they were horrendous. I told Ray: 'This is the motherlode. I'm staying. ' "


He opened his first club a few months later, taking over six floors in the heart of Hong Kong. Today he is poised to become the sole heavyweight in the Asian health-club industry, which until his incursion was a smattering of small private gyms operating in backyards and upscale hotels. In Levine's notebook are the blueprints for two dozen lavish clubs to be launched over the next few years throughout Asia, at a cost of US$5- to $10-million each.


Levine wants to do no less than rewire the East Asian psyche by convincing millions of couch-potatoes in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand (and soon China, Japan and India) of the sweat-drenched joys of bench presses, squats and crunches. In the East, people still regard muscle rippling under suntanned skin (fashionable farther west) as hopelessly declasse -- suntan and muscle being the hallmark of rice farmers.


"Asians genetically look slimmer than us, but it doesn't mean they're fitter," says Levine, who's recently obtained a distance-learning PhD in sports science from an English college on the strength of a thesis about the differences between Caucasian and Asian physiques and fitness attitudes. East Asians, he explains, generally have higher body-fat and lower lean-muscle ratios than whites and blacks. Yet Levine is already detecting a welcome change: "I turned on the tube in India and you know what? All the male and female stars plugging Coke and whatnot in commercials had nice six-packs, and this in a country that has traditionally prized plumper women!"


True to form, several CFC clubs are already in the works around Indian metropolises. Elsewhere too, Levine is building a club following.


Wongjan Wiwek, a petite young woman, can often be found at a Hong Kong California Fitness facility, yanking at lateral rows, straining against leg presses or striding on step-trainers. "I never used to do any work-out at all," she pants between two sit-up sets. "Then about a year ago, I became a CFC member, and now my friends call me Muscle Girl."


Still, she's rare. A far more typical attitude is that of Suvimon Pinsiri, a well-groomed 24-year-old Bangkok manager. "I did some aerobics classes once. They felt like torture."


That's why Levine is marketing California Fitness in Asia on the basis of its upmarket glamour -- not its superlatively equipped torture chambers. He flicks open a sleek promotional brochure. "Being a CFC member feels like shopping at Gucci, Prada, or Louis Vuitton" promises the booklet, which touts CFC's services as "exertainment." Levine has enlisted supermodel Cindy Crawford and several Asian megastars to spearhead his "Wow, this is my club!" message.


It seems to be working. Within three months of opening, his first club in Hong Kong had 5,000 members, who each shelled out about US$600 for customized yearly memberships. Today, California Fitness has 110,000 members in Southeast Asia. Tellingly, 90% are beginners, and they're overwhelmingly female.


Oh yes, throw in feminist advocacy, too, among Levine's designs for a healthier Asia: "Asian ladies are becoming more and more independent, leading the way in fashion and health," he says. "And where the women charge ahead, the men will follow."

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