Understanding the transformative power of group fitness helped Phillip Mills, the Managing Director of Les Mills, grow his family’s New Zealand-based gym business across oceans. The determination to share his passion with the world has made Les Mills-branded classes some of the most widely distributed, available in over 100 countries. Blending audio-visual elements with innovative technology, Les Mills creates a singularly motivational fitness experience.

Phillip’s father, Les Mills Sr, the company’s founder and four-time Olympic track athlete, opened the first gym in 1968. Since then, the company has overcome its share of challenges.

Through the late 80s and early 90s, Phillip and his wife, Jackie, saved Les Mills from liquidation during a period of economic hardship while simultaneously raising a young family. Their children, Diana and Les, now play an important creative role in the business. Together, they are continuing an entrepreneurial journey that began 50 years ago revolutionising the global fitness industry along the way.

In an interview with Tharawat Magazine, Phillip discussed the challenges he faced as a young entrepreneur and father, the real reason people go to the gym and the family’s philosophy that correlates a healthy body to a healthy planet.

ENTREPRENEURS: Les Mills - A Family in Fitness for Three Generations
PICTURE: Phillip Mills, courtesy of Les Mills

Tell us about your journey with Les Mills. What made you decide to enter the fitness industry?

Both my parents were track and field athletes. My father competed in four Olympic Games. After his career as a competitive athlete, he became New Zealand’s national track and field coach through the 60s and 70s.

In 1968, my parents opened a public gym – I was only 13 at the time. After school, I worked there cleaning the locker rooms and doing other odd jobs. It was a small business and remained that way until the fitness industry started to grow rapidly in the US. An itinerant entrepreneur, my father had other businesses besides, but sports were his passion.

We had spent a lot of our lives in the US. When I was young, my father did an undergraduate degree there, and I went back to California for four years from 1974 to 78 on a track scholarship at UCLA. I saw the birth of the modern fitness industry – group exercise classes were becoming enormously popular. Off the back of this trend, my father opened a much bigger gym in New Zealand, and I began group classes there in 1980. Before this, I had spent time managing my brother- in-law’s rock band in LA. It was an exciting first job out of university but in an extraordinarily unhealthy industry. This experience made me realise my passion for fitness.

The classes were a significant factor in the club’s expansion. Eventually, we were able to open a chain of gyms around New Zealand, internationalising with an Australian location in 1981. I started standardising and licensing our group classes, establishing a presence in other gyms and also community centres throughout New Zealand and Australia.

In 1984, we went public in New Zealand, and three years later, my parents sold the majority share just one month before the global share market crashed. It was a devastating period economically. With the help of bank loans, I bought our gym business back in pieces from late 87 through to 1990. It was incredibly stressful – trying to claw my way back up with a young family. Jackie, my wife, is a doctor and has always been a big part of the Group Fitness Organisation. At that time, however, she was in the process of finishing her medical degree and working long hours in hospitals. We were living paycheque-to-paycheque for a while. Finally, the situation improved, and by 1993, I had built a viable business producing reasonable profits.

Emboldened by success, I launched a couple of other businesses which didn’t do well and lost a lot of money. It was then that I decided to return to the international licensing business. I was lucky to find an agent who wanted to represent me in Australia, and we went into a 50/50 partnership. Our venture was a success, and I decided it was a good business model for rolling out classes in other international markets.

In 1990, right in the middle of that stressful period, Jackie and I developed BODYPUMP, which is now one of the most widely distributed branded classes in the world. We kept it and some other courses we had designed in the back of our minds in case we ever wanted to expand the licensing business. With the knowledge that an independent distributor model was an excellent way to roll them out quickly, I went in search of distributors around the world. I found many. Some did a good job – some did not.

ENTREPRENEURS: Les Mills - A Family in Fitness for Three Generations
PICTURES (L-R): Les and Colleen Mills, courtesy of Les Mills.
ENTREPRENEURS: Les Mills - A Family in Fitness for Three Generations
PICTURES (L-R): Les Senior and Phillip Mills, courtesy of Les Mills.

What were your criteria for finding the right distributors?

Initially, I went to trade associations and fitness conventions. I talked to people who ran equipment companies, fitness education companies and fitness organisations. I also approached a few gym chains, which turned out to be a mistake because they didn’t want to license their courses to the competition, and the competition didn’t want to buy from them. 

Some of the distributors that seemed like logical choices ended up doing well, but many of them didn’t. It was almost impossible to predict. For instance, Christophe Andanson, a French Olympic wrestler, ran a small gym in Paris. He was passionate about group fitness and had even made some French fitness infomercials. At that time, we had no presence in the region, so we decided to go with him. Now, he runs 39 countries for us. Out of all the independent distributors we met, Christophe Andanson seemed like he might be one of the least likely to succeed. Before going into business with him, we had no way of gauging his skills as an entrepreneur and leader, which, of course, are considerable.

We’ve actually repurchased the licensing rights from many of our independent distributors over the years. It’s a reasonably well-known practice: small companies expand internationally through selling a product to independent distributors only to buy the product back from them later. We’ve been doing that since 2003 and have been running our own distributors for 15 years now. Just a few of our distributors remain independent – they tend to be the best of them.

With such an international presence, where do you operate from today?

Our head office remains in New Zealand, and we have regional offices around the world in the countries where we own distribution rights. Our master trainers, who train the teachers, and our sales team travel extensively.