AIB Featured Business Leader – Phillip Mills
If you’ve ever sweated your way through a BodyPump class at your local gym, it’s highly likely you’ve heard of Phillip Mills or his company. Mills is the New Zealand entrepreneur who founded Les Mills International, the world’s largest provider of choreographed exercise classes. But he’s followed anything but a straight path to get there. Mills’ story is one of flexibility, strength and the willingness to switch up the routine to find one that works – much like his lycra-clad followers.
Mills was born in 1955 in Auckland, New Zealand. He came from a family of professional athletes, with his father Les, mother Colleen and sister Donna all representing New Zealand in either the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games in track and field events. When they weren’t in the stadium, they ran a gym, which opened in 1968 and in which the young Mills worked in after school. From that single gym, called the Les Mills gym, they went on to open three more in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Mills helped the family, but found the work boring and determined to seek his own career overseas. He found his chance when he was offered a track and field scholarship to UCLA and moved to the States. There he prospered in both his studies and his athletic pursuits, and at one point was ranked fifth in the world in hurdles. He couldn’t, however, represent New Zealand in the Olympics, as he was by then deemed to be a US resident. and he needed something to do. It was 1978 and he’d just graduated with a Bachelor in Philosophy, following which he moved back to New Zealand.
Going off script for the first time in his life, he decided to try his hand at managing a rock band. It wasn’t entirely random – his sister Donna, just 20, was by then married to the lead singer of New Zealand rockers Hello Sailor. Mills took over managing the band but the experiment didn’t last long. Within two years, the lead singer Graham Brazier had been sent to jail, and Mills had stepped down from the role, later calling the rock-and-roll world too “unhealthy” for his inclinations.
Mills went to work for his parents’ gym business once again. Along with his youthful energy, he brought an American idea to New Zealand which dovetailed with his love of music. Why not introduce group exercise, he suggested, with choreographed music. It was 1980, Jane Fonda’s exercise studio was taking off in the States, and fitness classes were about to explode as an industry. Mills introduced group classes at his parents’ gyms, and they were an instant hit. They had an extra benefit for him, too: one of the first aerobic teachers the company hired to lead classes was a young medical student named Jackie, working her way through university. “It was love at first sight”, Mills remembers. The pair were married shortly after, and have two grown children. Jackie Mills is an obstetrician and holds an active role in the Les Mills company.
Although the gyms were doing well, it wasn’t smooth sailing to success. Mills’ early prowess at clearing hurdles came in use throughout the eighties, as the company was faced with one after another. An early attempt to expand into the Australian market failed, as did the decision to list it on the stockmarket in 1984. Corporate raider Equitocorp took the company over just before the stockmarket crash of 1987, with the elder Mills deciding to get out of the business, and the gyms were put into receivership. Mills bought them back at great expense, borrowing millions to do so and leaving himself with a huge pile of debt. The fallout took its toll. He worked 100-hour weeks, fell into a depression, ceased his exercise regime and put on 20kg. It was his doctor wife who helped him, recognising the symptoms of depression and using her experience to help him deal with it.
Challenges aside, Mills threw his energy back into the business and it responded with alacrity. He introduced personal trainers in 1990, the first in the country, along with spin classes to liven up stationery bike work. The company’s successes rose once more. After the debts were cleared, he tried again to expand into Australia, this time teaming up with his former rivals, rather than competing against them. In addition to running brick-and-mortar gyms, Mills focused on developing and licensing his group fitness classes. Today, a global network of over 70,000 fitness instructors are certified as Les Mills instructors. “Essentially we’re a licensing business”, Mills explains.
The company is valued at around $130 million, giving Mills and his wife, as majority owners, a personal fortune of around $70 million. He was named EY’s New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004 and boasts a number of other awards, including an Australian Fitness Network Lifetime Achievement Award. But he’s happy being left off the Rich Lists, and has no intention of selling up. Instead, he and his wife have focused on ways to extend their core mission, which they see as bringing health to their country. In 2007, the couple published Fighting Globesity, which looked at the global rise of obesity and its links to ecological health. Mills also founded a lobby group, Pure Advantage, which comprises business leaders lobbying for green economic policy. Mills’ mother’s early death, from skin melanomas, heightened his concern about ozone depletion and sustainable policies. His concern extends to health initiatives, which he says are stuck in a previous era and should be expanded to include taxes on sugar and more walkable cities. It’s an ambitious platform, but one that Mills sees as the natural extension of his lifetime’s enterprise.
“The very first thing we did right was to have a strong belief in what we were doing, a strong sense of purpose which is essential in any successful enterprise — it’s never been about the money for us”, he told Magazine Today. “It’s about improving people’s health, improving people’s physical results, their self esteem.” If those are things you care about, Phillip Mills is surely the role model to look to.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Herald, Les Mills, Magazine Today and IDEA.
Image credit: Les Mills