Les Mills: The father of fitness


Back in 1968 a man and his wife opened one small gymnasium. Four decades later fitness fans in more than 60 countries follow programmes created by Les Mills International. Now Les’s grandchildren are becoming instructors, too. That’s what you call a legacy.

Les Mills has a simple fitness philosophy. ”As long as people prefer to live than to die, and to be healthy rather than sick, fitness has a place.”

A message to the millions

If the four million people in more than 60 countries round the world who stretch, pedal and pump their way to Les Mills programmes every week are any sign, then ’alive and healthy’ gets the popular vote.

In an age when it’s totally normal to bounce to music and puff your stuff on the latest computerised equipment, it’s easy to forget that before Les Mills your fitness choices weren’t much wider than weight training and callisthenics.

Les’s son, Phillip Mills, who now leads the company his parents started, remembers gyms as ‘a bit more boring’ than they are now. “We had old-fashioned bikes with speedometers. My job was to hand out magazines to the people on the bikes so they wouldn’t get bored to death.”

How the Mills family parlayed a single Auckland gym into a multimillion-dollar business exporting ’exertainment’ fitness programmes is a tale of sporting success, family tradition and entrepreneurial carpe diem.

As a teenager, Les played “soccer, rugby, cricket and softball. I ran, weightlifted – did everything I possibly could – because I loved sport.”

But an international-level sportsman still had to work. At 19 and newly married, Les built and ran a home appliance shop, while his late wife, Colleen – a talented track and field athlete – ran a shoe shop at Auckland’s Pt Chevalier. The couple expanded each shop into a chain over several years, following the lead of Les’s father, a butcher who’d built up a string of half a dozen butcher shops by the time he was 30.

They juggled raising Phillip and daughter Donna with running the retail business and “playing sport” – Les scooping a silver medal for discus at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and competing as New Zealand team captain in the 1960 Summer Olympics.

Then they decided to do something different. “We always loved adventures.” Les packed up the family and moved to California for a couple of years on an athletics scholarship. Back in New Zealand, Les and Colleen made their first break into the fitness industry when a chain of gyms went bankrupt “through criminal activity”, claims Les.
Their first gym opened in 1968.
“It was the beginning of the popularisation in New Zealand of health and fitness for everyone, not just athletes. Most of our clients were ordinary people.”

But success was modest and the days long. “It took us a couple of years to get over the fact that we had 2000 members who’d paid fees to the gangster who’d taken off with the money. They expected us to honour those commitments.” The whole family helped out in the gym business (Phillip remembers cleaning toilets) while training for international competition.

At the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, everyone but Les competed: Colleen in the 400m run, Phillip in hurdles and Donna in high jump. Explains Les: “The powers that be decided I was too old and too stuffed. That set me thinking it was time to have another adventure.”

Handing the day-to-day running of the gym over to managers, Les took up a two-year contract as Papua New Guinea’s national director of sport and recreation, following up with a stint as national director of coaching for Athletics New Zealand.

The gym business, though, was what he and Colleen loved.

“We thought, what are we doing? This is ridiculous. The fitness business is growing worldwide, we’re dealing with improving people’s lives and that’s a lovely business to be in. Let’s get serious.”

Exertainment begins

The Les Mills gym in Victoria Street, Auckland, opened in 1979, followed by others in Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin. Then Phillip, fresh from an athletics scholarship in California, brought back the new idea of group exercise-to-music programmes firing up in California and Australia – and Jazzercised the nation. Led by toned, taut instructors playing bouncy pop music, the aerobics revolution turned gyms into a social and fitness phenomenon.

”The timing was right. We sold long-term memberships. We trained a lot of people and licensed them to do the programme in any buildings they could.”

Then came time for the next generation to drive things even further. Les’s son, Phillip, (together with his doctor/choreographer wife Jackie and Les Mills International CEO Jill Tattersall), is the force driving the company’s $100 million annual turnover and their stable of more than 55,000 Les Mills instructors worldwide.

Apart from a short return to Les Mills International as CEO in the late 1990s, Les bowed out of the burgeoning business in the 1980s for ‘more adventures’, including being mayor of Auckland city (from 1990 to 1998) and coach for Olympic discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina.

To keep himself shipshape he still coaches up-and-coming teenage athletes, walks his German Shepherd dogs, Lily and Lucy, and works out in his own modest gym in the Pt Chevalier home he shares with his partner, Florence.

He’s quietly chuffed that Les Mills is still a family affair and looks set to be, with Phillip and Jackie’s 18-year-old son, Les, and 20-year-old daughter, Diana, training as Les Mills instructors and choreographers.

“It does feel good to have my son carrying on the business. It’s nice that our family is still in it, and it’s nice to think we might be in it for a long while yet.”