Tennis Industry magazine


Person of the Year: Bahram Akradi

By Peter Francesconi

At first blush, it might seem a stretch to pick as Tennis Industry’s Person of the Year the founder, president and CEO of a chain of fitness clubs. But, Life Time Fitness is no ordinary string of clubs, and Bahram Akradi is no ordinary CEO. In fact, when it comes to tennis and, well, all things fitness related, Life Time is quite extraordinary.

“We want to make sure that whatever sports we offer, we do it in the absolute best fashion,” says the 53-year-old Akradi. “We spend an enormous amount of time creating a sense of place, we work hard to cast the right staff and to make sure our programs are second to none.”

And it’s that story that has taken the Chanhassen, Minn.-based Life Time Fitness from $1 million in revenues in 1992 to a $1.3 billion company today, and from a single club, to now having 25,000 employees at 113 facilities, with more on the way. There are more than 800,000 memberships (including family memberships), which translates into “a couple of million” men, women and children belonging to a Life Time club.

Tennis Investment

Tennis-wise, Life Time has been investing in the sport for years, and it’s hit on a formula that provides top-notch facilities, amenities and programs for its tennis players. The company now has more than 200 courts at 20 locations, including 128 indoor courts, making Life Time Fitness the largest operator of indoor courts in the U.S.

“We are building tennis, and continue to look for opportunities,” says Akradi, who was always into fitness but started playing tennis later in life. In fact, the newest Life Time facility, opened in November in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, has 12 courts — four outdoors and eight indoors. In typical Life Time fashion, the indoor courts are cushioned Rebound Ace in a beautiful facility.

“I didn’t want to have tennis when I first started,” Akradi admits. “When you look at revenue per square foot for tennis versus other things, it’s a head-scratcher. But we ended up buying a club and excess land near Detroit, then bought Wellbridge clubs, and before we knew it, we were doing tennis. Now, I love the sport. And as we delivered the complete spectrum of athletics, I wanted to offer tennis along with squash and racquetball.”

Life Time, says Greg Lappin, the company’s national tennis director, is very committed to the sport. “The business plan for new builds is to attract the top 20 percent of the market, so wherever they purchase property, they try to have land for tennis,” he says.

Lappin says Akradi figured out that, while tennis may not be as lucrative per square foot, tennis players are much more committed. “With fitness people, one-third may leave every year,” Lappin says. “The tennis attrition is 10 to 12 percent at the better facilities, and that’s what we’re finding. Our member retention is excellent. And when you look at who spends the most in ancillary expenditures, in clubs that have tennis, it’s the tennis members. They stay longer, and they spend more,” and they will travel further to play.

The story of Life Time Fitness, though, wouldn’t be complete without touching on Akradi’s story. The son of an Iranian air force officer, Akradi was 17 years old when he left his home in Tehran in 1978, just ahead of the Iranian revolution. He moved to Colorado, where he lived with an older brother, washed dishes at a restaurant and enrolled in his senior year in high school.

Akradi took college courses at Pikes Peak Community College then at University of Colorado–Colorado Springs for electrical engineering. He also worked the graveyard shift at a Nautilus fitness club. From there, he started selling memberships, then in a few years co-managed a Nautilus club in Minnesota. He soon was looking for new locations to open up Nautilus clubs.

Along the way Akradi, who had always been into working out and keeping fit, developed his own strategy about how to run a successful, customer-centric health and fitness business. In 1992, he left behind a big salary and struck out with his first Life Time Fitness location, in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

Now, the massive, elegant Life Time facilities offer everything from racquet sports, to swimming, to fitness classes, to basketball, weightlifting, aerobics — the roster is nearly endless. The rows of aerobic machines are truly impressive. Many locations have a café that serves healthy food. And there are areas for entertaining, relaxing and socializing.

Focus on the Customer

“When I started Life Time, I had looked at how we were doing business in this industry as a whole, and I was disappointed in the fitness industry’s perspective on how they dealt with customers,” Akradi says. “Everything was from a business owner’s point of view, but it wasn’t the best product, service or program.

“We wanted to design a club that in all ways suited the members. So, we have a month-to-month membership. We give our customers a long leash for money-back guarantees. We wanted to do everything right for the customer.”

That thinking also is why Akradi offers the Rebound Ace surface. “When Life Time does something,” adds Lappin, “it does it top shelf. I really enjoy Rebound Ace; it’s much softer. It adds a few hundred thousand dollars to the bill, but for our customers, it’s worth it. It’s our commitment to giving a first-class product.”

With tennis, Akradi is hoping to work more with the USTA “to build a program where we can sponsor and pay for kids on a regular basis,” he says. “I really want Life Time to impact tennis in America in a big way.”

Akradi himself plays tennis once or twice a week and sees the sport as important in the overall scheme of health and fitness. In addition, he still keeps very active with other fitness activities, including biking and cycling.

But his passion is in giving customers what they want and need — and doing it in the best way possible. “That’s allowed us to evolve and get better all the time,” he says.

— Peter Francesconi

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About the Author

Peter Francesconi is editorial director of Tennis Industry magazine.



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