Exercising all his power

Fitness-equipment mogul using his business drive in personal fight against ALS

November 04, 2005|By BLYTHE BERNHARD | BLYTHE BERNHARD,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Augie Nieto first noticed his life had changed when he struggled to lift the same weights he had lifted every day for 30 years.

Must be getting older, Nieto, 47, thought.

The story, now legend, of Augustine L. Nieto II starts with an overweight child growing up in Anaheim, Calif. Nieto's passion for weight loss and exercise led to a class project as an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College - starting a strength-training gym.

"I was just that kid who found exercise as his fantasy, his religion, his way of being," Nieto said. "Once I did, I wanted to spread the word and take this to every corner of the world."

When Family Fitness Centers founder Ray Wilson pitched his Lifecycle - a bright-yellow stationary bike - to the gym in 1977, Nieto immediately recognized its potential and bought the marketing rights. After graduation, Nieto traveled the country in a motor home to sell the Lifecycle. He sold just 11 bikes in nine months.

Undeterred, Nieto and Wilson founded Lifecycle Inc. and shipped the bikes for free to 50 health-club owners. Soon, the bikes popped up in clubs nationwide and fitness fanatics lined up. By the time Nieto graduated in 1980, the company's profits hit $500,000, and the cardiovascular craze was born.

Norm Cates of Club Insider News, a fitness-industry publication, calls Nieto "the Henry Ford of the exercise industry."

"Titan is a good word. Icon is a good word. Legend is a good word. And friend to the industry are the best words," Cates said. "Without Augie Nieto's work on Lifecycle, 25, 30 years ago, the health-club industry clearly wouldn't be what it's like today. It got people doing cardiovascular exercise."

Nieto sold Lifecycle when revenues reached $7 million a year and continued to run the company as it morphed into Life Fitness, adding stair steppers and treadmills to become one of the world's largest fitness-equipment makers.

Under Nieto's watch, revenues hit nearly $200 million by 1997 before Life Fitness was sold again for $310 million. Earlier this year, Nieto was named chairman of Minnesota-based Octane Fitness, which designs and distributes elliptical trainers.

About a year ago, Nieto noticed a subtle weakening when he lifted weights. Then his right arm began twitching. Shaving the right side of his face became difficult. Last March, Nieto visited a Mayo Clinic site in Arizona for a four-day evaluation.

The grim diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. The progressive disease attacks nerve cells and gradually robs patients of their voluntary muscle control. People with ALS can expect to become paralyzed, unable to speak and eventually unable to breathe. The disease does not affect brain function. Most patients die, typically of respiratory failure, within three to five years of diagnosis.

More than 5,600 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year, usually between the ages of 40 and 70. There is no known cause or cure.

The irony of his muscle-wasting disease is not lost on Nieto. But exercise will help keep him alive, Nieto said, and the endorphins will help him cope. Today, Nieto works out an hour each day and maintains normal mobility. He created his own drug regimen with the help of doctors after trips to six university clinics nationwide.

"I can't go through life thinking that what I have can't be beaten," he said.

To beat his disease, Nieto will deploy every entrepreneurial skill he has. Selling, branding, cause marketing. Calling on powerful friends, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"This is a business problem," Nieto said. "I believe there's a cure, and I don't take no for an answer. This is no different from when I knocked on people's doors and tried to sell them a Lifecycle. I believed they needed it."

Now, the tanned, handsome man with thick, salt-and-pepper hair has teamed up with the Muscular Dystrophy Association to form "Augie's Quest" and raise money for ALS research. He assembled a board of directors and helped organize a dinner that raised more than $1 million, the MDA's most successful first-time event ever.

The MDA provides research, medical services and education for more than 40 neuromuscular diseases, including ALS.

"Augie has inspired all of us at MDA to work even harder than we do every day to help find a cure for ALS," said Shannon Shryne, divisional field representative for MDA.

Instead of motivating salespeople, Nieto now motivates scientists. In a unique partnership, Nieto will work with ALS experts to decide how the money from Augie's Quest is distributed.

Today, Nieto chooses to drink the good wine from deep in his wine cellar. Each day, he wakes up in his cliffside home in Corona del Mar, Calif., and vows to make a memory with his wife, Lynne, and their children, Nicole, 22, Danielle, 20, Austin, 19, and Lindsay, 16. Whatever time he has left, Nieto says, is dedicated to them.

The family recently traveled to Seattle for Austin's football game. Watching his son play for the same team he did, the Claremont McKenna Stags, was "magical" for Nieto.

The executive and family man has written down how he wants to be remembered: as a good husband and father, a loyal friend and someone who can be counted on to do the right thing.

Augie Nieto echoes Lou Gehrig when he thinks back on his own life.

"I can look at the ocean and say I'm the luckiest man in the world," Nieto says.

Blythe Bernhard writes for the Orange County Register.

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