Phillip Mills and how he built a global empire by making exercise fun

A future in the fitness industry seemed inevitable for Phillip Mills.

When Mills was growing up, his family home in Dickens St, Gray Lynn, Auckland, also served as a gym for Olympic weightlifters like Don Oliver, and he remembers looking over the bank to watch Kiwi Olympic athletics champion Peter Snell run Kenyan Olympian Kip Keino. in Gray Lynn Park.

In his early teens and with demand for the family gymnasium increasing, his parents, Les and Colleen Mills, who had represented New Zealand at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, opened Les Mills Fitness World in Victoria St, Auckland. It was so small that there was only one set of changing rooms, so men and women had to train every other day.

His parents employed talented coaches in many sports, including track and field, gymnastics, weightlifting and martial arts, which inspired young Mills.

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“What hooked me and created my passion for working in gyms was working with these inspiring people,” says the 67-year-old.

While they wanted to train the best athletes in the world, they also wanted to change and improve the lives of ordinary people, he says.

Mills World of Fitness moved into this building on Auckland's Victoria Street in 1979, and it remains their flagship gym.

Auckland Star Historical Photographic Archive

Mills World of Fitness moved into this building on Auckland’s Victoria Street in 1979, and it remains their flagship gym.

Thanks to a four-year sports scholarship at UCLA in the United States, Mills, who has represented New Zealand at two Commonwealth Games, was introduced to group exercise to music in an early aerobics class in a high school hall in Los Angeles.

“I’ve always wanted to make exercise fun,” he says. “It was an ‘aha’ moment.”

Mills had ties to the music industry, having fronted the rock band Hello Sailor when they were in Los Angeles through a connection to his sister Donna Mills, also a Commonwealth Games representative, and was struck by their stage presence.

“It was inspiring to see how charismatic they were on stage and what a buzz it gave people and I thought, OK, how can we incorporate that into fitness,” he says.

Upon returning to New Zealand, Mills sought out theater and dance specialists to help teach fitness instructors how to project themselves on stage, perform music, create experiences and communicate with large groups of people.

The Jazzergetics and Jazzercise aerobics-style fitness classes he helped create became a huge hit.

The Les Mills business was booming, licensing its fitness classes to other New Zealand clubs and expanding to Australia. The company went public in 1984 and was later bought out by an investment company, but a month after the takeover the stock market crash of 1987 wiped out the new owners.

Phillip Mills saw the potential for group exercise in music when he was in the United States on a four-year sports scholarship.

Provided

Phillip Mills saw the potential for group exercise in music when he was in the United States on a four-year sports scholarship.

Phillip and his wife Jackie Mills, a former national gymnast and aerobics champion who met in the gym, regained control of the business, going into millions of dollars in debt and selling its Australian assets to keep going. flow.

Responding to the demand for more athletic classes, the creative duo developed the BodyPump program, which uses weights, and it became the largest branded exercise program in the world.

The gym chain now has more than 50,000 members at 12 clubs across the country and its global Les Mills International branch has 130,000 accredited instructors delivering Les Mills fitness classes weekly at 21,000 gyms across 110 countries.

But he has fallen on hard times during the Covid-19 pandemic with gyms across the world closing.

To ensure its survival, the company appealed to its first external investor, ACC taking an 18.8% stake in Les Mills International. Mills says he’s open to hiring other big international investors to help the brand expand internationally, but says the family would like to continue to be in control.

The couple’s children, Diana Mills and Les Jr, now hold senior positions in the business and are contributing to its current renewal for a younger generation. It’s something the company undertakes about every 10 years to stay fresh and relevant.

Jackie Mills is a nutritional medicine specialist, obstetrician and general practitioner, as well as a former national champion in gymnastics and aerobics.

Provided

Jackie Mills is a nutritional medicine specialist, obstetrician and general practitioner, as well as a former national champion in gymnastics and aerobics.

Jackie Mills, a former GP and now Les Mills’ creative director, is overseeing changes that include the development of its gym of the future in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

The 62-year-old says it will be an innovation and community center to attract the younger generation. With more time spent online, this group is looking for a place to gather to train, boosting both their physical and mental health, something that has gained momentum since Covid.

Les Mills faces big global competitors, including online fitness companies like Peloton and Apple Fitness Plus and rival exercise classes like Zumba.

Phillip Mills sees online subscriptions as the company’s big growth opportunity. In 2020, the company’s OnDemand app was voted best home workout at the annual USA Today Reader’s Choice Awards.

Mills estimates that the company spends $100 million a year creating content for its courses.

The company maintains relations with all the music companies in the world and its choreography team listens to around 2000 songs to choose a dozen. New classes are tested up to 50 times before filming, and the company uses its best teachers around the world to train for a perfect performance captured by no less than 15 cameras on sets that could be in the wild. , or at major global conventions with thousands of people.

It’s a nifty machine compared to its rivals whose teachers can put together a new class when they come in every day and film with one or two cameras, and a far cry from the early days of Les Mills when teachers learned from diagrams written on paper. Remarks.

Mills says the company wants to become the Disney of fitness movies. He estimates that Les Mills is currently the fifth or sixth largest in the world for online subscriptions.

“This is our big opportunity,” he said. “We then strive to get into the top three and hopefully take the top spot at some point and win the gold medal.”

– Les, Phillip and Jackie Mills are among this year’s recipients of the NZ Business Hall of Fame. The award celebrates the achievements of New Zealand business leaders who have made significant contributions to the social and economic development of the country.

The awards were created by The Young Enterprise Trust, a charity that seeks to inspire students and support business education in schools.

Kristen T. Prall