Editors' Note: This ongoing series examines the family side of the fitness business where passionate fitness entrepreneurs have instilled the love of fitness to the next generation. This series is not about the achievements of these families (easily found via websites or a Google search). Rather, we present the human-interest story, which, after all, is about interesting humans. The series has been made possible by the generous sponsorship of Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services, Inc.
Nineteen-year-old Joy Riley was scouring the Del Mar (CA) County Fair in the summer of 1974—desperate, or nearly so, to find a job—when she wandered by a 30-foot booth with several buff, workout-type guys selling incline exercise boards.
“I knew I could sell those things,” she recently recalled thinking at the moment. “Plus, one of the guys was tall, dark and handsome.”
And as things have a way of going, the tall, dark and handsome guy “recruited” her, and her introduction to the concept that would become Total Gym had occurred.
But Joy’s father didn’t care for Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, which was fine with Joy because it was the other guy, she actually fell for. Tom Campanaro, short, fair (and arguably just as handsome), a former bodybuilder from Philadelphia, with a quick wit and strong faith in both himself and God, had everything Joy was looking for.
“Actually, he had the best chest I ever saw,” she laughed.
It would be more than 30 years before the fitness industry embraced the concept on which Total Gym was based: body-weight resistance, also known as functional training.
After brainstorming with Joy, Tom Campanaro and his partner Doug Marino created Total Gym in 1974 and started exhibiting at county fairs, medical conference expos and ultimately more than 200 events a year – promoting the healthy benefits of their product.
“We capitalized the company with $3,500 and no place to manufacture,” Tom said. Today, Total Gym products are used in 14,000 physical therapy clinics, athletic training facilities, hospitals, universities, professional sports teams and health clubs – inspiring more than 24 million workouts per month worldwide, according to the company.
“Nobody in fitness was interested in us,” Tom said. “But the dentists and physical therapists loved us. One dentist encouraged us to get into the American Dental Association show. We were the first non-dental product to display there, and we sold to thousands of dentists, mainly because the Total Gym tremendously helped them with their back problems caused by bending over patients all day every day.”
It was a struggle in the early years, said Joy, who was photographer, designer and ultimately marketing director of the company. And when daughter Shanan was born in 1977 and son Jesse in 1979, the stakes increased.
“We relied on our faith, our faith in our products, the business and our faith in God,” she said.
Tom and additional partners Dale McMurray and Larry Westfall had put the first Total Gym home-grown commercial on television in 1976, and two years later a chance introduction to martial artist Chuck Norris sowed the seeds of explosive growth.
Westfall was into martial arts, and his dream was to some day do something with Norris. It turns out that in 1978 Total Gym’s printer was a guy with a black belt who loved the product, knew Norris and believed Norris would have interest in it.
“I think that day when Chuck Norris walked in, Larry probably pissed in his pants,” laughed Tom. “As Chuck transitioned from martial artist to movie star, we shipped boards all over the world to where he was filming. He’s that passionate about the product.”
Immersed in the concepts of fitness and entrepreneurship from birth, Jesse Campanaro grew up active and athletic. A star athlete in high school, he captained the football team at Bentley College (now Bentley University), a Division II athletic school, but a Division I business school.
“I was going to major in marketing, but my dad convinced me to focus on finance,” he recalled. “It was a good choice.”
As a little kid, Jesse was in and around Total Gym, cleaning, organizing, upholstering—with Tom paying him $2 for every board he upholstered.
“It was great. Once you got good, you could do 20 boards an hour,” said Jesse, who often would work on the boards for six hours on Saturdays.
As demand quickly outgrew Jesse’s ability to maintain the pace, and in one of his first tastes of entrepreneurship, he hired friends to help, paying them $1 per board.
As Tom tells the story, “So I come into the garage one day, and there’s a bunch of Jesse’s friends all working, and I say, 'Hey what are you doing here?’ and one kids says, ‘We’re making boards; Jesse’s paying us.’ Ha! Jesse’s paying them a buck and pocketing a buck for doing nothing."
Jesse countered, “I didn’t do nothing. I trained the crew and monitored quality control.”
In 1982, the Campanaros sold Total Gym to West Bend, electing to follow Jesse’s gymnastics passion at the time, opening The Gymnastics Center in San Diego. They fielded teams, hosted competitions but eventually fell out of love with the retail concept. By 1986, West Bend was looking to sell Total Gym, and the Campanaros bought it back.
“For less than we sold it for,” Jesse said.
From there, the business took off. Demand had increased, and supply had diminished. Doctors, dentists and physical therapists were calling, looking for boards. Joy was doing marketing from home, the international market was opening, and a consumer model was unveiling. Times were crazy.
And then came infomercials. With a consumer model ready to market, Tom understood the potential reach of this medium that could offer comprehensive demonstrations. In 1996, he sealed a deal with American Telecast Products (ATP) to produce the first Total Gym infomercial, featuring spokespersons Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley. It became the longest running fitness infomercial in history, broadcast in more than 85 countries with more than four million units sold, and it is still going strong.
“The infomercials became a huge [source of] cash flow for us, especially in the early years,” Joy said. ”We were super blessed.”
But the blessing came with a curse. The brand was painted so thoroughly with the consumer/infomercial brush that so-called mainstream fitness turned its back on the product, the Campanaros said. Despite a major Syracuse University study espousing the benefits of Total Gym’s products, despite professional sports team trainers using the product and despite endorsements from professional and Olympic athletes, breaking into the health club market segment was laborious.
So, Total Gym developed a sub-brand, The Gravity System, for its first foray into the commercial club market. Eventually, the company rebranded back to Total Gym, a move coinciding with Jesse’s emergence in the company.
In 2003, Jesse began working full time for Total Gym in commercial sales, launching the Gravity program and focusing on that market to drive sales. His sales work led to sales leadership, and over time, the family began discussing the company's structure, family dynamics, succession planning, roles, leadership—essentially the how and when of the baton being passed.
“When we got into fitness (the health club industry), Jesse had to be the guy to build and develop relationships,” Tom said. “He fit the industry better.”
Tom had been reluctant to go into health clubs, the industry that had dismissed his equipment for years.
“They didn’t understand functional training until many years later,” he said. “They'd say, 'Where’s the weight? It doesn’t isolate muscles. It doesn’t do this or that.' And all the while physical therapists understood it, sooner and better.”
But Jesse knew the commercial club market. He had been working it and selling to it. And as functional training transitioned from fad to trend to staple, Jesse was ready.
“Jesse always worked hard in the company,” Joy said. "He earned people’s respect. No one felt he was given a silver spoon. Everybody trusted him. When his time came, everybody in the company was excited.”
That time was 2012. At that time, Total Gym separated the licensing and intellectual property side of the business from the commercial operating side. Tom and Joy took licensing and intellectual property, and Jesse took the commercial operating reigns. It is his opportunity to take the brand to the next level.
“I’m comfortable in the fitness industry,” Jesse said. “There’s lots of opportunity not only in specific market segments but also with new products. We have a relentless pursuit of the best workout experience—that’s the intent behind all of our new product innovation, and it’s been the intent since 1974.”
The Eisenzimmer family of Gresham, Oregon
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services for their generous support of this and subsequent articles in this series. Both companies encourage the entrepreneurial spirit represented in investment in the fitness business.
Note to Readers:
If you know of a Next Generation Fitness Family with a unique story to tell, who you would like to see featured in this space, please let us know. The family can come from any segment of the industry (i.e., clubs, boutiques, suppliers, associations). Send a note to Chuck Leve at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chuck Leve is a 45-year veteran of the fitness industry and developer of fitness industry associations. Currently, he serves as the executive vice president of business development for the Association of Fitness Studios (AFS). He was the founding employee of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), where among his accomplishments was the creation and growth of the IHRSA trade show, the largest fitness expo in North America.