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Sun 1 Jun 2014 03:57 PM

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Creating an empire: Inside the world of a wellness visionary

Arabian Business travels to Italy to learn how Technogym's Nerio Alessandri turned his small garage-based operation into a global force

Creating an empire: Inside the world of a wellness visionary

Set amidst the gleaming facades and high-tech equipment of Technogym Village in Cesena, Italy, there sits a rustic old-fashioned bench.

“When I started in the garage my vision was to put the world in movement,” says Nerio Alessandri, as he looks at the first piece of gym equipment he designed when he was just 22.

Painted in bold bright red, the haphazardly weld piece symbolised the beginning of a new era.

For Alessandri, a lot has changed since the days of building rudimentary exercise machines in his garage. The company he founded, Technogym, is one of the biggest ‘wellness solutions’ firms, with turnover ticking over to the tune of $550m a year.

Sitting across the man who now can mobilise the elite of Italian politics and economics, I struggled to balance on a dressed-up swiss ball. Bobbing back and forth, as we strengthened our core muscles in full office attire, it was apparent that Alessandri was determined to embed the wellness culture in Technogym’s DNA.

Everything about our surroundings in Technogym Village inspired movement and exuded wellness. Known as the citadel of wellness, the new home of Technogym covers 60,000 square feet of land, cost $80m to build and took a total of four years to realise.

So what’s does he credit for his great success story? A smile.

Yes, it is that simple. Smilling, having passion and finding happiness is the key. And if you don’t find happiness in your work, that is a huge drawback.

“Productivity can increase by 20-30 percent if you have happy and active employees. If you have people that are not in shape and are not feeling well, they will not have energy throughout the work day and will stay home sick very often,” he says.

“If we take a team of people and give them a problem-solving challenge, but take them to the gym for a workout before they sit down to solve it, the results are three times better than if they have been leading a sedentary lifestyle,” he says. “We ran studies that showed that their creativity is completely different in terms of new ideas, motivation and brainstorming. In addition, their memory is doubled.”

So if the missing link is right in front of us, why don’t we all know about it?

“There is a reason for this,” says Alessandri. “The pharmaceutical industry does not have an interest to invest in these kinds of results. They are completely against the words ‘food’ and ‘nutrition’. They want people to be fed and they want to sell their medicines.

“Another more political reason is that in order to invest in prevention, governments need to think in the long-term. Today, governments are thinking on a very short-term basis. Everybody works for the next week’s consensus, and not for a long-term goal,” he adds.

Alessandri knows all about long-term goals. Three decades ago, when he visited a gym for the very first time he saw that there was a really huge gap between him and other members.

“I was very thin, and the environment was quite intimidating, filled with bodybuilders and muscular guys. I understood that I needed some help,” he says.

“The human being is a perfect machine and I wanted to design a perfect form around the human body that could help everybody, not just people who are into sports and fitness.”

Alessandri explains that there is a significant difference between fitness and wellness which he describes as the hedonistic rational approach versus the aspirational lifestyle approach.

“To give an example, in the US, they go to the gym, work out, and then head out to eat at McDonalds,” he states.

“The American DNA is based on fitness because fitness is the hedonistic approach with a focus on looking good. The Italian and European culture however, is based on wellness and lifestyle because wellness is built into our heritage with the Mediterranean diet, the Olympic Games, relaxation and spas and a general positive approach to life.”

Human beings were born to cover 30km a day, but today, due to our sedentary lifestyle, we cover an average of less than a kilometre per day - and Technogym’s goal is to find a way to cover this 29km gap.

“The problem now is obesity. In the Middle East, the percentage of obesity is over 40 percent, which is huge. There are many bad KPI’s [key performance indicators] that indicate that the world is not at a sustainable level. I believe that we need to move from the greed economy to the wellness economy.”

“We believe that the sustainability of the humanity is not possible without healthy people. Healthy people equals healthy planet. I believe that in the next five to ten years people will realise that this is a necessity and not an option. We must move for a better world,” he adds.

Although the Middle East has not yet made it to Technogym’s list of top global markets, the company has set up offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and provides fitness and wellness products to almost 70 percent of the gyms and hotels in the UAE.

And in Qatar, Technogym is solidifying its presence as they build their biggest project in the Middle East to date.

“We are already with the Doha World Cup which we will be involved in. I was in Doha with Italy’s prime minister [Enrico Letta] a few months ago because they are building a football city, which is something that connects all the world of football,” he says.

When asked what the most important piece of advice he can give to all of us in the Middle East, Alessandri replied: “A successful life begins with wellness and it is never too late to start.”

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