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Tue 5 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Fit for champions

Technogym's Nerio Alessandri explains what it means to be exclusive supplier for the Olympics.

Fit for champions
Fit for champions

Technogym's Nerio Alessandri explains what it means to be exclusive supplier for the Olympics.

Technogym was born in my family's garage," begins Nerio Alessandri, the company's creator, founder and CEO.

Right on cue his assistant produces a picture of said garage complete with one of Technogym's very first models of fitness equipment. "My dream was always to become an entrepreneur, you see."

Philippe Starck was actually quoted as saying, when he saw the new range, that he was speechless.

From a one man operation in his parent's garage in small town Italy the company has grown over the last quarter century to become the benchmark for the fitness industry; over 1,400 employees are now spread across 12 global branches.

According to the company's figures, in Italy alone more than 30,000 fitness centres and 20,000 private households are equipped with Technogym equipment.

The financial figures reflect this: In 2004 to 2005 the group grew 115%; '05 to '06 saw 65% growth; and the '06 to '07 statistics are expected to come in at 83%.

In numbers this adds up to just over US$405m turnover for 2005, and a brand which enjoys global recognition in its field - the odds are that the vast majority of gym-goers will have used at least one piece of Technogym equipment in the last few months.

Yet Alessandri originally had little idea how to go about achieving his dream. "How could I?" he asks, "My family were set in their traditions and experiences and there isn't any tradition of entrepreneurship."

So the then 22-year-old set about combining his aptitude as an industrial designer and his passion for sports to create his first prototype.

"I took my competence for bio-mechanical design and technology and gymnastics - and made ‘Techno-gym'. Technology and gymnastics is my DNA."

Alessandri then took his first prototype to a small gym in his hometown that was owned by one of his friends.

"After a week I went back and lots of people were using it; it was successful because it was a real novelty - good design, easy to use, reliable..." the list goes on and it is hard to gauge how much is tongue-in-cheek until he laughs at his own list.

"And after a month my friend asked if I could try and make another one, and then, after a year, I completed the entire line. A year later I launched the company and Technogym Wellness was born."

From these humble beginnings to the position that the brand now occupies (exclusive supplier to the Olympic games in Sydney, Athens, Beijing and Torino; supplier to most of the Italian and European premier football teams; working with Ferrari; courted by global stars from Giorgio Armani to Madonna) requires a large amount of drive, and the slight Italian's desire to spread the word is evident in the way he talks of his product and the amount of energy that he puts into everything.

Throughout the interview he is always looking ahead, pulling out pictures, presentations and leaflets, and the animation with which he talks about the company shows that he does not just want acknowledgement, he wants converts.

His passion shines through not just in the product line that the company produces but in all aspects of the equipment; from reliability to design.

"We exhibited at the Salone del Mobile and we have won two awards; the Red Dot [one of the most prestigious design awards in Europe] and the Compasso D'Orro.

Philippe Starck was actually quoted as saying, when he saw the new range, that he was speechless! He praised it and said that he wanted it in his house - and this is something that has been designed by one of his competitors, Antonio Citterio!"

Alessandri wants Technogym's aesthetics to stand out from the crowd and to this end the company employs a department specifically to oversee this part of the process: "We position ourselves differently to otherv companies.

In the last 20 years everything that we've done has been Wellness design driven. We created a special department for this, we have 200 people in the Wellness centre.

The final product has to be part of the environment, like the furniture. Technogym has become number one in the world because customers buy not just the product but the ‘total solution'; technology, consulting services, software - as well as design."

This "total solution" is something that has tapped into the contemporary desire for healthy lifestyles and capitalised on the wealth of services that can be set up to cater for this. "You see, life has changed," Alessandri explains.

"15 years ago I wrote a book; it sold a lot of copies worldwide, but fifteen years ago people didn't fully understand. Now they buy wellness recipes, cars, hospitality."

"Wellness is the new frontier. The post-industrial era has meant that the person is at the centre of things and technology is now behind that; we've gone from hi-tech to high-touch."

"We need to rediscover our bodies, our balance, our values."
This is the message that he is keen to get out to the world: Wellness, or the pursuit of health alternatives including exercise, nutrition and lifestyle choices, is the path of the future.

To this end the group has launched a series of corporate social responsibility initiatives aimed at schools and businesses: "Wellness is not just the gym but also the lifestyle."

"We invest in education, in promotions. We created the Wellness Foundation to promote healthy lifestyles, to prevent cardiovascular problems."

You see, Technogym is really two parts: The business and the social commitment. The Foundation was founded because of our sense of social responsibility, to combat things like childhood obesity.

Every year we have two or three conventions; Tokyo, Shanghai, London - and they're for everyone; governments and companies but mainly for people to improve their quality of life. All of Technogym's shareholders are involved in Technogym's projects. We try to create value together."

This sense of creating value for the consumer, coupled with the brand's reputation in the marketplace, is what has helped to foster connections with some of the top names across a wide breadth of sports, including the deals for the last three Olympiads and the 2006 Doha Asian Games.

"We have over 30 footballs teams for who we provide equipment; Manchester United, Ajax, Juventus, of course AC Milan and many more," says Alessandri, proudly pulling out pictures of himself with celebrities from each team he mentions.

"We followed Michael Schumacher for 15 years for his training programmes. Our reputation in sports is very high, and for us to be the official supplier for Beijing is a very big deal. But the reason we stand out is that we offer not just the products but also the services."

We educate the athletes as to how to use the products correctly. This is the added value that we provide to all those teams from the Olympics, to the Americas Cup to Ferrari Formula One to the football teams, it's an active relationship - we have the doctors, the innovation and the tradition."

As well as the sporting giants, celebrities, cultural icons and global brands all continue to beat a path to Alessandri's door: "We started with Arnold Schwarzennegger 20 years ago and Sylvester Stallone during the ‘Rocky' era. Silvio Berlusconi uses our equipment as does Mr Armani."

Despite the links to all this glitz and glamour Alessandri remains grounded in the company rather than the associations he has developed thanks to it. "For me, each day is like the first - I love doing it, you know. I can say that I never work, this is my hobby."

"I don't ask Armani to use my product, how could I? He uses it because he wants to give a good image of himself. BMW's new campaign has the car on the Technogym treadmill, but I didn't ask for it, they wanted to use it."

"Dolce & Gabbana use Technogym for its worldwide advertising campaign, but that's because it matches the lifestyle that it wants to illustrate."

Italy's national pride in its entrepreneurial son continues to grow: In 2001 Alessandri became the youngest ever ‘Cavaliere del Lavoro', Italy's industry knighthood; in 2003 Ernst & Young named him Entrepreneur of the Year; 2004 saw him accede to the governing advisory board of the Italian Industrialist Association and receive the Leonardo Award for Italian Quality at the Quirinale in Rome.

These are combined with a range of honorary academic degrees - Motor Sciences, from the University of Urbino, Biomedical Engineering from the University of Bologna, and the "Results Award" for the company's continuous growth from the University of Bocconi.

The passion that Alessandri brings to the business is what he expects from his colleagues and employees. The effectiveness of this strategy is underlined by the group being voted one of the top ten European companies to work for, and the best in Italy.

"It is essential to build positiveness at work, we are proud of this," he smiles. "We invest in education, we invest in Wellness benefits. We created the Technogym School inside the company and we involved the whole team in the Wellness projects."

"Every three years we organise an international convention for all our employees all over the world, and every year we have one in each country where we have an office. It helps to maintain our Technogym culture."

It is this culture that Alessandri is bringing to the Gulf with the creation of Technogym Emirates in the UAE, and with US$15m of the company's retail turnover coming from the Middle East there is plenty of scope for expansion.

"We've met a lot of the big property developers and we think that Technogym is a very important way for them to add value. Our mission is to create value together you see, I like to become part of people's lives."

"I want people to be able to say that Nerio leads by example," he says - and he practises what he preaches, being easily able to pass for a good decade younger than his 47 years - "I think that's the most important thing, but I also learn a lot from my colleagues; we work hard but we have fun."

Name: Nerio Alessandri

Age: 47

Length of time in position: 25 years

Core values: to encourage wellness and improve people's lifestyles

Best piece of advice: Be yourself, don't pretend to be something that you're not.

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