Fitness Leader Augie Nieto Aims for a Future without ALS

Act One: Picture a man—young, tall, muscular with full dark hair, his skin kissed by the sun, driving fast cars, visiting exotic places, cruising on his yacht, heading a successful fitness equipment manufacturing company and living in his California beach house with his high school sweetheart. This is Augie Nieto of the past, the co-founder of Life Fitness and a man some aspired to be and some may even have envied.

"During his entire tenure at Life Fitness, everybody had one question: 'What was Augie doing?' Everybody had their eye on Augie," said John McCarthy, former executive director of IHRSA.

Act Two: Picture a man sitting in a motorized wheelchair, his voice taken from him, his ability to breathe on his own and move his body limited by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells, causing muscles to waste away. This is Augie Nieto today. Few people in the industry likely envy his life today, but Augie is grateful for it.

"I feel like everything that’s happened to me, both professionally and personally, led me to the place I am in my life now," Augie typed by moving two tracking balls with his toes into a specially designed computer program that allows him to communicate. "Yes, I have ALS and that sucks. But I know unconditional love, I have three beautiful grandkids that call me Pops, I have stronger relationships with my grown children and enjoy them and their spouses so much. I still get to work with the leaders in the fitness industry to make this world a better place. I’m challenged every day and know I still have so much to contribute. So, like everyone, I made mistakes, but they led me to where I am now, so I’m grateful."

As Augie wrote in one of his two books, his life has gone from success to significance. Even though he may downplay the significance of his life at the helm of Life Fitness, the setting of his first act offered a significance that cannot be overlooked for the fitness industry.

Act One: The Fitness Industry

For much of Augie's childhood, he was overweight. That is, until he discovered the benefits of exercise and lost almost 100 pounds prior to his junior year in high school. That year, Augie caught the eye of Lynne Bransford, now his wife, and the two dated during their junior and senior years, going their separate ways for college.

While at Claremont College in the late 1970s, Augie combined his entrepreneurial streak with his love of fitness, becoming part owner of a health club. To attract more women into his heavily male membership, he tried different products, soon discovering the Lifecycle at a Family Fitness Center in San Diego owned by Ray Wilson. The four computerized stationary bikes that Wilson had were a big hit with his female members, and Augie had intentions of translating that success to his club. The bike took users on a 12-minute "ride" on simulated hills, which showed up on the dashboard as red dots. The Lifecycle showed users how fast they were going and how far they had gone—information that was revolutionary at that time.

Wilson owned the North American rights to the Lifecycle, which was created in 1968 by Dr. Keene Dimick. Augie partnered with Wilson to distribute the Lifecycle, and in 1979, the two created Lifecycle Inc. Augie sold his piece of his health club, bought an RV that he named Sluggo and traveled the country with one demonstration bike and his friend and college roommate Scott McFarlane to sell the Lifecycle to the largest health club owners. To finance his venture, Nieto borrowed about $200,000 of the $421,000 investment from family and friends.

But the Lifecycle initially didn't sell as well as Augie had anticipated. The $3,000 price tag (equating to $9,800 in today's dollars) may have had something to do with that. Then, Augie hit on an idea: he would give a Lifecycle to the 50 top club operators for their personal use. Once they saw how exciting the product was to use, he was sure they would buy more. And he was right. Soon, the company began to receive orders.

Some of his first customers included Ron Hemelgarn, who owned health clubs in the Midwest, and Mark Mastrov, who at that time owned Nautilus Health (later to become 24 Hour Fitness).

The Lifecycle was the dawn of a new era, Mastrov said.

"It meant that technology was about to enter our industry," Mastrov said. "I think a good 40 percent of the member base is focused on cardiovascular equipment, and so the bells and whistles that have been created over the years and inundated our industry changed our industry for the better. Without what Augie created—and others that came behind him—the industry wouldn’t be where it is today."

But the product was not without problems. The Lifecycles were heavy, requiring two people to lift them, Mastrov recalled. Users tended to stand on the housing unit instead of stepping across it to the pedals, which caused the housing unit to break. Exercisers' sweat dripped on the consoles, corroding and cracking the materials. The electronics also broke down.

"The bikes couldn’t withstand the volume of thousands of people using them a week," Mastrov said. "They had to go back and improve the product line."

And improve they did. Augie brought a friend, Bryan Andrus, to the company's Irvine, California, plant where the products were assembled to work with Ron Dorwart on improving the product. The pressure to improve the bikes was especially high because Augie guaranteed every bike, repairing or replacing them with no questions asked, Dorwart recalled in Augie's book "Augie's Quest: One Man's Journey from Success to Significance." In return, the club owners often purchased more Lifecycles.

Augie was the reason Hemelgarn continued to buy the Lifecycle despite the initial problems.

"When I communicated with Augie, he didn’t disagree with me," Hemelgarn said. "He wanted to know everything that was going wrong, and he fixed it. I've dealt with a lot of salespeople. Some make excuses. Augie never makes excuses. He just wanted to find a solution. That is why I stayed with him over all these years."

Peter Brown, president of Athletic Business Media, worked with Augie in the early 1980s selling the Lifecycle. Brown credits Dale Dibble, co-founder of Cedardale Health and Fitness and one of the industry gurus at that time, for helping to increase Lifecycle sales. Dibble was a fan of the Lifecycle after he used it while recuperating from heart surgery, impressing his cardiologist with his progress.

In 1982 at the first IHRSA trade show, Dibble brought a group of about 14 health club owners by the Lifecycle booth at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas and told the group that the Lifecycle was the greatest product he ever bought

"Right there, we must have sold 50 bikes," Brown said.  

Augie showcased his product to even more club owners at another trade show after Brown and he noticed that club owners would sneak onto the trade show floor at 6 a.m. to use the equipment for their morning workouts before early morning workouts were a tradition at trade shows. So the two ordered muffins and coffee from room service and took the food to the exhibit hall for the club owners. They were the only vendors there.

"We had full run of every club owner who was there," Brown said. "It gave Augie a one-on-one opportunity. You are talking about the greatest salesman in the business."

Still the high ticket price was hampering sales, even though Augie allowed some operators to lease the bikes for $70 per month. So Augie targeted large chains in hopes that large orders would help reduce the price of the Lifecycle to something more affordable, considering the competing bike at the time—the Monarch—was selling for $600.

In 1985, Augie worked a deal with the big player at that time, Don Wildman, owner of Health and Tennis Clubs, that decreased the price to $1,900, Brown said.

Augie's reputation grew as the reputation of the Lifecycle grew.

People knew that a handshake was all they needed to do a deal with Augie, said Pat Regan, who has been in the industry since 1978 and once was a dealer for Life Fitness. Today, Regan is vice president of purchasing for Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, Minnesota.

"It was really a trust-based relationship with Augie," Regan said. "Those trust-based relationships—you can't buy them; you earn them. And the only way you earned them was time and being authentic over time. And that is who Augie was. He was always authentic."

The company had an advantage over other equipment manufacturers at that time, Brown said, because it was the only maker of commercial fitness equipment that sold directly to commercial health clubs at a time when others sold through dealers or regional distributors.

"So, we had direct feedback on our product from our customers and users," Brown said. "It gave us a distinct advantage because it wasn't filtered through a distributor or dealer. That was the way that Augie insisted on having it. Augie dealt directly with the customers. He wouldn’t have it any other way."

Bally Manufacturing Corp., which made gaming machines, purchased Lifecycle Inc. from Augie and Wilson in 1984 for $10 million and renamed it Bally Fitness Products Inc. Augie came with the company, and with his leadership and Bally’s financial backing and production capacity, the company grew steadily. In 1987, the company was renamed Life Fitness and eventually added strength equipment. In 1991, Augie partnered with Mancuso & Co. to buy the company back from Bally. In 1997, he sold the company to Brunswick Corp.

Act Two: ALS

Today, Augie spends a typical weekday afternoon sitting in the sunlit living room of his seven-story beach house in Corona del Mar, California, with a view to the waves of the Pacific Ocean several stories below him. This seemingly lonely picture is not what it appears. Rather than being isolated from the world, the afternoons Augie spends at his computer are his lifeline to the world. His world today involves serving as chairman to three organizations: Octane Fitness, Augie's Quest and ALS Therapy Development Institute. Plus, he serves on the boards of Curves and Jenny Craig and is an operating advisor to North Castle Partners, whose investments in the fitness industry include Octane Fitness, Curves and Jenny Craig.  He communicates by using his toes to operate a specially designed computer program that allows him to respond to emails and participate in WebEx meetings with his companies.

Augie's mornings start around 6:30 a.m. with the arduous process of getting out of bed with the assistance of one of his full-time caregivers, showering, getting dressed and eating through a feeding tube. But then the fun begins for Augie because he gets to do one of his favorite activities again—exercise.

About two years ago, Augie began exercising at the Claremont Club in Claremont, California, in a program called Project Walk, which was created for people with spinal cord injuries. Augie heard that several participants had improvements in their mobility, and he wanted to see if the exercises would help him regain mobility. Mike Alpert, CEO at the club, set Augie up with one of his trainers, Tanya Slusser.

Now, Slusser works with Augie two times per week in Augie's garage, which is filled with fitness equipment, while another Project Walk trainer, Troy Baker, works with him once per week in the garage. Augie has regained some facial expressions, increased his mobility, is able to breathe without his ventilator again and can stand longer, Slusser said. He even walked his daughter Lindsay down the aisle two years ago and walked onto the stage at the 2013 Bash for Augie's Quest (both times with an assist from Slusser and a tram device that helps lift people who are immobile.)

"Augie is defying the odds," Slusser said, noting that most doctors do not recommend exercise for ALS patients. "I think he is a really great example that exercise can actually move science and push it in a direction where exercise is medicine."

Slusser added: "Providing we have the time, I think Augie can make a functional recovery in one way or another."

That functional recovery could mean one day being able to lift his arm and steer his wheelchair by himself or pick up a fork and put food in his mouth.

Those possibilities are a far cry from the future Augie envisioned for himself right after he was diagnosed with ALS in 2005 at age 47. The first few months after the diagnosis, he admits to being so depressed that he attempted suicide on Memorial Day 2005. When he awoke in the hospital to family by his bedside, he was embarrassed, he admitted in his book.

"When I put myself in his shoes, it didn't shock me," Mastrov said about the attempt. "I don’t know that I wouldn't have made the same decision. There's no way you can understand what he is going through, what he's gone through. He is definitely one of the strongest human beings, if not the strongest human being, I have ever met."

Augie refocused his efforts on raising money to find a cure, and he and Lynne founded Augie's Quest, which is now a fundraising arm of ALS Therapy Development Institute, to help with the efforts. After one successful fundraiser at the Wally Boyko show in summer 2005, several friends suggested doing a fundraiser at the next IHRSA conference, which was less than a year away. That fundraiser became the Bash for Augie's Quest, an annual event that celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. So far, the fitness industry has helped Augie's Quest raise $45 million for ALS research.

Octane Fitness President Dennis Lee, who has known Augie since working with him at Life Fitness, said he thought the first Bash was a great idea and was happy that it raised a lot of money for ALS research, but when Augie spoke about doing it again the next year, Lee had doubts, thinking Augie couldn't go back to the same crowd each year.

"Those are the kind of thoughts I was having," Lee said. "Very limited thoughts, which is hilarious to think about today knowing what he's done the last 10 years because of that courage and risk taking and commitment to putting himself out there to make it happen. To me, that is a big tribute to Augie because he was thinking big, and I was thinking of a one-year program."

That seemingly innate sense of looking broader and contributing more may be one of the things that sustains Augie. Most people with ALS die of despair before they die of the disease, said Chris Clawson, president of Life Fitness, Rosemont, Illinois. Clawson has known Augie for 25 years, and began working with Augie at Life Fitness in 1994. The two traveled the world together, and Clawson saw the drive that Augie had then. He still has it today with all the work he still does in the fitness industry and with ALS, Clawson said.  

"Imagine if somebody just sat in a room for eight hours a day watching TV or something," Clawson said. "How lonely. You are trapped in a body. As unfortunate as the disease is, [Augie's] situation is so fortunate compared to others. I know that he recognizes that."

Shannon Shryne, vice president of business development at ALS Therapy Development Institute, said that despite his physical limitations, Augie has changed the way fundraising is done for ALS. He made Augie's Quest the main fundraising arm of ALS Therapy Development Institute. He also brought his business acumen with him to the ALS world.

"His entrepreneurial personality is exactly what the ALS world needed," Shryne said. "Augie would say that we treat our donors like investors. All the things he learned in the fitness industry and through Life Fitness, he has applied to finding a cure for ALS."

He also brought with him his devotion to teamwork to solve a problem. Just as he built a team to help improve the Lifecycle, he also built a team to solve the mystery of ALS. 

"I had faith in a product that few did when I started LifeCycle," Augie said. "I know we will find a cure for ALS.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I won’t stop until we succeed in finding a cure. I have incredible scientists and leaders on my team."

And Augie is grateful for the fitness industry's support.

"When I was diagnosed, I was blown away by everyone’s initial reaction to support me and my quest to find a cure," he said. "But I’m even more surprised by the longevity of the support. Most people only live three to five years with this disease, so to have the industry supporting me (both friends and competitors) 10 years later is astounding. I will never be able to express the love and appreciation I have for this industry. When we find the cure for ALS, it will be because of this incredible industry. That’s historic."

Third Act: A Future without ALS

Augie said he wants a third act, one that involves walking again. 

"I’m pushing myself harder than I ever have before," he said. "No one with ALS has really focused on the power of exercise, and I believe whole heartedly it makes a difference. I’m determined to walk. I will walk."

He holds that belief with gratitude for how ALS has changed his life in a positive way rather than focusing only on what ALS has taken.

"Since our diagnosis, I’ve seen all four of our children get married, and I now am Pops to three extraordinary grandkids," Augie said. "I am more in love with my wife now than I thought possible. ALS has taught me to never take a day, an hour, a second for granted. My vision is to continue to live, love and be thankful for everything we have."

But Augie's third act would not be for himself alone.

"As I have continued to beat the statistics and science and technology continue to move forward, I am more hopeful now than ever before," he said. "I believe that I will see a treatment for ALS in my lifetime.  Whether or not it will be able to help me, I don’t want any other families to have to go through this. I have so many persons living with ALS that are in this with me. So many of them are young – in their 20s and 30s. I owe it to them to have the opportunity to create an amazing life and spend more time with their families." 

And after all he's been through in his 55 years, after all that the fitness industry has given him, all that ALS has taken from him and taught him, what would Augie tell his younger self if he could go back to his prologue?

"Everything’s going to be ok," he said. "You’re one of the lucky ones."