Leader Visionary

Carl Liebert III waited patiently on a dock situated on the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian landscape shaped his background while a fleet of naval vessels captured his eye. It was 1988, and the fresh graduate from the Naval Academy and newlywed was set to embark on a 325-day mission with the U.S. Navy.

On board the ship, Liebert was immediately in charge of 65 young sailors — his first professional leadership position. Liebert had spent four years at the Naval Academy watching true leaders at work every day. He learned from a collection of great coaches on the basketball court and from great minds in the classroom.

Liebert played on the Naval Academy’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight team led by “The Admiral” David Robinson — still a great friend of Liebert’s. It was basketball that drove Liebert to the academy, but it was the leadership that helped mold his future.

Liebert on Leadership

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On Being a Leader

Liebert, the CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, on being a leader:

  • Leaders need to be great learners.
  • Leaders must be great teachers.
  • Leaders must be able to inspire and make teaching fun.
  • Leaders must hold people accountable.

Liebert learned many of the aforementioned leadership tips from the Naval Academy — an excellent leadership and mind-developing institution. Following five years in the Navy, Liebert began moving himself through several major corporations, prior to his role at 24 Hour Fitness, that helped mold him as a leader.

Following the Navy, Liebert found himself working at General Electric, not yet the businessman he is today. However, it was clear that he was well on his way to success and understood the path to get there.

At GE, Liebert enrolled at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University where he eventually received his MBA. Several years later, Liebert found himself working for Circuit City — then a competitive chain of technology stores throughout America.

At Circuit City, Liebert was the senior vice president and western division president. “I was division president for 32 states … everything west of Pittsburgh, which was an interesting territory to run,” he said. “Our home base was Richmond, Virginia and my counterpart ran the eastern division and his flights were shorthaul flights out of Richmond. My flights, everything west of Pittsburgh, I found myself spending more time in the air getting to my stores than he did. Just because of where our corporate headquarters was it made it a unique challenge.”

Liebert said this was a difficult time in his life. And, although he learned a lot, he found himself continually traveling long distances for his job. However, this was a crucial step in molding the young Liebert.

He put himself in position to eventually be a chief executive officer while working for the international brand, Home Depot Inc. There, he rose to the executive vice president of stores in U.S. and Mexico — in charge of about 1,900 locations.

24 Hour Fitness posed a different set of challenges for Liebert. Over a billion dollar company that encompasses 425 locations and employs more than 20,000 people, 24 Hour Fitness is the industry giant Liebert saw as the greatest opportunity of his life. His challenge was to make an already great company, even greater.

At 24 Hour Fitness, Liebert empowers leaders all around him. His first move to action in November 2006 was to insert general managers in each 24 Hour Fitness Location. This change was different than how 24 Hour Fitness had previously operated. It was a different structure, but it ultimately helped his employees to see his goal.

“I wanted to create a brand that was focused on the member,” Liebert said. “I looked for leaders in other industries. It wasn’t one person, but it was a mix of talent.” By having a general manager in every location, it provided hands-on leadership to each arm of 24 Hour Fitness.

24 Hour Fitness also looks for leaders from within. It has developed 24 Hour Fitness University that is an e-Learning program open to all employees at 24 Hour Fitness. “We have 98 classes,” Liebert said. “All of our team members use the university to develop themselves for better positions within the company.” The university allows 24 Hour Fitness to influence employees and give them opportunities for excellence.

Liebert focuses highly on selecting the best people to run 24 Hour Fitness. He said it’s his hardest task. “It starts with having the right club managers,” he said. “I certainly work to create success stories and share best practices across the company. If you haven’t read the book ‘Soup’ by John Gordon, the most important ingredient is our club managers.” Gordon’s book discusses how the right ingredients, or people, could create a winning culture.

“We talk about picking the right people to help keep our club values and it’s about our ability to walk the talk,” Liebert continued. “We really do believe club managers are the center of the universe and we must invest in them to propel the company.”

Leading Through a Recession

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Playing on the Team

Liebert has been a team player his entire life. He grew up in Floyds Knobs, a small town in southern Indiana. He did what most Hoosiers did growing up — playing basketball and spending time with family.

The Hoosier values have been the one constant in Liebert’s life. He continually plays basketball and loves spending time with his three boys and his wife. His three boys also play basketball.

Basketball is best as a team sport. Sure, people can shoot around by themselves, or play one-on-one. However, the essence of the game isn’t truly seen until five players take each side.

The speed of the game requires endurance, patience and teamwork. Teamwork is what has helped put Liebert in his current role at 24 Hour Fitness. “People on your team allow you to be successful,” Liebert said. “We should enjoy what we do. This is the best job I’ve ever had because we give people something they need.”

Liebert, as a leader, developed a vision for 24 Hour Fitness that everyone on the team could believe in. He said that establishing that vision is the biggest role of a successful leader and the most important aspect in getting a team to work as one.

His vision pushed employees to love their job. His belief has been, if people enjoy their job, they are going to work hard, have fun and make 24 Hour Fitness a great place to work and work out.

“If we can’t enjoy what we do every day, the world is in a bad place,” Liebert said about working in the fitness industry. “You make sure that all 24,000 people share the same values.” To assist this goal, Liebert insists that all 24 Hour Fitness employees take an annual survey asking what they really think about 24 Hour Fitness. “It’s a survey that takes about 25 or 30 minutes if you really think about the questions,” he said. “Every year we’ve improved in the survey. I believe we are in the service industry and if our employees believe they work for a great company, they will treat the members well. We have a long way to go, but I think the trajectory, or the trend, says we are doing a lot of the right things.”

Liebert watched people around him respond to leadership and team roles at the Naval Academy, both on the court and in the classroom.

When he started working in business he kept with him a virtue his father instilled in him. “My dad always said, ‘in order to be better, you have to have better people around you,’” Liebert said of his father and best friend who passed only two years ago. “At the Naval Academy there were a lot of people that were smarter than I was and a lot of incredible leaders, from teachers to coaches to other players.

“You have to wake up every day to be better than you were yesterday. There were so many people around me that were more talented. All I had to do was listen and be willing to learn, understanding that I didn’t have all the answers.”

Liebert used these ideas when he took the CEO role at 24 Hour Fitness. “I was fortunate enough to put the right people around me that have allowed me to be successful,” Liebert said. “I think those are things I learned at the Naval Academy and from my father. Those are things I tried to instill in everything I’ve done.”

Managing During the Recession

Liebert perceives leading during such a rough patch as a blessing and a curse. Taking the CEO position at 24 Hour Fitness was his first time taking the helm at any company.

“At 24 Hour Fitness the world changed for us,” Liebert said in terms of the recession. They had to become more successful with what they had to work with. “It forced our team to get stronger. Leaders who are able to prioritize and get focused allow for great things to happen.”

Into 2011, Liebert sees potential for radical change. 24 Hour Fitness plans to continue expansion to the East Coast, but it is still looking at making things run smoother internally.

As the recession recovers, Liebert hopes to also see childhood obesity become a thing of the past. He said it would take clubs of every size around the country to really turn the tide on an unhealthy generation.

“People certainly have talked a lot about things, but we haven’t done a lot of things,” Liebert said. 24 Hour Fitness has teamed with the organization KABOOM! to develop playgrounds and opportunities for kids throughout California and the rest of the United States to have a place to play.

24 Hour Fitness has built playgrounds in Houston, Texas and Burbank, Calif. The playground in Houston was in a highpoverty area that was effected immensely by Hurricane Ike in 2008. The playground in Burbank was situated near an adult education facility that desperately needed a place for the youth to play. In many areas throughout California, schools don’t have the best workout facilities for their athletes. 24 Hour Fitness has developed its Varsity program for athletes throughout the state.

The program provides a free 24 Hour Fitness membership for varsity athletes during the athlete’s season. Liebert suggested that 24 Hour Fitness, with its continued expansion to the East Coast in 2011, would make an attempt to implement its Varsity program in all the states it occupies. This could have a serious impact on the life of varsity sports in high schools across the country.

Continuing Leadership

Leadership as a role is something that will always be in Liebert’s life. Away from 24 Hour Fitness he continues his love of basketball by playing with his three sons, one of which is currently refilling Liebert’s role on the squad at the Naval Academy.

He’s a family man that said his favorite day is spending time on a Saturday with nothing to do but relax around the house with his wife.

“My end goal is to coach high school basketball,” Liebert said. “My wife wants me to coach a college because it pays more.” Liebert said jokingly about his wife.

However, Liebert would most likely be a great college coach. He has been surrounded by great coaches his entire life, and he has molded himself into a great leader. The only problem may be a conflict of interest with his mentor — the leader of the Duke University Blue Devils, Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Liebert said his mentor was his father until his passing. Since then, Coach K has tried his best to fill the role. “Since my father’s passing he’s been an influence and a driving force,” Liebert said of Krzyzewski. “I rely on him as a source of inspiration.”

Liebert and Krzyzewski’s relationship began while Liebert attended the Naval Academy, and was another source of positive role models surrounding him during a young age. He said the relationship continued to get stronger as he worked for GE and further more into Circuit City and Home Depot.

Each year Liebert and his mentor meet to discuss life and leadership. “He tells me if I show up on campus he’ll talk to me as long as I leave my Navy shirt at home,” Liebert laughed. The two may have attended competing universities — Coach K to Army and Liebert to Navy — but their connection is one that Liebert wouldn’t change for the world. “My biggest suggestion for people is that they search out a good mentor. Someone that could give them guidance and inspiration through life.”

Being a great leader means developing great relationships. Liebert is a strong individual that understands the importance of relationships. Regardless of when or where he retires, either at 24 Hour Fitness or as a high school basketball coach, there is one fact: Liebert will be a great leader and inspiration for business people for many years to come. -CS

Photos by A.G. Photography, Inc.

Article by Tyler Montgomery

6 Comments

  1. Paul Monje

    December 31, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Good job

  2. Sherae

    January 3, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Great article and very inspirational words of advice.

  3. Amber

    January 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    This was a great aricle and very inspiring. As a team member – it feels really comforting to know that our top leader shares a similar vision. Best of luck in 2011.

  4. Jessica Maddin

    January 3, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Amazing article Tyler! Carl helped me turn Jessica’s Hope Project into an official 501c3 non-profit organization. 24 Hour Fitness donates fitness products monthly to our charity. We raise money to ship the product overseas in care packages to our deployed troops. This past year we were able to send 313 care packages to our troops. He is a very generous man with a huge heart. I am a front desk employee that works only one day a week, but he makes me feel like I matter. It all started with a simple email to a CEO asking for some protein donations to put in care packages for the troops. I have enormous love for this man as he has changed my life forever! I still think the best part was I had no idea he himself was a veteran.

  5. George Ponzil

    January 5, 2011 at 1:05 am

    Carl Liebert’s decision to place general managers at every location may seem brilliant at face value, but I believe it is, and will continue to be, a major detriment to the very operation of the clubs.

    Each club was operated at a high standard, and with strong maintenance and guest satisfaction in mind. With the changeover in management there was the title change in leadership, but more importantly an enormous increase in salary for the newly titled “general manager.” This money of course was siphoned directly out of the maintenance budget, and it shows.

    The clubs that were once bright and a pride of the establishment have began to show serious signs of aging. The five years of non-existent maintenance budgeting is showing itself as poorly performed repairs, duct-taped-lets-get-creative solutions, and out of order equipment and amenities.

    With all that said 24 Hour Fitness does seem to be trying to ratify this with a club remodel here and there, but if you were to compare the 2-3 remodels happening a year with the 10+ being built and the 300 seriously aging clubs, you will start to get an idea of the dilemma.

    What the long term solution to this is I do not know. I fear that a publicly traded franchising opportunity might be looming, but I try to stay optimistic and hope that what was once a great, well maintained establishment, will steer back to it’s roots and deliver a real promise of clean, friendly, and well maintained.

  6. Karla Alsop

    January 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    I recently started at 24 Hour Fitness in August. I was searching for a new career as my husband, also a veteran, brought us to another new location. In that search I was looking for something more. Something that gave me purpose. I found that here with the encouragement and support of great leaders. I appreciate the passion that Carl has instilled in all of our leaders from the bottem up. I believe my career here is just getting started and getting better every day!!!!

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