Time Capsule – Interview with health & fitness icon Jenny Craig (from Feb. 1998)

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The name “Jenny Craig” has been internationally recognizable for more than 25 years as a premier weight-loss program that has helped thousands (maybe millions) of women improve their lifestyle and gain confidence in themselves. But since she the company began its U.S. operations (based in greater San Diego) in 1985, Craig has become one of the most recognizable names among San Diegans – but for reasons other than her business.

Jenny and her late husband Sidney, who passed away in 2008, have been philanthropy and horse racing mainstays in San Diego and around the world. Some of the organizations she supports include San Diego Hospice, Easter Seals, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the United Way. The Craigs donated $10 million to Fresno State University (Sid’s alma mater) in 1992 for a new business school and, in 1996, donated another $10 million to the University of San Diego, which used the money, for among other things, to build the beautiful Jenny Craig Pavilion – an on-campus arena that houses the USD basketball program and multiple concerts a year.

The Craig name has also become synonymous with horse racing over the years, as they have run many a successful horse in Del Mar and other tracks worldwide after purchasing a ranch and breeding operation off San Dieguito Road in Rancho Santa Fe in 1995. Their colt, Dr. Devious (who Jenny mentions later in this article), placed seventh at the 1992 Kentucky Derby and won two big races overseas. Filly Paseana is now in the Racing Hall of Fame and their horse Candy Ride won six races in a row in 2003 – that same year setting a Del Mar track record for one and quarter miles.

In the meantime, the business she started has now grown to over 550 weight loss centers, employing about 3,000 people. Craig still resides in Rancho Santa Fe, where she spends much of her time with family and friends. In the following 1998 interview with Paul Arnold, Craig talks about how her business got started, what it takes to become successful and some of the things she enjoys doing in her spare time. We hope you enjoy our look back:

JENNY CRAIG – One of today’s icons of healthy living

By Paul Arnold

Jenny and her late husband Sidney

Jenny and her late husband Sidney

The name Jenny Craig has clearly become an icon in the area of healthy living.Since 1984 when Jenny and husband Sid started developing centers in Australia, until present day, the growth in the Jenny Craig Empire has been the stuff of what entrepreneurial dreams are made.

Today the company that Mrs. Craig laid the foundation for has approximately 800 centers in five countries. She has also written several books including two best-sellers based on healthy living and is still very active in the company’s day-to-day operations, although she now finds time to enjoy other pleasures like playing with her grandchildren and owning a champion race horse or two.

Jenny was kind enough to take a moment to chat with us recently from her international headquarters on Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla.

Jenny, when you first got into the fitness industry, did you ever have a vision that this was going to develop into the international company it has?

Probably not when I first entered it because when I first entered the industry, it was at the result of gaining weight during a pregnancy. That was back in 1959 when my daughter was born and I had gained close to 50 pounds. I never had a weight problem before, so after Michelle was born I still had about 30 or 35 pounds to lose. So I went to the only thing that was available in those days; a gym. And in the process of my losing weight, I noticed that people’s whole personalities were changing as they were losing weight, and I was just fascinated. I saw people that when I first met them were very withdrawn and introverted, and these same people as they lost weight, they became very extroverted and they were dressing differently and everything. I was just amazed at the relationship that weight plays in your overall self-image. So, when the manager asked me to go to work for him I accepted because I thought, ‘Gee, this is really interesting.’ In those days, I didn’t even really realize that it was going to be a lifetime career. It wasn’t until I opened my own business in 1964 that I realized it was something I wanted to do.

How did you become so knowledgeable in the area?

There was very little information available in those days as to the role that food and exercise played in one’s overall health. I went to the library, and I drove to health food stores, anything I could to try and get as much information as I could. And things like cholesterol and your target heart rate, they were unknown in those days. So, I think it was probably 1975 when I realized what the potential was for the industry. And that’s when I started dreaming about having the biggest and the best weight-loss company in the world.
What was the your first step towards that goal?

Well, in 1975 I had gone through a personal life-change, in that I was going through a divorce and I knew that I wanted to do something different with my life so I moved from New Orleans to Chicago and I was then working for Body Contour, Inc. At that time my present husband, Sid Craig, was the president of Body Contour. So when he asked me to open Chicago, I did. And I guess it was 1976, he came to Chicago and he said, ‘Where’s your husband?’ I told him I was going through a divorce. He kind of chuckled and said ‘that’s interesting, so am I.’ So we started dating and fell in love and then we got married. The partner that Sid had at the time, we approached them to see if we could buy them out, or if they wanted to buy us out because we wanted to go more to the direction of the involvement of nutrition, which that company did not, it was strictly a ladies figure control salon, so, it was strictly for reshaping the body. It really didn’t deal with nutrition at all and we could see that the world was going in that direction.

So you sold out to them in 1982 and then moved to Australia. Why Australia?

Yes, the reason was because we signed a two-year ‘non-compete’ agreement in North America. So we were kind of limited to English-speaking countries because it’s hard enough to go into a foreign country and start a new business, but to do it with a language barrier would have been impossible. So we decided on Australia, and when we first went there we opened twelve centers in Melbourne. It wasn’t an overwhelming success at first. We just worked through it.

When did the concept start to ‘click?’

We were lucky. I think the turning point was probably when I started doing live commercials on the Burt Newton Show. Burt Newton is the Johnny Carson of Australia, he has tremendous ratings and he was doing a program at that time called New Faces. In fact, Paul Hogan, ‘Crocodile Dundee’, got his start on that show, he went on as a blind, knife-throwing tap dancer, I believe. He went on as a joke and he won and that’s really how he got his start.

You started doing live commercial spots?

So I started doing live commercials on the Burt Newton Show because it’s a very family-oriented show and it had such high ratings. Burt and I developed a good rapport. Burt kept asking me when we were going to open a center in his hometown. And so finally one day I went on and told him that I had good news, that on Monday we were opening a center there. The phones started ringing, we couldn’t handle the business; it was incredible. We had people standing outside waiting with numbers. So, we sort of permeated Australia, we went all through the country, we have 97 centers there, which is about max. Because there’s only 16 million people. After we did that our ‘non-compete’ was up and we decided to come back to America, and that was in 1985.

You’ve had such phenomenal growth; did your tremendous success shock you?

No, it was never a shock. Sid and I aren’t ten-year planners; we just say this is was we want to do by next month, or next year. We just put our heads down and go to work. And even though it seems like a sort of overnight success, it’s kind of like lifting weights, you can’t one day just decide you’re going to life a heavy weight. You have to start with less weight and work up to it. It’s the same thing with business. All the years I had the experience before of being in the industry prepared me to accept the responsibility of a much larger company. And since we started with Jenny Craig with twelve centers, it’s the same principle; we’ve not evolved into running 800 centers. I mean, if someone had said to me back in 1982, ‘you’re going to be in charge of 800 centers’ I would have though that’s a big order. I’ve never been afraid to attempt anything, but whether or not I would have been prepared for it is another question.

What have been the biggest challenges in achieving that size?

Well, it’s been different challenges at different points. When we first went to Australia, two days before we were due to open, we had our vitamins formulated here in the U.S. and we were almost ready to begin manufacturing them when they came to us and said ‘Australia is very low in selenium, and selenium helps to prevent cancer so why don’t you add selenium into the vitamins? I think you’ll be doing the country a favor.’ So we said, ‘Sure, go ahead and do it.’ Well, when the vitamins got to Australia, the health department looked at selenium in the vitamins and said, ‘You can’t use these. Only a chemist can prescribe selenium.’ So they were threatening the whole deal. We didn’t know what to do, so we asked what our options were. They told us we had two options: to either send them back to the United States, or dumb them overboard. To send them back it would cost something like $20,000 so we dumped them overboard. So, needless to say, there are a lot of healthy fish in Australia.

Have there been any challenges working with your husband?

Actually, that hasn’t been so much of a challenge, believe it or not. I think it’s added another dimension to our marriage. We work well together because we have established boundaries. Sid handles all of the marketing and I’ve always handled all of the operations. I wrote the manuals, did the hiring, the training, I worked out in the field. But, by the same token, Sid never ran an ad that he didn’t get my advice on first to ask me what I think of it. He knows that you have to know how the promotions are going to play out in the field. So he would always consult me, and vice-versa. I never did anything in operations without first saying, “what do you think of this?”

Do you have rules about not talking about business at home?

No, I wish we did. This is a 24-hour job.

You’re notorious of being a hard working putting in long hours. Have you been able to back away from that a little bit now, or are you still putting in those long hours?

No, I have backed away a little bit. I try to confine most of my activities to public relations projects, I go around the country sometimes. Like when we launched a book I did 17 cities in 10 days. And it was constant, all day long doing interview, book signings. Other than that, I go into the office most days and open my mail and have meetings, but I don’t work out in the field anymore and I’m not involved in training. I do voicemails to all of the centers and things like that. I really do have a lot more time now than I used to. When we first started we were putting in like 15-18 hours a day.

What does Jenny Craig do for fun?

Well, really, I have always enjoyed my work. It has been fun for me. It was not like I had to look for diversions for fun. I‘ve always been very active in sports, I like to exercise. Each year I go on a walking trip with my daughters and some friends. It’s all women. We just go,. We’ve walked through Tuscany, Austria, other parts of France. It’s just a wonderful experience. Also, a big hobby of mine, well not a hobby, it’s a business, but horses keep me pretty entertained.

You’re well known for your success in your involvement in that area. What got you into the horse business?

My brother was a trainer. I’ve always loved horses because he loved horses and he introduced me to them. I loved horses well before I knew Sid, but he does also. So when I met Sid he had a couple of horses and we’ve added to the stables. I think what really put us into a different category was on Sid’s 60th birthday I gave him a horse, Dr. Devious, who won the English Derby and the Irish Championship; he had a pretty nice career. Then Sid sold him to the Japanese for a very nice sum. That sort of started us off at a different level.

What year was that?

That was 1992.

Does that take much of your time?

Well, yes and no. We’re active when the horses are active. For instance, we go to the Derby and all the big races. But during the week, we don’t do anything with the horses. They’re in training and the trainers work with them. SO, except for watching the races, there’s not a whole lot more we’re involved in.

Obviously, you’ve helped a lot of people and you’re internationally recognized. Does that pose some interesting times when you’re out in public?

I’m usually pretty noticed, but not so much lately as I have been in the past because I haven’t been doing a lot of commercials. But when I do commercials myself, everywhere I go people will come up to me and tell me about their success, or something they know, some family member or friend. I never mind that, I really don’t. I know how important it is to them to have achieved those things and I really don’t mind hearing them.

So it hasn’t posed any special problems?

No, it really hasn’t. It’s always good news. I’ve never had anyone tell me that my program hasn’t worked for them or they hate me. Nothing abusive, just always very nice.

Encapsulate your philosophy on healthy living.

I think that people should recognize that it really isn’t the quantity of life that’s important, it’s the quality. And I think that everyday we should do everything we can to improve and enhance the quality of our lives. I think that good nutrition takes care of your body, exercise, spending time with the people you love, and just enjoying every minute is what life is all about.

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