Weight Loss Guru Jenny Craig shares how she built her fitness empire, and how she overcame the inevitable challenges that came her way
I’ve always considered challenges to be detours. They’re detours, and it doesn’t mean it’s going to stop you, it only means you have to go in a different direction.
I had the pleasure to interview Jenny Craig. Yes, you’ve certainly heard that name. She’s the weight-loss guru and founder of Jenny Craig. Jenny, born Genevieve Guidroz, was born in Berwick, Louisiana, was raised in New Orleans, and married Sidney Craig in 1979. In 1983, she and her husband created a nutrition, fitness, and weight loss program in Australia and began offering the program in the United States in 1985. The company became a part of Nestlé Nutrition in 2006.
Jason: It’s great to have you with us. I want to talk about your business success and hear any of your tips for business and how someone can build and grow a business. Let’s talk about the company for a moment, and about how you got your start. It was founded in Australia back in the ’80s, is that correct?
Jenny: Yes, well what happened was that we owned another company called BCI and we had 140 centers throughout America, and we sold that. With it we signed a two-year non-compete. So we decided to go to Australia and make it an adventure. We went to Melbourne. The reason we went there first was that that’s where the food manufacturers were. We started with 9 centers in Melbourne and expanded from there, and then we had approximately 95 centers in Australia.
After the two year non-compete was up, we decided to come back to America. We started in Los Angeles. The interesting thing is that the morning that we opened 12 centers in Los Angeles, there were 10 full-page ads from different weight loss centers because while we were in Australia, a lot of small Mom-and-Pop companies, and even larger companies like Weight Watchers and diet centers had really sprung up and were pretty big. That’s what we were up against. We thought about how we could define ourselves as being different from those companies.
What we decided was that none of them had frozen food on the premises. Weight Watchers had frozen dinners in the supermarket, but it was not part of the program. We decided to put the frozen dinners into all of the centers and from then on, the business just exploded. As I said, there was no other company that had anything like it.
Now we have about 650 centers in 5 countries. But I’m no longer involved on a day-to-day basis with the operations because we sold the company to Nestle, but I will always be emotionally involved with it because of course, it bears my name. It really was our brainchild.
Jason: Jenny, when did you offer the frozen dinners? That sounds like that was an inflection point in the business, right?
Jenny: That was in about 1986. We came back to America in 1985 and it took a couple of months to get things going. In the beginning the phones just weren’t ringing. There was so much recognizable competition which had been advertising all the time we were in Australia. They had built a brand name and here we were, the new guys on the street coming in, so we had to distinguish ourselves. That’s when we introduced the frozen food. From that, it just took off. I really am very thankful for our success. It’s true; we worked very hard and there are lots of people that work hard and don’t make it so I’ve always considered my success a mix of hard work and also a blessing.
Jason: That’s a good way to consider it. Gratitude is the first key to success, I would definitely agree. Was it a challenge? Frozen dinners are kind of by nature not very healthy, are they? Were you able to make them healthy? How were you able to do that? Was there anything special that you did in offering frozen food, because I assume all your competitors are doing frozen food now — NutriSystem and WeightWatchers.
Jenny: I think the quality of our food far surpasses anything that the market out there offers. That’s not just pride talking; it really is the feedback we get from our clients. Over and over, we’ve done so many focus groups and they tell us our food is hands above anything else that’s out there. It’s good to have a good idea, but you have to add quality to it.
When people would make excuses of why they don’t want to enroll in the program and I usually ask them this. Let me ask you. If I asked you to stand in the corner on your head for one hour and I could guarantee you that if you did that, you’d lose 20lbs, would you be willing to do it? I’ve never had anyone say no. Of course they would, because the answer is they’re willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve the result they’re looking for. People really will do anything to lose weight, but if it’s dependent on the food that they’re eating, it has to be good or they won’t continue with it.
Jason: So Nestle owns it now. As of 2003, according to Wikipedia, the company has 3,000 employees. When did you sell to Nestle?
Jenny: in 2004. The thing about us selling is that in the beginning it was almost like we didn’t sell because I was still involved. They kept us on as consultants, even though they didn’t really consult us very often.
In fact it was funny in a way because Sid and I had always run the company hands-on and that’s the benefit of an entrepreneurial company. If things aren’t working, you can make changes. You can make decisions very quickly; you don’t have to go through a board to make an important decision, so really if things weren’t going right we’d change it. If an ad wasn’t pulling the way it should, we’d change it. We always had a back-up plan.
So when Nestle bought the company, and after a while we were just consultants, we kept waiting for the phone to ring so they could ask us questions. Sid was a little offended and he’d say ‘Why aren’t those people calling?’
Sid was really brilliant with marketing. We each had our skills. I was very good at writing all the manuals for the company, I interviewed all the key people in the beginning. In fact, when we first opened in Australia, I interviewed over 300 people and ended up hiring 100 so our first training class had 100 people in it. I did the training, I wrote the training material and I was also very good at interacting with the people.
Sid’s skill was really marketing. He was absolutely genius at marketing and he had the sensitivity about locations. People say in business it’s location, location, location. I think it’s neighborhood, neighborhood, neighborhood, because it depends on the demographic of a neighborhood and the traffic flow as to exactly what your product or service is. He had a knack for going into a neighborhood. He would look at the people, look at the flow of traffic, get a feel for it. I can tell you, opening all those centers in Australia, there wasn’t one that was a failure. We never changed a location. The only time we ever did that was when we couldn’t remove a lease, but it wasn’t because it was a bad location. I think neighborhoods are more important.
Sid had his area of expertise and I had mine. Some very wise person once said that if partners in business both have the same skill, one of them isn’t necessary, and I do believe that. I think that each person in an organization has to bring a different skill set to the table in order for it to be complete.
That’s how we mostly operated. But even though Sid handled all the marketing, he never made a marketing decision without coming to me and asking what I thought because all marketing affects operations, and I was in charge of operations. He needed my input to see if I thought it would be effective for operations, and vice-versa. If I wanted to implement a certain thing in operations, I would go to him and say ‘Sid, this is what I want to do. What do you think? How can we advertise it and get this message across to the public out there?’ Then he and I would brainstorm to come up with something. Even though we had our individual skills and our individual responsibilities, we really worked as a team. When people ask about the program, like ‘What’s the most important part about the program?’, it’s kind of like asking ‘What’s the most important leg of the three-legged stool?’ They’re all important. I believe that’s true of partnerships too. It’s not one person or one thing, it’s a combination of it all, and that’s what we tried to consider when we put the program together.
Jason: Another question about the business. You had a company called BCI — Body Contour Inc, and you sold that. And that’s how you got the capital to start the business in Australia right?
Jenny: Exactly. And that’s a story in itself, really. When we went to Australia, Sid and I were both born in the same year and we were 50 years old. We took our whole fortune, every dime that we had, an invested in Australia. I can remember the woman who was in charge of nutrition — she was one of the top nutritionists in Australia and she looked at me and said ‘What were you thinking?’ I’m sure there were a lot of people who would not be willing to take that risk, but we knew we would be successful. Failure simply wasn’t an option. What I have in the book is truly what I believe. You have to believe in yourself and you have to be willing to work for the things that you want. People would say ‘Gee, you’re so lucky with your success’, and I’d say ‘Isn’t it interesting that the harder I work, the luckier I get.’ It is true. Anything you want to achieve in life, whether it’s in education, whether it’s building a business, it takes hard work.
Sometimes we would have franchisees come to apply for franchising and I’d say ‘Why do you want it?’ ‘Oh, so I can be my own boss and I can go in when I want to and I’m in charge’. And I’d reply to them saying ‘I don’t think a franchise is right for you because you will be working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life and it will take full commitment; it doesn’t sound like you’re ready to make that’.
Jason: What was one of your biggest challenges early on, that you overcame? Was there ever a time when it looked like you would have to just close the doors? Was there ever a time when it looked so bleak that you thought you might just have to abandon ship?
Jenny: No. Maybe it would be more interesting for me to have said yes, but that wouldn’t be the truth. But I will tell you some of the challenges we had.
I’ve always considered challenges to be detours. They’re detours, and it doesn’t mean it’s going to stop you, it only means you have to go in a different direction. Just to give you a couple of examples.
When we first went to Australia, before we went there, we always had vitamins along with the program because there are certain vitamins that people need, and to make sure that they were getting them we had little vitamin packs. We learned that Australia’s soil is very low in selenium. Most Australians need selenium in their diet, so we thought we were doing a good thing and we had selenium added to the vitamins.
When we got to Australia, all of a sudden, we got a phone call and it was a woman from the Health Department. Sid answered the phone and she said “Mr Craig, you cannot have these vitamins here. We only distribute selenium to a chemist, which is a pharmacist. You have them in this packet and we can’t allow these. Not only that, you have these vitamins all mixed and we can’t have that in the same package.” Sid asked why not and said that after you’ve swallowed them they’re all together, why is it wrong to have them together in the packet? And she felt insulted with that and said “Mr Craig, that wasn’t very funny. You are going to have to come and pick up all these vitamins or we’re going to dump them in the ocean”. Now we had the choice — it was going to cost us $17,000 to send the vitamins back to America, and if we did that, what would we do with it, because we didn’t have centers open here yet, so we would have had to destroy them, so we thought ‘Why spend the money to ship them back?’ so we said “You know what, if you really feel that strongly about it, dump them in the ocean”. So we proceeded to make other packets of vitamins, leaving out the selenium.
That’s just one example of how bureaucracy or how most people that deal with government agencies are not really concerned with the well-being of the people. Because of that move, the people were not getting the selenium that they really needed, and all because she was steadfastly sticking to a rule. We found out later that there was no reason why the selenium could not have remained in the packet but at the time, all we wanted to do was get our centers open. When she called, it was the Friday because we were having our grand opening on the following Monday.
So really, we wanted to open and she said we couldn’t open our doors if we were going to distribute them. We had no choice so we had to tell her to just dump them in the ocean.
Jason: Let’s talk for a moment about some tips for cooking light and healthy. I want to just make sure we get back to the actual content of Jenny Craig. What are some tips, Jenny, on how people can cook light and well?
Jenny: Well, I think today, most people are savvy about that. It’s things like substituting butter and cream and rich, fatty things with food, with spices. Many people think that butter and rich ingredients is what adds flavor to food, but that’s wrong. It’s really spices. You can take the same basic tomato sauce and with different spices it can become like Indian food, it can become Italian food, it can become French food. It’s all about the spices and herbs that you add. Being from New Orleans, which is where I grew up, I learned very early how to incorporate different herbs and spices to achieve the kinds of flavors you were looking for, so really, it’s easy today. Today, with microwaves, you can steam food, steam vegetables, and the main thing is to have fresh ingredients to start with.
I’m lucky to live in California because we have a little store that’s not too far from where I live and it’s a Japanese family that have all organic vegetables. They’re lovely people and they’ll even tell you how to prepare it. Every morning, they pick the vegetables fresh and you can go to the stand and buy them. When you start with fresh food like that, you can hardly go wrong. All you need to do is just make it tender. If you’re cooking vegetables, my suggestion is you just need to steam them. If you boil and boil vegetables, you’re boiling out all the nutrients so when you pour out the water, you’re pouring out all the nutrients as well. Use very little water and steam the vegetables. If they’re cooked properly, you can put spices and herbs on top and you don’t need anything else.
If you feel that you must use something, I like to use olive oil. Any fat that is liquid is much better than a solid, that’s why olive oil or vegetable oil is much better for you than butter, which is solid at room temperature.
Jason: The thing that really made Jenny Craig big was that you made eating good food easy. All of your competitors back at the time that you launched your frozen food line found that it was a lot harder. You made it easy for people, right?
Jenny: Absolutely. It has to be convenient. In our world today, everything is for convenience and that’s one of the reasons so many people live on fast food — because of the convenience. That was one of the reasons we went to the frozen dinners — it takes 7 minutes and you have wonderful, nutritionally balanced food. We did address the convenience factor because most people that are trying to cut back in their diet and trying to lose weight think about food all the time. They’re sitting at one meal and they’re thinking ‘What am I going to fix for dinner tonight?’, so they’re constantly preoccupied with food. They’re rarely thinking about the chopping board and preparing it. We thought ‘What can we do to eliminate that?’ Instead of having them focus on food, have them focus on enjoying it and have them focus on moving their body.
You don’t have to get on the floor and do push-ups to benefit from exercise. You can just walk. We recommend walking and today, especially in the electronic world, people are always sitting. They’re either sitting at their computers, sitting in front of the TV, playing video games — we say get out and move your body. Walk! That’s what I try to get across in my book - for kids to move. If parents will get kids walking, just think about it. If they take their kids for a long walk, it’s special time. They can really bond with their children and at the same time they’re benefiting from the exercise and so are the children. I really recommend walking — you can do it. It doesn’t take any special equipment, you can do it any time, anywhere, and people who travel a lot say things like “I don’t have time to exercise”. Yes you do. At night, go for a long walk, or early in the morning before you begin your day, go for a long walk. We always have time for walking, and instead of taking the elevator to go up to your office, take the stairs. Maybe that’s not practical if your office is on the 42nd floor, but I think for most people, it’s just a matter of climbing a couple of flights of stairs.
Yeah, and even if you’re going to the grocery store, instead of searching for the closest parking space to the store, park away from the store and then walk. There are people that will help you cart your grocery shopping back to the car, but all these added steps make a difference. Really, it’s just a question of habit. Habits are nothing more than practiced behavior, so the longer you practice a behavior, the more it becomes a habit. I find myself today, even though I try to walk 4 miles every day, even though I’ve walked intentionally, I still find myself when I go to the grocery store parking away from the door. I’ve had people listening in the car and they ask if I do it to protect my car. I say, no, I do it to protect my body.
Jason: Right. A very good point. They say that every flight of stairs you walk up adds forty-two seconds to your life, so that’s good advice. Well, Jenny Craig, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and being on the show with us today. We really appreciate having you.
Jenny: thank you so much. My wish for all your audience is for them to have a very long and very healthy life. I think a lot of that outcome is based on us living intentionally and not accidentally. We have to determine what we want to become and what we want to do, and make sure that we do it.