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In the Executive's Chair

Jazzercise founder discusses evolution of business

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In 2003, the ceiling almost caved in on Jazzercise -- literally.

The Carlsbad-based company, which helped pioneer the fitness industry when it combined dance with aerobics more than 40 years ago, held its first major conference seven years ago in Las Vegas. About 4,000 people packed the Convention Center, and when the music started blaring and people began moving together in the same rhythm, attendees noticed the building was shaking, and ceiling tiles started falling to the ground.

The vibrations from the mass work out were having an earthquake-like effect on the Convention Center, and there was a risk the building could collapse.

Having put a massive amount of effort into the event -- and not wanting to have to refund all those people -- company founder and President Judi Sheppard Missett and her team immediately started looking at their options. Two hours later, they had spread the attendees more equally around the building, and into neighboring hotels, and the workout went on. Only about 80 people asked for refunds.

“That would be a good case study, as to how we handled that traumatic event,” Sheppard Missett said with a laugh. “But we did. And I have no doubt we can handle others if they came along.”

Sheppard Missett credits this ability to adapt and evolve with keeping Jazzercise alive and growing since she founded it. Speaking to business students at California State University, San Marcos on Thursday, Sheppard Missett said her biggest asset as a businesswoman is her passion for what she does. But she said it was the fact that Jazzercise incorporated other exercise trends like kickboxing, yoga and cardiovascular weight training into its routines that the company has been able to keep going for so long.

“When you’re a startup, you do pretty well and you keep growing, but once you establish yourself and you have maturity, then it takes some hard work to stay up there,” she said. “It takes some thinking and a great group of people, a wonderful team, to keep things progressing.”

Sheppard Missett has danced since she was only 2 years old, and as an 11-year-old in Iowa, she started teaching other children, charging about 75 cents a class. After college, she was teaching in dance in Chicago when her students told her they were really only in the class for the aerobic aspect, not to become prima ballerinas. So Sheppard Missett changed the structure of the class, focusing more on getting a good workout, and having fun.

The company really took off when she and her husband moved to San Diego in the 1970s. It was here that Jazzercise started hiring more employees, making videos, and eventually spun off franchises. Its now in 32 countries, and Sheppard Missett said that expansion was a direct result of being in military town: people who liked the program wanted to take it with them when they were deployed around the globe.

All of Jazzercises’s growth and changes came out of listening to customers, Sheppard Missett said. The company started a clothing line after she wore a T-shirt with the company logo on a talk show, and her students (she still teaches classes today) said they wanted to know where to get one. Now the company makes a whole line of workout clothes.

One of the students asked Sheppard Missett if she’d consider getting into the nutrition business, to create a more complete fitness and weight loss company. Sheppard Missett said Jazzercise has dabbled in some diet programs, but for the most part she likes to stick to what she knows.

“I’m a strong believer in doing what you’re good at, and I’m not a nutritionist,” she said. Though she said the company was open to strategic partnerships with weight-loss companies.

Sheppard Missett is even seeing the tough economy as a way for her company to evolve. Since Jazzercise is still seeing growth, she took the downturn as an opportunity to hire 90 quality control experts who can go around to the different franchises and find ways to improve them.

“You have learn to be innovative, and the best kind of innovation is disruptive,” she said. “You do something totally different that no one else has ever thought of, and you set the bar a little bit higher for the rest of the industry, and that’s what we try to do.”


* Interview with Judi Sheppard Missett

* Effective corporate leadership: Judi Sheppard Missett

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