Interview with Ulf Bengtsson, founder of World Class Gym
Be active, exercise, and enjoy life!
These advertisements are for the international chain of fitness centers World Class Gym, of which there are currently two in Prague. The company’s founder, Ulf Bengtsson, is proud that the image “creates attention.”
“If you take care of your booty, you’re strong,” he explains. The poster and the “Booty Mania” classes it advertises are “not about sex,” but rather, “survival of the species” and our health. Care of one’s booty equates to care of one’s body.
“We need this to stick out,” he says, emphasizing the marketing campaign as a tool of mass communication. “It’s about getting healthy” and “introducing the word [booty] to the Czechs.”
Bengtsson, who says he is also a writer, teacher and Buddhist, speaks about his work with the conviction of a missionary spreading the good word of a healthy lifestyle. He has a self-described vision he has followed throughout his life, from California, to Russia, to Jordan, and has stories to match the range of his travels. “As long as you’re alive,” he says of himself, “you have to live on the edge.”
He began his eventful career as a bodybuilder. Originally from Sweden, Bengtsson made a name for himself in Europe before relocating to Los Angeles in the 1970s. As he saw the world, “If you want to be the best, you have to be with the best.”
The best at that time included Arnold Schwarzenegger and “The Incredible Hulk” Lou Ferrigno, both of whom were working out near Venice Beach.
“I came, I thought I was someone,” he remembers. Although he may have begun the nearly 10 years he would spend in the United States as a lesser-known aspirant, Bengtsson would eventually become one of the top competitors in his field.
But by the time he turned 28, and “after six world championships, I realized no one is the best.” He left the city that was for him “too much of an illusion,” and returned to Europe “to be with my roots.”
If he had previously used bodybuilding as “a tool to develop myself as a man,” he now began to refocus his attention on using fitness as a tool to help others with their growth. For Bengtsson, sculpted abs and chiseled pecks were never “about attention,” but about “self-development” and “discipline.”
In 1983 he opened the first World Class location in Stockholm. It, like the gyms he has opened in the ensuing 30 years, was founded on a tripartite understanding of fulfillment: “be active, exercise, and enjoy life!”
It’s a simple philosophy that has resonated with numerous clients the world over. But, Bengtsson admits, “World Class is a story of trial-and-error.”
For every grand success story, like the gyms he built in Romania, there is an opportunity that did not last.
Bengtsson says he opened the first woman’s fitness center in Saudi Arabia circa 1992. “It was so challenging” to the region’s traditional views concerning women, “that the interior ministry decided to shut it down.” He says he opened twice in Beirut, in 1995 and 2006, but both times, Israel attacked.
And then there is what was for a time his greatest World Class achievement. Bengtsson came to Moscow in 1988, and “with my bare hands, built” up the WC brand. It was hugely popular and, according to an interview Bengtsson gave to Forbes magazine in 2007, took in $3.7 million its first year.
But Bengtsson was not to continue his Russian ascent. He claims that in 1995, just two years after his banner first year, his company was taken from him. He says there was a “hostile takeover,” perpetrated by his former business partner. She, in the aforementioned Forbes magazine story, claimed Bengtsson didn’t live up to his end of their business deal; Bengtsson says that, as World Class had become a “hotspot for the elite of Moscow, they wanted it.”
Although upset by the loss of his business in Russia, Bengtsson was not cowed. He has even written and is currently shopping to publishers a book about his experiences, entitled “No one cries for you.” The author certainly didn’t cry for himself when he endured another defeat years later. Having spent a decade rebuilding the brand, he says he suffered a reversal when the stock exchange crashed in 2008.
“I had Ferraris, I had homes,” he says. “And I lost it. And I built it back. And I lost it.”
Back once again, Bengtsson remains committed to a disciplined pursuance of his vision. He says he likes to target difficult markets, which is why he is throwing his considerable energy behind Prague.
“It’s very hard to flirt with the Czechs,” he laughs. He opened his first Prague location in 1999, but says he didn’t begin devoting his attention to the city until two years ago. Now, as so many foreigners become, he’s hooked by the opportunities he has identified.
“I’m not here to just have two business clubs,” he says. He’s looking for a “new Bucharest, new Moscow,” that is, another success story. “I’m going to develop this brand in the Prague market and I’m going to have the No. 1 lifestyle brand in the Czech Republic.”
Yet for all his confident projections, Bengtsson, admits, “I don’t know the answers. This is not a one-man show. I cannot do anything in Prague if I don’t have a team who can do it with me.”
He fills his staff with people who demonstrate “passion, engagement, commitment.” People like their boss, people like that woman in the Booty Mania poster surely must be: “I want people who are driven.”
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