It really is very, very lonely at the top. We’ve all heard the cliché before, but it isn’t until you get there that you really start to appreciate just how lonely it is. There are very few people to whom you can turn for advice or help, particularly when dealing with complicated problems. While others on my team are clearly accountable for their areas of responsibility, you are ultimately accountable for everything. And, if you are a strong leader, the buck stops with you regardless of the outcome — good or bad.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Magazine.
Todd is Chief Executive Officer of Blink Fitness, a wholly-owned subsidiary and sister brand of Equinox, Soul Cycle, Pure Yoga and Equinox Hotels. Since joining the business in 2012, Todd has helped grow Blink from four locations to over 100 nationwide.
Todd was the architect of the brand’s Mood Above Muscle™ philosophy, which challenges conventional fitness stereotypes by celebrating how exercise makes you feel versus how it makes you look. Blink is the first gym to showcase body diversity and engage people who have been disenfranchised by the clichéd advertising images that feature unrealistic and unattainable bodies.
Blink has been ranked on the Inc. 5000 list three times, was recognized as one of the top health clubs by Club Industry and selected as the best budget chain by Men’s Health.
Prior to Blink, Todd served as President of North America for the over-the-counter division of Pfizer, whose portfolio of products includes Advil, Centrum, Robitussin and Chapstick. Todd spent nine years at PepsiCo where he held a variety of senior executive positions, including President of Gatorade and President of Quaker Foods. He also spent nine years at Procter & Gamble working on well-known brands such as Cover Girl and Jif Peanut Butter.
After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan, Todd went on to earn an MBA in Marketing and Finance from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
Todd and his wife, Emily, split their time in rural New Jersey and Manhattan. They have three daughters and two rescue dogs. As a competitive runner, golf addict and aspiring tennis player, Todd brings a hearty passion for fitness and athletics to his role as CEO of Blink. He works out four to five times a week, which includes at least two visits to his long-time Blink personal trainer.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Dumb luck. I had decided to make a career shift and explore entrepreneurial opportunities. I loved my years working for big companies but was exhausted by the slow, internally focused nature of massive public companies. I was introduced to the Chairman of Equinox Group (a portfolio of world-class fitness companies, including Blink, Equinox and Soul Cycle) by a former co-worker at PepsiCo who was CMO at one of the companies. There wasn’t an open role for me, but he and I hit it off and, miraculously, he saw something in me that gave him confidence that I could make the switch from an exclusively Fortune 50 career to a start-up in a category I knew nothing about — fitness. He created a new role leading all of the new businesses in the portfolio with the goal of putting all of them on a growth trajectory. I am very thankful that he took a chance on me.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
As previously mentioned, I had made the switch from running big businesses at public companies to a start-up for a private company. For perspective, I had been responsible for businesses that were as big as $4 billion in revenue and were delivering profits in excess of $1 billion. When I joined Blink, it had four locations and was in investment mode, so it was not profitable. In addition, I knew nothing about fitness, customer service, real estate, design, and construction, etc. So, what major challenge didn’t I encounter when I first joined? I am proud to say that eight years later, the company has well over 100 locations and is highly profitable. The biggest lesson I learned was that if you want to make a switch from big companies to the life of an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to check your ego at the door and do things you haven’t done in many years. I always joke with people who want to make a similar career change that they have to be prepared to ride on the subway versus the company jet because, in the start-up world, every dollar counts. If that doesn’t suit you, then don’t make the change.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I think humility and intellectual curiosity. First off, humility. In addition to my subway rides, I went from being the “president” of billion-dollar businesses with household names to the “executive vice president” of a tiny brand no one had ever heard of. The chairman of Equinox Group, whom I still work for today, was willing to take a chance on me but wanted me to prove myself before he would be willing to give me the title of president. I had to swallow deep and accept the challenge, hoping that it would be one step back, two steps forward if I was able to deliver, which I did. This resulted in me getting promoted from executive vice president to the president to CEO. Secondly, intellectual curiosity. As mentioned, I knew virtually nothing about many of the areas I was now accountable for. So, I had dozens of steep learning curves that I had to climb quickly in order to be an effective leader. I had to find the right mentors to learn from, had to throw myself into this new world, and I had to surround myself with a talented team.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- It really is very, very lonely at the top. We’ve all heard the cliché before, but it isn’t until you get there that you really start to appreciate just how lonely it is. There are very few people to whom you can turn for advice or help, particularly when dealing with complicated problems. While others on my team are clearly accountable for their areas of responsibility, you are ultimately accountable for everything. And, if you are a strong leader, the buck stops with you regardless of the outcome — good or bad.
- You have to be able to glide seamlessly between the thirty-thousand-foot level and the one-foot level of the business. Throughout the day, I deal with issues and opportunities as vast as what is our international expansion strategy to what color should we paint the walls of our locker rooms. I’m not necessarily making the decisions on each of them, but have to be able to provide helpful thoughts and input to those that do. It’s probably one of the most fun aspects of my job. Specifically, dealing with all different types of issues and opportunities.
- You have to be the chief rainmaker. While we have many talented people in our organization, it is my role, as leader of the business, to be the one constantly thinking about what we can do to improve. In some cases, it’s a little thing like adding trough sinks without counters into our bathrooms so our staff doesn’t have to constantly clean them and can focus on more important things, like delighting our members. In other cases, it’s a big thing, like getting the board of directors to agree to let us add a franchise system to our company-owned efforts, which will greatly accelerate the trajectory of the business in the years to come.
- People notice everything you say and do. Whether you like it or not, you are in a fishbowl. Whether it’s your mood, your attire, your seemingly innocuous comment, or when you come and go to the office — they notice. In fact, I recently gave a talk at our monthly town hall for corporate employees, the title of which was “Todd said, Todd meant.” It was important that people understand that I often think out loud and say things that are intended to be thought-starters or ideas, but get taken as direction and marching orders. Clearly, if my words are misinterpreted, we can waste a lot of time and a lot of money doing something that people think I want to do.
- Managing people is hard; leading an organization of people is harder. There is nothing more rewarding about being a manager or leader than seeing an organization grow and thrive. I have been so very fortunate to be part of Blink from almost the beginning, so I have been able to watch many people grow up through the organization and blossom as leaders. I have also been able to foster a culture that I wanted to work in and one that enables other people to enjoy what they do and make a valuable contribution to the communities we serve. But managing people is hard work. No two people are alike, so figuring out how to motivate, provide feedback or even collaborate differs from person to person. And while I may be able to flex my style a little to better work with each of them, there are always those people with whom you just don’t click. So knowing how to deal with all types of people takes effort and hard work.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I’m not sure I am the right person to answer this. I have always been a pedal-to-the-floor kind of person who is on the verge of burnout most of the time. This might sound horrible to some, but if you love what you do and you are motivated by the work and the people around you, going hard and fast becomes a way of life. All that being said, I am very fortunate that I have a wife and kids who are able to pull me away from work. And I have a variety of hobbies — mainly golf and exercise — that help me stay as balanced as I can be. Truth be told, keeping balanced will be a work-in-progress for me until the day I retire — if I ever do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
After college, I joined an advertising company in Manhattan and worked on the Quaker Oats account. I loved advertising but wanted to go to the client-side and become a marketer. While a BA in English Literature from the University of Michigan was nice, it wasn’t the best college major for becoming a marketer, so I decided to get my MBA. I applied to a variety of schools, but the one I wanted most, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, which was known for its powerhouse marketing education, waitlisted me. So, I decided to write to the Chairman & CEO of the Quaker Oats Company, who coincidentally, was on the advisory board of the Kellogg business school. My letter talked about the amazing experience I had working on one of his brands and requested a call or face to face meeting. Within a few days, I heard back from him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t meet with me but said that he appreciated my commitment to his business and, as such, he was going to write me a letter of recommendation to Kellogg. Just to be clear, this guy never met me, nor did he even talk to me on the phone; however, he appreciated my loyalty to his business and the commitment I made to help it be successful. Suffice to say I received my acceptance letter from Kellogg a few weeks later. Hmmm…I wonder what tipped the scales?
But the story doesn’t end there. About 20 years later, I became the president of Gatorade, which was also owned by the Quaker Oats Company. The chairman and CEO I had written to had long since retired, but I reached out to him and invited him to breakfast. It was my first time meeting him and got the chance to tell him my story and thank him. He had no recollection of my letter.
The moral of the story: don’t ever underestimate the power a little help or assistance can have on someone’s life or career.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I am a lifelong learner and always willing to try something new. I took up golf at 28 and became obsessed shortly after. So, I often wonder: how many other “golfs” are there out there — things I haven’t yet tried or experienced that might make me happy? But I am also a perfectionist. I spend very little time celebrating wins and generally focus my energy on the issues or the next big opportunity in front of me. Maybe that’s why I am always on the verge of burnout.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I am so proud of the Blink team and the millions of people whose lives we have changed over the years. We bring such good to so many communities that it makes it easy to get out of bed every day knowing that you did something to help so many people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I feel like I am already part of a movement with Blink. The stories I hear either directly or indirectly from the members who tell us about the changes we helped them accomplish. That movement is to make people and communities healthier and happier.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I have always believed that the story should be about the brand, not the people who run it. As such, your readers may be bored by my social media activity. They can follow me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/toddmagazine/, but I think they’ll be more interested following Blink https://instagram.com/blinkfitness?igshid=17mbfg0fmkk9p.