This tomboy exercised market savvy

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Back in 1969, women’s fitness pioneer Lucille Roberts opened her first gym not far from Penn Station in New York. Roberts’ concept (revolutionary for its time) was a women’s exercise facility that catered not to suburban wives but to commuting women who had to sandwich exercise time between jobs and families.

By the time Roberts died in 2003, she owned 46 Lucille Roberts Fitness for Women centers worth $50 million.

Yet, she hadn’t cooked up her business idea in meetings with marketers. Roberts was her own customer. A daughter of Polish immigrants, she grew up as a tomboy, playing stickball with boys on the stoops of East Flatbush. On top of that, Roberts never had to study what it meant to be a working-class woman, because she was one, and that knowledge shaped her business.

Example: She knew women “don’t want to get undressed, put on a thong and work out in front of a bunch of men.” Nor did women want state of-the-art classes in pilates or yoga. Instead, they wanted to dash in, workup a sweat and dash out again.

When Roberts added classes, she targeted them to her urban clientele: self-defense, what to do about an abusive husband, and a class that taught single women how to install burglar alarms in their apartments.

Even when Roberts contracted cancer, she continued to appear in sweats at the front desk of her facilities, ready to pinch hit for instructors who called in sick. Her life stands as an example of the leadership power of absorbing “hard knocks” instead of running from them and putting their lessons to good use.

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