From Electrician to Electrifying the Fitness Experience: Meet Les Mills Media’s Jean-Michel Fournier
By Lashaun Dale
From humble beginnings as an electrician in South of France, Jean-Michel Fournier put his trust in the potential that others could see in him. Now he is CEO of Les Mills Media, the consumer and digital arm of one of the most successful group fitness companies in the world. Jean-Michel shared his extraordinary journey with Lashaun Dale, 24Life contributing editor, and gave a glimpse at how Les Mills Media is transforming fitness for consumers and the industry.
Lashaun Dale: Let’s start with your own journey. Did you ever imagine you’d be where you are today?
Jean-Michel Fournier: I was born in a small village in South of France and at the age of 16 I dropped out of school to become an electrician. After a short period of time in the workforce, I met someone who was a business leader who helped me understand what I could do in my life. That got me to go back to school, raised my ambitions and got me focused on the potential for what I could do.
I graduated from the Institut de Technologie in Nimes, France and University of Birmingham, U.K. with an Electronic Engineering degree. A few years after moving to the U.S., I had the opportunity to further my education and growth by pursuing my master’s at Harvard Business School, which was an amazing experience.
Initially, I went to work as an engineer at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, California. That is where I was focused on computer science, including network capabilities, high-end servers and working purely in IT systems. At HP, we were looking at new technologies and new ways of doing things, which led me into the mobile space.
That was in 2000, when I became interested in understanding further how technology could impact the health and fitness industry. I had the opportunity to join United Health Group and focus on emerging technologies and health care. From there I co-founded a mobile platform start-up, which specializes in computer vision using 2D cameras.
LD: Where did the Les Mills connection happen?
JMF: I happened to be friends with the president of Les Mills in France, and he was in conversation with Phillip Mills, the Executive Director of Les Mills, about how to engage directly with consumers. The more we talked, the more we got excited about the potential of working together. I did a full analysis of the business and presented a strategy to the senior leadership team and that was it! Today I lead the entire direct-to-consumer business, including the digital portfolio of products, as well as the worldwide music management. Les Mills Media is focused on building amazing video streaming experiences across all devices.
LD: We take for granted our ability to access amazing content online and on demand. But when you’re serving an audience that’s global, what are some of the challenges you have to tackle so that the end-user experience is seamless?
JMF: Well, when you lead a worldwide digital transformation, you need to think about all the different laws and consumer habits by country. The rules of engagement in the digital space in the U.S. are very different than the digital rules in Germany, for example, with respect to regulations, taxes and so on.
You also have to be careful that you don’t chase the next shiny thing because, in terms of digital capability, it’s changing all the time. You must have a very clear vision and focus on implementation and the execution of this vision. We had the debate a couple of years ago internally whether we are a fitness company, or a technology company. And if you look at our business now, we are not one or the other. We are both! We couldn’t provide a high-quality experience to members if we didn’t understand fitness very well, and if we didn’t understand technology.
LD: How is fitness shifting and evolving across the world? Are things becoming the same, or different?
JMF: Streaming video on demand is becoming the next big thing. Disney, Amazon video, HBO Max, Netflix, Apple TV are having a significant impact on fitness, specifically on how consumers may consumer fitness. I believe fitness, in some way, follows entertainment. And streaming video on demand is becoming a very big part of how you can bring the experience anytime, anywhere to members and to consumers. We’re seeing more and more development and innovation linked to the experience of video on demand, including live video streaming.
We are seeing video on demand technologies having more impact, and I believe we are just at the beginning. It may migrate to an augmented reality capability and a holographic environment sooner than we think.
LD: We know that LES MILLS™ classes are built on movement science and more. What makes it so successful around the world?
JMF: I think you have to start with the music—it’s at the heart of what we do, it’s what brings everything else to life. From there you move to the fitness choreography—the movement—which is obviously connected to the music but is also backed by science and rigorously tested and evolved all the time. Yes, people increasingly want to have a personalized experience, and everybody has specific goals. But music and movement are also universal languages, they cross borders and cultures, they bring people together.
In the end, an awesome group fitness workout is greater than the sum of its parts—the science, the movement, the music, and of course the amazing instructors—you can’t remove any one part of that without affecting the whole experience. And people respond to that—that’s why it is so successful, because it is real, and it works.
LD: How do you think the role of the instructor or trainer will evolve?
JMF: Coaching is the future. One compelling data point our research has told us is there is real value in obtaining optimal results and gains with a one-on-one instructor/member relationship versus one-to-many, or no coaching at all. Having a fitness coach provides a human connection that acts as an additional level of motivation to exercise. The hardest thing to accomplish tied to any coaching program is around motivation.
Right now, of course, the motivation for most people is to build and maintain essential health and fitness, strengthen your immune system to fight off COVID-19. In other words, the overriding motivation for everyone is to stay alive and stay well. So the goal for any coaching program right now is how best to keep a user motivated to maintain a consistent exercise routine during a stay-in-place lifestyle and post-COVID-19 world.
Prior to COVID-19, it was already very clear to us that instructors are the rock-stars of our industry. This is clearly seen via the social media following certain instructors currently have, globally. What COVID-19 has done is accelerate the need for a comprehensive fitness solution. The club of the future meant going beyond the four walls of the traditional fitness facility so that customers can work out wherever and whenever they want. That future is here now, digitally.
Currently we have a 140,000-instructor network globally, who are some of the best in the world in teaching the 900-plus workouts we provide. During the COVID-19 crisis, people have consistently told us how they miss their instructors, so we feel a sense of urgency about how best to leverage our instructor network digitally. Expect to hear a lot more from us on this front in the coming months, addressing this need with our partners and users as we emerge into a post-COVID-19 world.
LD: To follow on that question, LES MILLS™ On Demand is a very popular recent addition to the 24GO® app. What are you seeing, under the current circumstances?
JMF: We’ve seen an 900 percent increase in sign-ups to LES MILLS On Demand since January, as thousands of new users are eager to stay active in the face of COVID-19. We knew that 85 percent of gym members were already working out at home as well, but digital workouts have exploded in the past few months.
It was critical for us to offer help to our fitness club partners at a time when it was most needed. Fortunately, we were able to pivot very quickly to offer an immediate digital solution for clubs and their members to stay active, something that is a must-do in a global pandemic.
We have also seen this yearning for a sense of community to be replicated digitally, as our online community of LES MILLS On Demand has also exploded across all social media channels, where users have actively shared their fitness journeys navigating COVID-19.
We are very thankful to have such great club partnerships and it’s great to hear we were able to be such an integral part of the 24GO app. It’s partnerships like the one we have with 24 Hour Fitness that will help us collectively get through this together and come out on the other side of this stronger, healthier and better for it.
LD: What, in your mind, sets the on-demand content apart from other content?
JMF: In a word, quality. We produce new content every quarter with the best combination of music and cutting-edge workouts taught by some of the most influential instructors in the world. Our workouts are properly scientifically tested and constantly updated and delivered by the very best instructors. We know they really work—lots of positive energy that is appealing no matter the type of workout. This is what keeps our members coming back for more.
LD: Anything else you would like to add?
At a time when health is everyone’s top priority, the COVID-19 outbreak has emphasized that we truly are in an age where people can work out wherever and whenever they want. Our company mantra has always been “For a Fitter Planet”—where clean water, fresh air, sustainable food and healthy people form the essence of what that mantra means to us. This mission could not be more important than right now in world history. I am very proud to be part of a team at Les Mills working very hard to provide this solution and vision for the world when it needs it most.
Editor’s note: Now you can check out Les Mills content in the 24GO app, here.
Photo credit: Les Mills; Jean-Michel Fournier