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Inspired moves Featured

7:16am EDT May 24, 2005
Florine Mark's story of inspiration began nearly four decades ago. Young Mark dreamt of becoming a television personality or a writer, but when she opened her first Weight Watchers franchise in 1966, she saw her life heading down a different path.

Today, when she's not busy managing WW Group Inc., Mark hosts her own radio show, "Remarkable Woman," and stars in her own television show, "Ask Florine." Mark also authored the self-help book "Talk to the Mirror."

These varied projects all share a common goal -- to inspire women and help them lead healthier lives. And Mark knows all about making healthy changes. Nearly 40 years ago, she transformed her own life by permanently losing 50 pounds, banishing yo-yo dieting from her life.

"When I lost the weight and kept it off, I was full of self-respect and confidence," says Mark, president, chairman and CEO of WW Group Inc.

And she wants all women to feel the same way.

But it isn't just Mark's ability to meet goals and make dreams happen that is inspirational. Her business acumen is impressive, too. At the height of her business, she operated Weight Watchers franchises across more than a dozen Midwest and East Coast states, in addition to franchises in Mexico and Canada, with the help of almost 6,000 employees.

In 2003, Mark struck a deal with Weight Watchers International, selling a majority of her franchises to it for just over $180 million. Even after the sale, she remains the Weight Watchers franchisor with the most franchises, maintaining operations in Michigan and Canada.

Juggling the duties of being a business owner, a public personality and an author might seem daunting, but Mark takes it all in stride.

"I have never encountered anything that I felt was too challenging, with the exception of the decision to sell," she says. "Even when I went to the bank to borrow millions of dollars to buy out Boston, it wasn't a challenge -- it was exciting."

Smart Business spoke with Florine Mark about managing a franchise, moving her business in new directions and finding everyday inspiration.

What led you to start WW Group Inc.?

I was 50 pounds overweight. I had lost that 50 pounds nine times before and gained it back. Each time, I used methods that were detrimental to my health, like taking weight loss pills. The last time, I ended up hospitalized.

The doctor said if I took any more of the pills, he would not be responsible for my life.

I heard about Weight Watchers. At that time, the closest program was in New York. I went to New York and stayed one week, then I went back every month. It was so different. I lost 40 pounds in four months.

The founder of the program asked me if I wanted to buy a franchise and take the system back to Detroit. I did. Well, I had my first Weight Watchers class, and 30 people showed up. The second class, 80 people showed up, and the third class, 150 people showed up. I was happy. I knew I'd found what I wanted to do the rest of my life.

What is your management philosophy?

My goal has been two things -- to focus on the (Weight Watchers) member and to focus on the people who work with me. I never forget the people who work with me. Even when I had 6,000 employees, I sent everyone birthday cards.

At my company, everyone had a weight problem, lost weight, went on our maintenance program and came to work for me. All of them availed themselves of our services. Now, of course, there are times when we get stressed out -- we all do at different times -- and get a little out of control, but we help each other.

No one is perfect.

What is your member service philosophy?

Service to the member is the most important thing to me. I've never had a customer that's been wrong. We treat them as if they are always right. I'd rather lose a few dollars than that good will.

What made WW Group's franchises so successful?

We are very aggressive when it comes to marketing and advertising. I believe in public relations; many other franchisees do not. I have always had between two to five people working with me in that capacity.

I have my own radio show called "Remarkable Woman." Women from all over talk about their own stories, and it inspires the listeners -- they feel if she can do it, so can I. I also have a television show called "Ask Florine," so I am very visible.

And we do a newsletter, which is really a combination of a newspaper and a magazine, and that spreads the word.

How does Weight Watchers fit into your goal of inspiring women?

An independent study was done at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Weight Watchers program was the only one identified as a balanced, healthy system. We are proud of that.

You can lose weight and keep it off if you stick to the directions, eat your greens, fruits and vegetables. In 30 years with Weight Watchers, no one takes a pill. People are expected to take responsibility and change their eating habits.

We do it slowly, so that eventually you'll want that red pepper or apple as a snack instead of a candy bar. We've upgraded the program five or six times. We have a board of doctors and psychiatrists constantly researching weight loss, and we incorporate changes if they are sound. It is the easiest system I've ever used, and it is nutritionally sound.

What sparked the decision to sell so many of your franchises to Weight Watchers International?

My first husband died of cancer. I remarried a man who had lots of outside activities, and he began making noises that he wanted to work less and start to retire. We wanted to go to India, Australia, places like that. Once I sold [my franchises], I would have more time to travel.

And I thought it was a good chance for me to see the kids getting their inheritance in advance and see what they'd do with it. My children already owned 60 percent of the company. I owned 40 percent and had control. So I decided to keep 25 percent -- the franchises in Michigan and parts of Canada -- and sell off the rest. We set up a charitable foundation, and the only change is, we do more philanthropic work and donations.

Two months after I sold the franchises, my husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Within a year to two years, this active man wasn't able to leave the house. We loved each other dearly. After he passed, I was glad I still had the franchises I'd kept to keep me busy.

Have you ever regretted the decision?

Yes. If I'd known then what I know now, I don't think I would've sold them. I miss the excitement of some of the other markets, like Massachusetts and Mexico.

I signed a 10-year noncompete clause. Two years have passed; in another eight years, watch out.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned in business?

I think I learned the biggest lesson before I started the business, and that is to listen -- really concentrate on what people are saying. That is true whether you are talking to a clerk, the people that clean the building or the president of the bank. All people get equal treatment. I try to be nonjudgmental.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles women leaders face today?

Many of us become entrepreneurs because it is hard for women to climb up the ladder in corporations. You don't see many (women as) CEOs of large corporations, and not many sit on boards. Women haven't formed their Old Girls Club yet. We don't help each other out the way men have in the past, but we're learning, and opportunities are growing.

For me, the most important part of my life were my five children. I think that is true for many women. (That's) why so many companies are creating daycare centers -- so that women don't have to spend hours away from their children. Raising kids is a big, important job. The primary solution is to create better child care. Businesses that have daycare systems on the premises attract quality employees.

What advice would you give other women who are driven to achieve?

Go for it. Take one day at a time. Keep a pencil and notebook with you all the time.

When I wake up in the morning, I make notes about what I want to accomplish for the day and with any person that I am meeting with. Also, it helps to stay organized. When I come into the house, there are hooks for my keys. Everything is in its place at the office and at home.

It is an extremely important skill that we can learn.

How to reach: WW Group Inc., (888) 3-FLORINE or www.888-3-florine.com