The following interview is taken from the book BULL’S EYE by Robert Kennedy
John Cardillo is a prime example of a self-made man. Not only did he build himself a prize-winning physique, competing internationally in bodybuilding contests with great success, he also forged a chain of 50 fitness clubs, with an annual gross revenue of over $100 million. He divides his time between homes in Ontario, Canada and Miami, Florida.
RK: John, you were born in Italy. At what age did you move to North America?
JC: I was seven years old when my parents came to Canada
How would you describe your parents?
They were extremely hard-working, honest people. They had an enormous work ethic, always struggling to work their hardest to pay the basic bills of a simple existence.
What got you interested in going into business for yourself?
As I was growing up, I came to understand that many families in the area were able to support their kids by enrolling them in hockey, soccer and other sports. On March Break, they would take off for the Bahamas or even Europe. My parents just could not afford these luxuries. One thing that really got to me was carrying loads of groceries for my mother. Other families had expensive cars whipping past while I was struggling with carrying the heavy bags a considerable distance from the grocery store to our house. Sometimes kids from school would see me traipsing behind my mother and I could sense their reactions. That is when I swore that when I got older I would never find myself without the finer things in life. I wanted like crazy to be successful because these people had their own businesses. I knew then I wanted one day to have my own business.
You are in great shape. When did you first get interested in training?
While still in school I wanted to make the football team so I started lifting weights in the school gym to gain muscle and strength. It worked. I made the team.
What was your first job after leaving school?
I worked part-time in the local gym, helping others to train. I also kept my eyes open and learned how things worked.
And then you opened your own gym at age 19?
Everything starts out psychologically, I think, so what happened is the fact that my parents were trying to set up a better life for their kids, and having this immigrant mentality that you are somewhat inferior because you are not part of the melting pot – you’re in the worker class as opposed to the business class. Two things kindled my thoughts on working out and on business. One was the fact that working at a simple job wasn’t what I believed would lead to the best lifestyle, so I knew I had to be in business. The second was, I remember the first time I went to a sports store and there was a spring set I looked at that had pictures of a bodybuilder using springs to build his body. I looked at these images and thought, ‘That’s pretty incredible, but is it achievable?’ So that had a big impression on me and started the curiosity with working out and whether or not I could build a better physique as a result of training.
I wanted to make the football team, and I decided that working out with weights would be a good avenue, and I started running – all the things that would make me a better athlete. I enjoyed hockey and basketball, but I wasn’t tall or bog or strong enough. But as I got into weight training, I realized I enjoyed it more than competitive team sports. I loved the feeling of accomplishing new goals with each workout; basically, I was bitten by the iron bug, whereas sports didn’t seem to be as important to me as my workouts. After my second year of football in Grade 10, I decided I wanted to go into bodybuilding full time as an objective. That’s when I started looking at what bodybuilding could lead to; I changed my whole idea as to my future goals.
At one time I thought I could enjoy becoming a Phys Ed teacher, but I quickly learned that wasn’t financially rewarding compared to the potential of owning my own business. So I went to university with the idea of trying to get an education to be better equipped for business. At the same time, as I was competing in bodybuilding and working at a fitness club as an instructor, I started understanding how lucrative and how valuable it was to provide people with the proper instruction and a place to work out. I also realized how few good workout clubs there were at the time. The idea quickly developed to leave school, which I did, and at 19 I opened my first club. My youth and my circumstances in life at the time created two goals: one was business and one was bodybuilding. Business was for the purpose of having a better lifestyle than my parents, and bodybuilding was for my personal satisfaction.
Did everything go smoothly when you first started into the gym business? It seems everyone goes through a period of problems. What kind of setbacks did you encounter as you were building your empire?
The thing that I regret most in the way I started was that I didn’t have enough business education. I had the willpower, I had the work ethic and I was a true entrepreneur. However, I feel that had I continued school and perhaps got an MBA, I would’ve been better equipped to handle certain challenges in business that a novice encounters – financing clubs, taking the right locations, partnerships, employees – all these things depend on being able to understand business models, being able to understand service models with members. Practical experience is very important, but deeper business wisdom comes from having the education behind you when it comes to leasing, finances, employee relations and developing a strategy that’s going to take you further. As you develop it and go along, you’re bound to make a lot more mistakes. But I always use mistakes as a lesson that you don’t want to pay for twice.
Everyone makes mistakes – in a way you feel mistakes are good because you can learn from them. Do you have a business philosophy or something that guides you almost daily?
My business philosophy is that you stick to what you know and you surround yourself with the best possible people that can give you the best advice and the best support for your ideas.
Do you feel that being strong and healthy has contributed to your success in the business world?
Absolutely. The genesis of everything for me has been the knowledge that if I started bench pressing only 100 pounds, those small increments I increased by until I reached 400 pounds were all successes. It took hard work and time. Business is similar to that – the harder you work at making your business work better and improving all aspects of it, the more you’re going to be rewarded.
Have you gone into any business activities other than the gym business?
There are parts of my business that involve aspects other than providing people with fitness establishments. We have to provide them with the actual fiscal facility so that they can pay a small monthly fee rather than a large annual payment. I also felt it was important to involve myself in real estate, so I was able to purchase real estate along the way to build clubs that I thought would not only be successful but also in the long run would increase considerably in value.
Did you always know you would be successful?
I always knew that the harder I worked at something, the more I thought about it, the more I planned the best strategy, the better the result would be – maybe someone else wouldn’t stick to it as long as I would. Therefore, I was prepared to invest whatever time and effort was necessary to make it work. From that standpoint, I kept working on something until it provided the result I was looking for.
Can anyone, in your opinion, become a success?
Anyone and everyone can become a success. However, it takes incredible discipline, you have to have a competitive nature, you have to be able to overcome setbacks; you have to really want it, and you can’t give up. And it certainly helps if you enjoy what you do.
Has any one person been a business mentor for you, from whom you’re learned important aspects of the business?
I like to be a sponge and learn from different people in various fields. I look at and think about their examples of what they’ve done and how they’ve succeeded in their fields, and then I wonder how it can be applied to my field. Oftentimes, you can take great examples from all sorts of different companies and different business people that translate into your own business. This has allowed me to implement things I wouldn’t have if I’d stuck with the fitness herd.
When issues come up in your business, as they do in every business, how do you tackle them to avoid excessive stress?
I always look at the outcome that I want. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, I always question what the outcome is. If the outcome is X, then I try to figure out all the steps required to get to that outcome. Who needs to be deployed or employed to achieve the result I’m looking for?
Go through your typical day, morning to night.
Now my typical day involves a lot of preplanning in the morning. I usually wake up between 4 and 5 a.m. I spend the first hour planning my day, setting my mind on what is important to do that day – what are the issues, what are the things I want to accomplish. I usually do this between 5 and 7 a.m. because my mind is freshest, I’m not tired and I have peace and quiet because nobody else is up yet in my home. Whether that means looking at documents, making big decisions or planning, I can look at it with clear focus in quiet, having a coffee. That’s the time when I really forge what the day is going to be about, and what the future is going to be about. My first two hours of the day are very important to me.
I play with my kids for a bit, they’re off to school at 8 a.m., then I make my phone calls unless I have a meeting and need to be at the office. I’m usually at home for about an hour. I leave my home by 9 or 9:30 and get to the office by 10. My first meeting is usually at 11. I don’t take lunches or go for lunch meetings whatsoever. I like working straight through the day with meetings and with people in the office. I try to get out to a club or two every week to see what’s going on, and I finish off my day by sitting with a couple of key people at my office to review things. I like to have a bit of quiet time at the office at the end of the day between 5 and 8 p.m., looking at financials, decision-making processes. So that’s another part of my day that’s important.
So there’s no doubt that’s a long day.
It goes by very quickly – by Friday I’m a bit tired, but I don’t feel like I go to work every day. Being in business for yourself is enjoyable, at least for me. If you enjoy what you do then you will never have to work a day in your life.
What are your strengths? What would you say John Cardillo is really good at?
Perseverance and figuring it out. People in business, or in general, are going to be confronted with obstacles. There are two ways to confront them: one is fear, and you back away, and the other is considering the obstacle a challenge and you figure it out. All of the adversity of my life, it affects me, but I try to always take the standpoint during adversity to identify it, figure out how to deal with it, determine the desired outcome and what the best plan is to achieve that outcome.
If someone came to you asking where they could invest $100,000, how would you advise them?
If they had any business savvy, I would review what they were doing and see whether more capital would help them make more money. Or if that wasn’t the case, if they were just somebody who had a job and had $100,000 in savings, I would advise them to find the best money manager with a proven track record, a great reputation, satisfied clients who I’d want to speak to, and I would advise them to put the money with someone who does that for a living and who’s very good at it. I would not advise them to go buy a stock or start trading online. That’s a fool’s way to making money. Paying off any personal debts would be the first requirement.
What is the key factor that’s made you successful without which you would not have made it?
in order to be successful at anything, you must love what you do. If you love what you do, naturally you’re going to persevere. I sell health and fitness – I don’t sell widgets, I don’t sell furniture, I don’t sell real estate. I try to give my clients the best experienced advise possible because I love the result that fitness and health gives someone. I know the result is so positive that if I can achieve that result with a client , then I’ve done my job and they’re going to be a client forever. I really love that aspect of what I do. If I can persevere to give my clients the best experience possible, so my business is rewarded by patronage, then I’m achieving what I set out to achieve in the first place.
Do you trust your instincts?
Yes, if every time I said yes but knew I should’ve said no, had I actually trusted my instinct better, I would’ve achieved a much better result. So I do trust my instincts.
Thank you, John. I’m sure readers will learn a lot from your entrepreneurial excellence.