The Weight Watchers Ireland business model has shown how a simple idea can create jobs while also empowering and educating people
It shows us how much can be accomplished by one person who strives to find a solution to a problem faced by many
Losing weight is high up on most people's list of new year resolutions, so what better business to profile this week than one which is helping people do just that.
Weight Watchers Ireland is a franchise of Weight Watchers International Inc. I visited the headquarters in Swords, Co Dublin, where I met with three of the company's founders: Rita Fagan, managing director; Carmel Kidney, financial controller; and Aine Meagher, who looks after IT and systems.
The company has the rights to the Weight Watchers meetings that take place in Ireland, both North and South. It employs 12 people directly, in Swords, and manages a national network of almost 200 local leaders.
Each leader must first have gone through the Weight Watchers programme, and be maintaining a healthy weight, before being selected and trained as a leader. Once appointed, leaders work on a self-employed basis to manage and facilitate weekly meetings for members. At present there are between 30,000 and 35,000 people attending classes each week throughout the country.
Leaders pay a portion of their weekly membership fees to the company as well as buying a range of Weigh Watchers branded products and publications for resale to members. These include healthy snacks, cookbooks, and ProPoints electronic calculators (the ProPoints system is the currency Weight Watchers members use to gauge energy values in food intake).
National advertising and branding is taken care off by headquarters while leaders are responsible for local advertising.
Like many, I am familiar with the Weight Watchers brand, but I am really interested to know how the business started.
"It was set up by Jean Nidetch in 1961 in her three-room apartment in Queens, New York," Rita explains. Jean was a 38-year-old woman who worked in the local tax office. She struggled with her weight and had tried different diet regimens but always gained back the weight she had lost. Frustrated, she decided to try something new. She invited several of her friends to join her in a sensible eating plan but added that they must support each other by meeting for weekly weigh-ins in her apartment.
Within two months, more than 40 women were attending the meetings. News spread fast and she was soon inundated with requests to set up other groups. Within two years she had set up Weight Watchers International. In 1978, the Heinz Corporation bought the business for $100m. They subsequently sold it, in 1999, to the current owners, Artal, a European-based Investment firm, for a sum reported to be close to $750m.
Now in its 50th year, the parent company has annual revenues of over $1bn (€756m) and operations in 32 countries worldwide. Each week up to 1.5 million members meet to learn about healthy eating in the same supportive group setting that Jean Nidetch first developed.
Rita explains that most of the Weight Watchers operations around the world are owned by the parent company. So how did they end up owning the Irish franchise I ask?
Weight Watchers International first set up in Ireland in 1978 as part of the UK operation and was managed from there.
"Their approach to the market here didn't really work for them and so, in 1982, they pulled out of the Irish market," she explains. This created a vacuum and a group of 13 existing leaders, including Rita, Carmel and Aine, formed a small co-operative and decided to continue running classes on their own. Nine of the original 13 remain shareholders in the business today.
They were growing so fast that two years later Heinz offered the women the rights to the Irish franchise.
They remember how Dr Tony O'Reilly, the former head of Heinz, shared with them his pride, at the time, that Ireland had more members per head of population than any other country in the world.
"Not bad for three ordinary women from Dublin," says Rita. But I can't help but think that these three ladies are far from ordinary.
Rita smiles when I ask her where she learned about business. She left school at the age of 14 to serve her time as an apprentice box maker at Rowntree Mackintosh and worked there until the sweet factory closed. "I qualified through the University of Life" she says laughing.
What has been the secret to their success?
"Our programmes work," says Carmel. "They are backed up by international scientific research into how the sight, smell – even the thought of favourite high-fat foods can trigger an urge to eat. We teach members how to better manage such situations."
"We're also blessed with great and committed leaders," says Aine. "Our job is to help them grow and develop – because, after all, they are running their own businesses."
"The economic downturn has meant that, what was once an interesting sideline for many leaders has now become an important part of basic household income," adds Rita.
Later that evening I visit this year's 'Leader of the Year' Deirdre McDonald as she is preparing to welcome members to her class in the Seven Oaks Hotel in Carlow town.
She joined Weight Watchers to lose weight before her wedding in 2008. "I lost two-and- half stone" she tells me proudly. "Losing weight completed changed me. It gave me more confidence."
However, things took a turn for the worse when, in 2009, she was made redundant. "I thought my whole world had come down around me," she says. And so she decided to apply to become a leader.
"At first I was very nervous about speaking in front of a group but the leader's training course really helped," she says.
From the very outset, Deirdre decided to treat it as a real business. "It was my only source of income and I just knew it had potential to grow," she says.
She explains that members pay a once-off joining fee of €20 and €10 per weekly class after that. "Or they can pre-pay for a number of classes to get even better value," Deirdre adds, still in sales mode. A typical class lasts approximately one hour.
Deirdre welcomes everyone and outlines the topic of the talk she will give later in the class. But first it's time for the weekly weigh-in.
This is done on a one-to-one basis at the back of the room to ensure privacy. The fact that Deirdre has been down this road herself helps create a genuine sensitivity towards those who are feeling self-conscious. Details are recorded digitally using smart card technology.
"Weight Watchers Ireland was the first Weight Watchers group in the world to have computerised members' weigh-ins," she says proudly. "It was developed by one of our members and provides added flexibility to members to attend classes anywhere in the country."
Weigh-ins complete, it's on to the talk for the evening. The subject will be the same in every Weight Watchers meeting around the country this week. Time is also allowed for members to ask questions or share experiences.
I am interested to know about the number of men joining. "There is definitely a growing number of men attending and a definite opening for male leaders," Deirdre tells me.
While she relies heavily on word of mouth, Deirdre works hard to advertise her classes locally. "You can't just sit back and expect people to turn up. You have to proactively get out there and let people know what you're about," she adds. Her innovative approach to advertising saw her contact a local magazine. She convinced them to create a Healthy Eating Corner where she submits a tasty recipe to the magazine each week and, in turn, they publish details of her classes.
It's a smart approach that has helped her to dramatically increase her class numbers.
In 2011 she became a part-time area trainer and now she helps to deliver training to other leaders.
"Weight Watchers has helped me turn my life around both personally and business wise and I am now master of my own destiny again," she says proudly. She loves her work and it shows.
What Rita, Carmel and Aine have achieved in Weight Watchers Ireland is remarkable. From humble beginnings, they have grown a successful business with meaningful purpose and a positive impact. The story of Weigh Watchers International is a real reminder that no one starts a big business. We start small businesses and grow them from there.
It shows us how much can be accomplished by one person who strives to find a solution to a problem that is faced by many; how a simple business idea, that takes hold, can result in the creation of thousands of jobs around the world while at the same time educating and empowering millions of people to improve their health and wellbeing.
It is also a story about understanding that in business, as in life, the true nature of good leadership is not about creating more followers but about developing more leaders.