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An image of a younger Bahram Akradi.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in Tehran. There were close to 5 million people living in this modern and sophisticated Iranian city — and over 8 million in the metropolitan area. It was a busy, thriving metropolis full of Western influences.

I was the baby in our family of four, which included my oldest brother, Davood; another brother, Bijan; and my sister, Zohreh. My father was in the military with expertise in finance and accounting, and because his salary wasn’t enough to provide for us, he often worked two or three other jobs. My mother took care of the house and us kids.

While we weren’t poor, we had little more than what we needed — food, shelter, and education. I don’t remember ever having a toy, but I never felt deprived. My brothers, cousins, and I created our own fun. We were happy and had great friends and a loving, traditional family.

It was a simple time, and I didn’t think much beyond it — in my mind, my life and my future were set. I wanted to be a pilot in the Iranian air force like my big brother Davood, who I idolized. I would graduate from high school and follow in his footsteps.

Two Worlds

When I was 16, things in Iran started to change. In 1978, a new, more radical wave was sweeping through Iran, which threatened our entire way of life. My father, in his wisdom, saw the storm clouds on the horizon and the forces that would eventually lead to the upheaval of the Islamic Revolution. He resolved to get me safely out of the way.

My brother Bijan had already emigrated to the United States for college with one of my cousins, so at 17, my family put me on a plane to join them. After two days, five planes, and six airports, I arrived in the then-remote rocky mountain town of Colorado Springs.

A plane flying over the clouds during a sunrise or sunset.

Contrary to common belief, Iranian schools were actually more advanced than American public schools at the time, and I had been an excellent student. I could have gone straight to college-level work, but I knew I needed more than academics to succeed. I was in a whole new environment, so I registered as a senior at Coronado High School and jumped into the world of American teens.

Attending high school in America was one of the best decisions of my life. Though my classwork didn’t challenge me, that was OK: My real course of study was the American way of life — and my fellow students were excellent teachers.

I observed how relaxed they seemed to be about schoolwork and how much focus they put on having fun. This was the opposite of the way things were back home.

In Iran, there was one national test that everyone had to take prior to graduation; it determined your entire future. Seniors in Iranian high schools spent the whole year preparing for it. They often stayed home to study when their parents went on vacation. I still remember seeing kids outside on warm nights, reading their textbooks under streetlamps while the rest of their family slept.

In my new home, students studied and thought about college too. But they also seemed to believe that having fun was a big part of being a high school senior. That view — that fun was a fundamental right — was the most foreign idea I had ever encountered. I dove right in.

In America, there were fewer rules, and a more relaxed attitude about following them. Sometimes people even scored points for breaking the rules, as long as they weren’t being destructive. I soaked this up and reveled in new creativity, imagination, and independence.

American teens also seemed to have a different view on authority. In Iran, we were taught to have an almost unshakeable respect, beginning with our parents. It would have been unthinkable to ever speak back to or disagree with a parent or teacher. Everyone knew their place and the expectations placed on them. This created a high degree of order, but also encouraged rigidity. It made it difficult to be an independent thinker.

I now faced two approaches to life, one traditional and one modern. The question — Which one was better? — went through my mind constantly.

One day, with little fanfare, I realized I didn’t have to choose. I could have both. There was no need to reject the old to accept the new. I could keep the values and lessons I knew were important while embracing the new freedom and endless possibilities found in the United States.

Life showed me a new door in a new country, a place I never expected to be. I opened it and walked through with my typical enthusiasm. Excited about my new insight, I realized there might be many other doors.

Instead of asking myself, Which one is better? the question became, How many approaches are out there?

Considering the Options

In Iran, your career path was set — a major declared before you finished high school. In the United States, it was different: There were options and choices, particularly in college.

Since I was a boy, my dream had been to become a pilot. Because the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs didn’t offer programs in aviation or aeronautics, I improvised. I majored in electrical engineering with the intent to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, which would get me to my true goal of flying.

The college routine was great — I took classes during the day and worked nights at a restaurant where I’d started washing dishes for minimum wage in high school.

There was a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States during this time though, which certainly didn’t make things easy. Yet I was relentless, learning all the jobs in the kitchen to eventually move from dishwasher to backup cook, then backup cook to line cook.

By my second year of college, I was a full-time engineering student by day and “Chef Akradi” by night.

Even with a full schedule, I worked out regularly at the local gym called Nautilus Fitness Center. I began spending more time there, which led to me asking the manager if there were any openings. I thought it would at least help with my commute.

He offered me the graveyard shift and I took it.

My new job came with the grand title of “night manager,” although there were no other employees to manage. It didn’t matter. I threw myself into my work, even though a career in the health-club industry was the furthest thing from my mind.

From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., I did everything that needed to be done: I cleaned the pools and locker room, worked the front desk, helped clients, answered questions, and showed people how to use the equipment.

As my coursework grew more challenging, so did working the graveyard shift. I inquired about what other jobs might fit my schedule better. There was an opportunity: selling memberships.

My manager quickly realized that I had a knack for it. By my second month, I had tied the company’s top salesperson. By my third month, I beat him by 50 percent and was making more money working two days per week than entry-level electrical engineers made full-time.

At the end of that semester, the owners of Nautilus approached me with an offer. They were expanding into a new market — Minneapolis, Minn. — and they wanted me to move there to manage the new location. I initially turned them down.

I was going to school for engineering and was planning to be a pilot; I wasn’t going to give that up to manage gyms. Then they asked me what the average salary was for electrical engineers.

At the time, it was between $24,000 and $28,000 per year. They offered me $30,000, plus 4 to 8 percent of gross sales — more than three times as much as I could hope to make starting out as an engineer. They had my attention.

Since engineering was merely a steppingstone to my dream of becoming a pilot, leaving school before completing my degree didn’t feel like a major loss. I had finished my requirements, and the only thing between me and a diploma were a few formalities. If the new job didn’t work out, I could always go back to engineering. I accepted their offer.

Skyline of Minneapolis, Minn.

Changing Course

Looking back at this crucial turning point, I realize how much luck had to do with it.

Albert Einstein said, “You must decide if the universe is for you or against you.” My father and my family taught me to believe in myself, because you attract things that reinforce your beliefs. It’s the simple law that wherever you put your focus will expand.

There was a certain wind at my back that whispered to me that the universe was for me, not against me.

The synchronicities of “luck” followed my willingness to start as a night manager. I was there as new opportunity opened, attracting goodwill and more confidence with my attitude. Hard work combined with a gift to help people realize their dreams led to my success as a salesman.

That, along with what can simply be described as a good attitude and a constant willingness to take on new tasks, led the Nautilus executives to trust that I could handle opening a new market for them. It all aligned to set me on my way.

In March 1983, my friend and comanager, Mark Zaebst, and I left Colorado Springs and set off for Minneapolis. We loaded what little we owned into a U-Haul truck and headed north, arriving in the city late on a freezing winter day. We had a lease on an empty 12,000-square-foot space in a suburban strip mall. That was it.

In 1983, there was no such thing as Amazon, let alone the internet or cell phones. The most exciting technology of the day was a new thing called a fax machine. We had to source and procure everything — exercise machines, phones, furniture, business cards — the old-fashioned way, by showing up in person.

Looking back, I cannot believe Nautilus would allow two 21-year-olds to handle the outfitting, opening, and operations for a new location in another city. They were crazy to take that chance on us, but we were thrilled. We thrived. We learned to create something from nothing — and we were a hit.

That location took off and by the time it did, I had been bitten by a bug that would not let go. But there was no basking in the success, as I immediately started looking ahead, developing plans to open several other locations in the area.

When the owners came to town to see what we had done, we were ready for what was next. We had scouted locations and studied the market, and we took them on a tour of the area. We presented them with a business plan and thoroughly answered their questions. While they were at least 20 years older, these executives were impressed.

They also owed us money — a substantial amount of our sales and base salary. I told them I would take an equal one-eighth ownership position in the company and become one of the eight partners instead of the cash. They accepted.

The cash might have been a safer bet, but I had blinders on, seeing only the opportunity to do more, to do better, to shed the old standard for the gym industry, and to truly be best in class. With my perfectionist nature, it was game on.

Less than three years after starting out as night manager in a single health club, I was a partner and executive vice president in a growing American company. I was 22 years old.

Envisioning Something New

Shortly after being made partner at Nautilus, we changed the name to U.S. Swim and Fitness. We all worked hard, the company did well, and in 1986, we were bought out by Bally’s, a national chain.

As all these things transpired, I began to envision something else — something completely different in the form of an entirely new type of health club, one that went far beyond the gym-in-the-storefront model to an experience that would change the industry. I was so dedicated to this dream, that by 1992, I took a leap. I sold off almost everything I had, and, in July, opened the first Life Time club in Brooklyn Park, in the northern outskirts of Minneapolis. Two years later, the first ground-up Life Time that I imagined became a reality.

I’d always had a passion for thinking differently, for seeking something outside the ordinary. I noticed how health clubs served their customers poorly, and my desire was to build a club based on the customer’s point of view. This idea consumed me to the point that people thought I was crazy. But there was no doubt in my mind — I had a vision.

Bahram Akradi
Bahram Akradi

Bahram Akradi is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Life Time. Hear more from him at BahramAkradi.com.

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