One Up

A visit to the wellness laboratory

He started out making his own barbells, today he is a purveyor of equipment to the Olympic Games: Nerio Alessandri is a self-made man, a wellness ambassador and a pioneer of the fitness scene. We met him at his Technogym Village near Rimini

Volker Marquardt

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This is the kind of idyll you expect to see in a science fiction movie. A heron glides serenely to earth, robotic lawnmowers circle cypress trees and lavender bushes, lounge music oozes from loudspeakers discreetly planted among the reeds. A bright, multi-element glass structure nestles against the green hills of Cesena near Rimini like a series of waves. Technogym Village, the work of Italian star designer Antonio Citerrio, looks more like the Google Campus in California than a fitness center. In fact, it is a wellness temple, a factory and a laboratory all rolled into one.

In the reception area, we find Technogym founder Nerio Alessandri perched on a rather too lofty designer sofa, slamming out snappy catch phrases, like “healthy planet, healthy people” and “health is wealth.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos four years ago, he proclaimed his “wellness economy” ideal: Health, according to Alessandri, is not just good for the individual, but also for the government because it has to spend less money, and for industry because healthy workers are creative and productive. How can we achieve health? With more exercise. “The human body is designed to walk 30 kilometers a day, but these days, we only walk an average of 500 meters,” Alessandri observes. “I want to close that gap.”

Nerio Alessandri is a self-made man, a wellness ambassador and a pioneer of the fitness scene

Hale and hearty work environments

At Technogym Village, you can see Alessandri’s vision for the wellness world of the future in action. “Our car park is some distance from the offices so that we have to take a few steps before work,” says Alessandri. In the conference rooms, the just under 1000 employees sit on back-friendly gymnastic balls, a sign by the elevator exhorts them in large letters to use the stairs (Don’t waste energy”), other plaques encourage an “energy-saving smile” and a “healthy breakfast.” There’s exercise equipment in front of the coffee machines.

The various departments of this hale and hearty world of work and fitness are in competition with each other. This keeps motivation high. Wherever they are, in the office or at home, employees’ every move is monitored by fitness trackers. At the moment, the research department is clearly leading the field. The others can catch up, though, by collecting more “moves” on the basketball court, the running track or any of the countless pieces of equipment in the buildings – everyone is permitted to take lunch breaks of up to two hours. It’s hardly possible not to live healthily here.

When the village opened in 2012, Bill Clinton was among the guests. He is not the only celebrity among its visitors. Tennis pro Rafael Nadal paid 100 000 dollars to have a complete studio fitted out just for him, and for Fernando Alonso, the research department designed a kind of Formula 1 cockpit to provide him with a special neck workout. Bill Gates, in particular, made a big impact on Alessandri: “He committed himself to social responsibility like few other entrepreneurs. I am following his humanitarian lead – if on a smaller scale.” Alessandri founded the non-profit organization Technogym Foundation as long ago as 2003; he calls it a “laboratory which will enhance the quality of people's lives.”

At Technogym Village, you can see Alessandri’s vision for the wellness world of the future

The road to success

It all started, so the story goes, in his parents’ garage. That is where Alessandri, then 22 and a trained product designer, welded together his first fitness apparatus. The owner of a bodybuilding studio was so smitten by the red Hack Squat now on display in the company’s museum, that he promptly ordered another three. Alessandri had no trouble finding a couple of small specialized operations to cut the metal parts for him: Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati also place orders in the region. Alessandri’s family, however, did not even possess a telephone, which is why the young man could often be seen making his way to the telephone box carrying a heavy plastic bag – it was full of small coins.

He made his breakthrough in 1986 with the first home gym. The Unica is still assembled on one of the 16 production lines in the T Factory in Cesena, which covers an area equal to at least six soccer fields put together. Since then, Alessandri, whose business cards still proclaim him a “product designer”, has regularly adapted to the latest fitness fads. When bodybuilding was replaced in the ’90s by the cardio era, he developed treadmills and cross-trainers, like the Vario. For the present trend, a kind of group circuit training called “Omnia”, there is already an Alessandri station equipped with balls, rings and ropes.

All exercise data are stored in the My Wellness Cloud – from every Technogym machine, no matter where you are

The wellness cloud

Today, 150 000 machines leave the factory in Northern Italy every year. Worldwide sales climbed to over 400 million euros in 2013. The economic crisis has left the Italian market “very weak just now,” Alessandri admits, but sales in Germany have stabilized at 30 million euros and even risen slightly in the United States. “People invest in things that are important to them – and health is the most important,” he says, then adds: “Health is the new luxury.” The Middle East also appears to be buying into that insight and with Africa already accounts for 15 percent of the company’s revenues.

The new computer interface caters to this international market. All over the world, it is now possible to log into a Technogym machine and start your own personal workout using your smartphone – no matter where you are, in a hotel, a club or army barracks. All exercise data are stored in the My Wellness Cloud – even the effort spent shopping and dog walking. “Our goal is to take account of all physical activities,“ says Alessandri, “we want to build up a strong wellness community and motivate people by making exercise more fun.”

In Alessandri’s world, everything is interconnected. The day is already drawing to a close, when the boss notices a thread on the floor. He picks it up himself and puts it in his trouser pocket. Outside, the heron takes to the air again. “The bird works for us, too,” an employee jokes, letting her gaze run over the immaculately trimmed lawn outside the window.

Photos: Manfred Jarisch

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