June 10, 1997
by Gary James
In the world of health and fitness, Tony Little is a big man. He is the Number One Certified Personal Trainer in the World, and probably best known for his endorsement of the AB Isolators. He is a super-salesman and his accomplishments are many. A former Mr. Florida, Mr. Southern U.S., Mr. Central U.S., and Junior Mr. America, a near fatal car accident in 1985 almost derailed the career of Tony Little. His come back from that accident is nothing short of amazing. We spoke with Tony Little recently about that accident, and his phenomenal rise in the health and fitness industry.
Q: Tony, your story is remarkable. Before I go into it, are you in any
pain at all today from the injuries you received in that car accident?
A: No. I think the only time I ever have pain with my back problem is when I'm on the road too much and not exercising, or when I'm in a plane overseas. Other than that I don't have any problems. I don't know if you know this, but about 3 months ago I had another car accident. I took 160 stitches to my face.
Q: You'd better stay out of cars.
A: Yeah. First time it was a bus. Second time somebody ran me off the road. I came out of that really well too. My face is healing well. My nephew broke his neck but I'm doing great.
Q: The injuries you received from that first accident were pretty bad,
A: Yeah. I had a herniated L-4 disc, a herniated L-5 disc, a herniated C-7 which is the seventh vertebrate of the neck cervical. I had a rotator cuff tear, and I had to end up having three knee surgeries.
Q: You went from that terrible state to having your own t.v. show,
"Working Out and Shaping Up with Tony Little."
Q: What exactly was Dr. William Latorre's contribution to that first
A: Well, it's kind of an interesting story. I got motivated to go to the local cable station to do a television show because sitting at home watching a lot of the celebrities doing exercise shows, it kind of ticked me off. You'd watch them and listen to them and the first thing out of their mouth was, "Let's begin," and nobody tells you how to begin. It was just "Do it!" Remember they had a huge injury rate with aerobics, like 70 percent at the time. So anyway, I decided to go out and do my own show. When I got there I was overweight. The guy said, "Who are you?" I said, "I'm a former Mr. Florida." He said, "You can have your own show but you gotta pay for it. You can try out 13 shows for $5,500." I didn't have a job at the time, but I was pretty determined so I signed the contract for 13 shows. I had to figure out a way to pay for the show. So I went home and came up with a company idea. I called it T&T Cleaning Service. It specialized in Health Spas. The wetrooms and jacuzzis were always too dirty. I created a company that specialized in cleaning health spas. I went out that same day I signed the contract for 13 shows and sold $60,000 in contracts to American Fitness Center for cleaning their health clubs.
Q: That's remarkable.
A: It's a weird thing when you get motivated. I figured out that would be like $20-$25 an hour to clean the club. So I hired all my friends at $10 an hour (laughs), and I was able to make $10-$15 an hour without being there, and that's how I first started getting money for the show. And I decided to sell air time to support the show as extra revenue. I went out to health food stores and told them of my idea of shooting a commercial to help their business. I ended up selling to quite a few people. The problem was none of the doctors or professionals at the time wanted to be on television as advertisers. So, I switched it around and said to Willie Latorre, "I don't want you to advertise. I do want you to support the show. So why don't I give you five minutes at the end of the show and call it Injury Prevention." He loved the idea. He came on and was a major sponsor for my shows. He ended up writing a letter to Westinghouse Cable Co. and said out of all the advertising he's ever done, he got more responses out of being on my show for 5 minutes than any other form. He supported the show for 4 or 5 years.
Q: You're probably the only guy to come out of St. Petersburg, Florida
with a cable show and go on from there.
A: Yeah. It ended up being a huge stepping stone for me. I needed the first 6 or 7 shows, because I was too overweight. So I hired a good-looking female model and a good-looking male model, and I basically narrated the techniques they were doing. When I got in shape, those people lost their jobs. (laughs) I got on there and did it myself, and it became a one-on-one personal trainer type of thing. Then I went out and became certified as a physical fitness specialist by the Aerobic Research Center, Dallas, Texas, and then a certified personal trainer from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. I came back doing some training with lawyers and doctors and professional people, one on one. You know, it was a good living. I could make as much as a couple of hundred dollars a session. It's kind of weird how I fell into the video area. I was training so many people, and because it's a very personal type of sport, you have to touch and make someone move a certain way, I got hit up a lot. (laughs) I got hit on by people's wives and girlfriends, and it became very uncomfortable for me. And I didn't want to be in that business anymore. So I came up with the idea of putting my personal training on video, so nobody could touch me. (laughs)
Q: It makes sense. You can sell hundreds of thousands of videos.
A: It's kind of hard to go around and convince people because you do a local cable show, you now need the money to do a video so you can beat (Jane) Fonda with. I always use the philosophy if you ask a hundred people, you're gonna get one. So I asked a hundred and some odd people, and I got one who gave me about $100,000 cash to produce my first video. I produced it and went out with my briefcase, on the road, to these big conventions and tried to sell my title to a major company for distribution. I came back with six offers, which is kind of unbelievable. Let me tell you why it's interesting I got any offer. I had three stereotypes against me. I was a former body-builder, and they thought I was dumb. I was a man, and 99.9 percent of the videos at the time were women. And I was selling weight-training, when everything else was aerobic dance. So people were totally against the concept that it would work. I just had a strong personality and was able to convince them that I could make the difference.
Q: You never went to college, so you don't have a degree in business.
How did you learn the art of marketing?
A: I think it's kind of like that old analogy if you're a person that comes into a new town and you don't understand the restrictions of that town, usually you're more successful because you have no limitations. I've always been a person who doesn't allow limitations. I was down and out after I'd been injured. I lived in a little room, in a hotel down on Fourth Street in St. Pete. I didn't have any money. I drank Half & Half with Instant Breakfast mixed in to keep my energy levels up. I started working for a greyhound meat company, meaning a company that grinds up meat and sell it to the greyhound tracks. I was with this young Jewish guy, a really nice guy, and we started talking. He knew about being in the Pet Supply Business. I don't know how it happened but I somehow convinced him to rent me a car for two weeks and allow me to travel the State of Florida, looking for an opportunity to build a pet supply business. He rented me the car. I went out on the road and talked to people everywhere. I met some people I liked and he invested about $250,000 in pet supplies. I went out on the road full-time and built a business. He sold it for about $6 million cash and left. (laughs) It ended up being the biggest pet supply company in Florida.
Q: Before the accident, what was your goal? To be Mr. Universe?
A: Oh yeah. My goal, and no doubt I would have accomplished it, would have been the Mr. America, Mr. Universe thing. But my goal was not to stay in the sport for very long. At a certain point the sport becomes unhealthy. My goal was to have the titles and to build my reputation up, and then to maybe open up some clubs and do some product endorsement for a living.
Q: That auto accident, as bad as it was, helped you become what you
A: Oh yeah.
Q: You actually turned a negative into a positive.
A: While it didn't seem like a positive at the time, it turned out to be a wonderful positive. People always say, you can decide what you want to do. If you want to be on top, you really don't have a decision but always to go forward. It's like this last car accident I had, 21 days later with 160 stitches in my face, I shot a new show and the show is a great success. It's not what happens to us in life that matters, it's how we respond to it.
Q: Why are you so passionate about what you do? Would you like to see
everyone in America on a fitness program?
A: Well, I think it's two-fold. I look at the business I'm in as being all positive. There's no negative to what I do. If I'm able to convince one person to take care of themselves and change their life, I've done my job. It's easy to sell something that's positive and influence somebody to a better lifestyle and a better feeling. If you're depressed or have a low self image, it can change your life. I'm also a very highly competitive person. I don't just like to win, I like to totally win. I can't help the competitiveness in me. I've been on television 11 years, and every year I break everybody's record or the previous record and anything in sales. It fuels my fire. Since it's such a positive goal, that makes it so much more passionate for the competitive part of it, because you know you are doing good.
Q: Have you ever done a follow-up to see how many of the people who
order your products regularly use them?
A: You're always gonna have in fitness, especially home fitness without having one-on-one, people who buy something and never use it. I have such an unusual way, I guess, of entertaining and educating and motivating. If you'd ever watch any of my videos, I use a lot of weird stuff in it, (laughs) like people wearing gas masks walking downtown, or running through the cemetery. I go out and shoot a lot of weird stuff for the videos. It becomes more fun. The more fun it is, the more program adherence you'll get. I do have the biggest success story base of anybody in the world in doing fitness. I've probably gotten 700,000-800,000 letters.
Q: They are watching!
A: I've sold 19 million videos. Someone reminded me not too long ago, that years ago when I was pitching the idea of doing the video, one of my pitches was if a hard-core, acid-rock band can sell 10 million copies or a million copies to a specific type of people, I have to believe that if I'm selling health, fitness, feeling better, looking better, which gives me a larger demographic base than them, I should be able to sell 10 or 15 million videos. What a lot of people don't know is I've probably done four to five thousand hours of "live" shows, more than anyone. My shows air more than Dan Rather has been on television. I average a minimum of 5,000 hours air time a year on U.S. television alone. And then I'm in 81 countries. I have broken records in Japan, Russia, Germany, Europe, everywhere. Even with the language barrier and being dubbed in other languages, it translates all across the world that we all want to feel better, we all want to look better, and we all want to lose weight if we can. They believe that I'm the person that can help them. I try to make them believe that that's what can happen, because that's what I believe can happen.
Q: You've got the videos. You've got the info-mercials. You've got the
AB Isolators. What else are you working on?
A: QVC is the world's largest retailer, the third largest retailer over all. They are a $2.5 billion company. One of my dreams came true about nine months ago; the president and CEO of QVC offered me a chance to start a new company with them. They would be a financial partner, own 50 percent and finance me, and I would develop health, fitness and beauty products for QVC for their own shopping channels as well as for info-mercial and retail distribution. That's a pretty unbelievable partner to have. It's like I was at the Sporting Goods Show, the world's largest sporting goods show. You got all those companies like Weider, Pro-Form and DP, and they are all great manufacturers, but not one of them has a partner with the distribution arm. This allows me to develop a lot more products with a lot more people, and have the infrastructure and the financial structure to take it full blown.
Q: How did you hook up with QVC?
A: It was hard to compete with the retail stores and make a living. I needed to find a way to present my product and getting on television was my idea. I needed to say why I was different. My video, sitting on a shelf, couldn't tell anybody why I was different. I was watching Home Shopping. It just started out of Clearwater, Florida. I watched them sell stuff on the air and said, "You know what? I could do that." I happened to meet the the son of the owner of Home Shopping Network, who happens to own a gym. I was talking to him, making a deal to help him promote the gym, and I took 15 minutes of time talking to his dad. I went up to the Executive Tower one day and met with Bud Paxton. Bud Paxton is the founder and creative guy who developed the first shopping channel in the U.S. He's a broadcasting giant now, Paxton Communications. He told me they had done a demographic study of their viewers, mainly women over the age of 40. They'd invested $2 million and brought two video projects into the company and they were flops. I told him I felt my tape could be presented in a certain way that would make it sell. Everybody hates body-building shots, because it's a stereotype, right? I had three pictures in my marketing concept. One is me as a body-builder, one is me after an accident, and one is me today. I told them if they could get on the air with it and sell it this way, then it would sell. He said, "Let's get rid of the body-building shot." I fought to have the body-building shot, because that was the way I was. I lost it and gained it back. It's a different story than just being a before and after. It's having it, losing it, and gaining it back. Anyway, he bought 500 of them on a bet. He said if it aired four different times and sold out, we'd do business. It went on a Saturday with one of their hosts, and in four minutes, all 500 of them sold out. He called me and said, "I can't believe it did that, but we'll take another 1,000." And again, it sold out. And somewhere along the line he came up with the idea, and he trusted me and must have liked my presentation, but he called me before Thanksgiving of 1987 and said it was the first time that Home Shopping had ever thought about testing a co-host situation. You know, it used to be just a host and the product. They wanted to test a co-host slash celebrity concept, and would I be willing to go on the air as a fitness celebrity and see if it works. I said, "Sure." There was Network One and Network Two. They had me to lead off on Net One and Phyllis Diller on Net Two. I went on the air and did my shtick with the girl and I sold 3,500 tapes in about 11 minutes, and that just blew the house lines up, because they didn't have any automated answering systems. That's where I learned my trade. I like challenges. During the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, which is the worst sales times there is on television, QVC brought me in to compete against it. I brought 58 semi-trucks loads of my ABs only products, which is 80,000 units. I sold them out in an hour and 30 minutes.
Q: That figure was incredible.
A: Well, the figures got bigger than that. I set a 3-country record at New Year's. I led QVC off at midnight with my gazelle which is a new product I have, and did $55,000 a minute in sales. I sold almost 13,000 gazelles at around $200 a piece in 65 minutes. I'm in 81 countries. I'm the only personal trainer or fitness person that's international. I'm just real fortunate that people have heard of me or like the product. I don't know what it is.
Q: You've said, "Someday I'd like to get out of this." What would you
like to do?
A: I got a lot of things I'm doing. (laughs) I've always a long-term plan. Most people start with a book; I started with a video. Then I got into the books. Then I got into the audio cassettes. Then I got into apparel. Then I got into equipment. Then the Shopping Channels. Then the info-mercials. Then retails. Then repeat the process internationally. After all this was over all I wanted to do is to find a marketing type, so I don't have to do any more television, and that I could build a bigger company, even bigger than what I have now. About four months ago I signed a deal and became co-owner of a company out of Las Vegas called Longevity Network, which is a multi-level marketing company. They have a strong medical advisory board and some high integrity people. What they need is somebody who could really charge ahead in marketing and hopefully be like a hero to the customers. I did that. In the last 60 days we've grown 113 percent. It's the fastest growing network marketing company in the U.S. right now. The goal for me there is, I don't have to do a lot of television. I would do maybe one info-mercial a year that supports the Longevity Network concept of home base business. I have between 17 to 18 million customers who have bought from me, to give them a chance now when they buy, they can also be a distributor. And that's where I am heading now.
Editor's note: Gary James files his interviews from Syracuse, NY.