In midlife, Mel Zuckerman was an overweight homebuilder. Then, a trip to a Spartan fat farm changed everything. He got his health back and went on to transform the fitness and spa industry with his posh Canyon Ranch retreats.
As told to Daniel McGinn
When Mel Zuckerman opened Canyon Ranch, in 1979, he wasn't seeking to reinvent an industry. Not quite 50, overweight and in poor health, he'd had an awakening while visiting a California spa, and he returned to Tucson to build a place where others might experience the same transformation. As Zuckerman nears 80 and prepares to step down from day-to-day operations, Canyon Ranch is an empire, with $150 million in annual revenue, two resort spas, three SpaClubs, and Canyon Ranch Living condo complexes under construction in Tucson, Miami Beach, and Chicago. Canyon Ranch is a powerful brand, but when Zuckerman looks at what he has created, he sees mostly a way to be and stay healthy.
I was born an asthmatic, and when I was 8 years old I had a bad asthma attack. I can remember sitting in the emergency room as our doctor came in. He must have weighed 400 pounds. He waddled when he walked, carrying his black bag. He had a cigarette in his mouth. He took out his stethoscope and listened to my chest, all the while blowing smoke in my face. As he gave me a shot, he turned to my mother: 'Mrs. Zuckerman, don't ever let Melvin exercise, because he could get sick.' I couldn't go to phys-ed class anymore. I couldn't go outside to play. It was a defining moment.
When I got out of college at age 22, I worked as an accountant. I did it for eight years. I don't have any good stories about being an accountant. The only good days were Saturdays and Sundays.
We moved to Tucson in 1958, and I became a homebuilder. I found I had a passion for helping customers design floor plans. But I never wanted to build so many homes that I couldn't visit each one while it was under construction every week. That way, when a customer called, I knew exactly what was going on with his house. I liked homebuilding, but it was a very stressful business, and during the 20 years I did it, I really let my health go.
By age 35, I was being hospitalized every 18 months. I had high blood pressure, ulcers, diverticulitis, and a hernia. I lived a sedentary life, and by the time I was 40, I was 50 pounds overweight. My doctor asked me if I wanted to be a guinea pig for some new kinds of medical tests that were supposed to determine the biological age of your body. Three weeks later, the doctor called. 'The good news is we didn't find anything wrong with you that we didn't already know you had.' Then he paused. 'The not-so-good news is your body is functioning like a 65- or 70-year-old man.'
He told me I really needed to lose weight. I'd dieted for years, but every time I'd lose 15 or 20 pounds, I'd gain it right back. There was a fat farm in Mexico, a place that mixed exercise and a vegetarian, low-fat diet. I checked in for two weeks, but I hitchhiked out the third morning. My fragile male ego couldn't take that I couldn't compete with the women in the exercise classes.
In 1977 I was in the doctor's office with my father when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. I watched his face turn gray, his hand begin to tremble. He was 75. He reached in his pocket and took out the pack of Camels. He crumpled it up and said, 'Never again.' He never did smoke after that, but I buried him six months later. He got his 'aha' moment too late.
When my father died, I was about to turn 50. I decided to go to a fat farm again. I checked into a place called the Oaks at Ojai. The first day, it took me 28 minutes to walk a mile. But the fitness director worked with me every day. On my 10th day, I jogged a mile and a half in 11 minutes and 38 seconds. I called my wife, Enid, who had been talking about opening a fat farm for at least five years. I told her I was going to stay a few more weeks. Two weeks later, I called and told her to come join me. 'Why?' she asked. I said: 'I've found what I want to do for the rest of my life.'
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, fat farms weren't a place you'd want to vacation. They were to lose weight or dry out, and they were very Spartan retreats--often in converted motels on the main street of small towns. They were far different than the 'pamper spas' where women went to beautify, get slathered in creams, and have breakfast in bed. With Canyon Ranch, we were going to try to create a resort environment that dealt with the entire person. It would deal with weight and pampering and fitness-- it would be about mind, body, and spirit.
Nobody would finance me. As a homebuilder, I borrowed $100 million or $200 million over the years for real estate deals, and I'd paid it back. But bankers didn't understand the concept--especially when I explained that we wouldn't serve booze. I remember in one meeting, a banker stood up and said, 'You lost a lot more than weight at that California fat farm. You lost your blankety-blank mind.' I got up, politely gave him the bird, and said, 'I'll go and do it on my own.' Which I did.
A week and a half after we got back from Ojai, we bought the Double-U Ranch in Tucson and began building Canyon Ranch. We opened eight months later. We'd liquidated every asset we had to do it, and in the first few years we almost went under.
Then things changed. People became more conscious of fitness. More health clubs began opening up. Coming to Canyon Ranch became a vacation of choice.
In the mid-1980s, we were getting 60 percent of our business in Tucson from guests who were flying in from the Northeast. A lot of them said, 'Gosh, I wish you had someplace closer to home.' So I said, 'Maybe it's time to think about a second place.' We settled on Lenox, Massachusetts, and we opened there in 1989.
We've opened SpaClubs in Las Vegas, in Florida, and on the Queen Mary II. We can't do the full immersion experience there, but we can get more people engaged in making a lifestyle change. Now we're building Canyon Ranch Living communities in Tucson, Miami Beach, and Chicago. They've sold really well.
Of course Canyon Ranch is a business, but I bristle when people focus on that aspect of it. The truth is, my wife and I were building a lifestyle for ourselves that we hoped we could make a living out of. We've never thought of it as a business.
Around the mid-1980s, when we started hiring doctors and Ph.D.'s for the staff, our rates started going up. I didn't build Canyon Ranch only to reach the affluent. So we've tried to address that. In the summertime we bring people here on scholarship. My wife and I gave $10 million to the University of Arizona to fund the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Its main mission is to promote prevention and eliminate health disparities among underserved populations.
When I was 65, I went to a university and had a very sophisticated battery of tests. They said I had the biomarkers of a normal 45- to 50-year-old man.
This is my last year. When I turn 80 next spring, I'm going to withdraw from day-to-day operations and stop going into the office every day. But I'll never retire. When your business becomes part of your total makeup, part of your soul, you never leave it.
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