Had barbell company Ivanko not responded to a letter postmarked Taichung, Taiwan in 1975, it’s possible that Johnson Health Tech (JHT) may never have come into being. The business was one of hundreds in the United States that husband and wife duo Peter and Cindy Lo had approached with handwritten notes introducing their Taiwanese manufacturing services.
At a time when American companies were looking at offshore manufacturing possibilities, the couple knew that one positive response could open a door to enormous opportunity. And, although they weren’t familiar with weights equipment, that didn’t stop them from saying yes to the first order Ivanko placed.
Sketching out designs for shafts and sleeves and other barbell components on paper napkins, they set to work to fulfill the order in their small foundry, carrying out the finishing touches from the living room of their family home.
As they looked for a name that would reflect their global aspirations for their new venture, their gaze landed upon the city’s tallest peak (and the second tallest in the country) – Xueshan Mountain. The pronunciation, "cha-sen", was similar to the English family name "Johnson". A logo that captured the mountain was designed – and with it, a new name in the fitness industry was born.
"From those first steel plates for Ivanko, they started to develop the business," Nasser Obeid, President of JHT Canada, tells The CEO Magazine.
The company started out as an original equipment designer and manufacturer, pursuing a strategy of vertical integration across production, distribution and sales. At the same time, it looked to expand its presence globally.
While approximately one-third of the company is listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange, today JHT remains majority family owned, with Peter and Cindy’s son, Jason, the current CEO. The JHT name is now present across the world via its wholly owned subsidiaries in 40 countries and global distribution network.
The family’s business savvy has created what Obeid describes as a unique model in the market. "We own our own manufacturing plants in Wisconsin, Taichung, Shanghai, Osaka and Hanoi and control the process from the raw materials to the finished products," he says. In total, the company has over 320,000 square meters of manufacturing space.
Such a strategy has seen the company grow into one of the world’s largest fitness and wellness companies, with a portfolio of its own brands across a variety of price points including Horizon Fitness, Vision Fitness, Tempo Fitness, Synca-Wellness, Fujiiryoki and Johnson Fitness and Wellness.
While each of these is globally recognized in its own right, it’s Matrix – and its cardio, strength and group training equipment – that is the company’s flagship brand. "Established in 2001, it’s the fastest-growing commercial fitness brand in the world," Obeid says.
Determined to make an impact
Despite JHT’s fascinating backstory, Obeid admits to not knowing a huge amount about the company or its brands when he was approached to join them in 2015. "My first thought was that I didn’t know Johnson & Johnson was making fitness equipment along with baby products," he says with a laugh.
At that time, he was coming up to his 14th anniversary in the Middle East. In 2002, not long after graduating from Ontario’s McMaster University with a Bachelor of Kinesiology (the study of human body movement), his father had given him enough money for a one-way ticket to the United Arab Emirates.
"We had relatives there and he thought there could be some opportunity for me. But if I wanted to come back, I’d have to make the money for the airfare myself," Obeid explains.
I became committed to having an impact on as many people in the world as possible to incorporate a healthy lifestyle and stay fit.
But with a "passion for sports, athletics and feeling healthy and fit", Obeid was determined to succeed. "It all started at the age of four while playing soccer with my dad," he says. "I enjoyed it so much and it gave me confidence in myself and my capabilities."
High school did little to change his course; along with his academic successes, Obeid was named Athlete of the Year several times. Tertiary studies led him to the business of fitness. "I became committed to having an impact on as many people in the world as possible to incorporate a healthy lifestyle and stay fit," he says.
And the supply of high-quality fitness equipment, both in commercial settings and in homes, he says was the opportunity to live this vision.
A learning curve
Landing in the United Arab Emirates, full of enthusiasm, his first role was as Commercial Manager for Deltatrade, a business that had just taken over exclusive distribution rights for fitness equipment manufacturer Life Fitness, among other brands.
He didn’t speak or write a word of Arabic, so communication was a challenge. "But I saw an opportunity there as nobody was exercising," he says. "The food was amazing, it’s super hot outside in the summer and people were just putting on weight," he says.
But what he lacked in language skills he made up for with passion and made an early breakthrough with Lipton Tea.
"I gave a lecture about how they should get rid of their smoking room and turn it into a gym and they actually did it," he says. Supplying the business with the equipment was, he says, his key to success. "It just took off."
At the same time, the real estate market was starting to boom. "We had over 85 percent market share in every segment you can imagine: hotels, gyms, municipalities, government," he says.
We’re the only global fitness equipment brand to have roots in Canada.
After seven years in the United Arab Emirates, and now fluent in Arabic, he moved to Saudi Arabia as Division Manager – Health and Fitness. "I needed to keep building my passion and get people more and more active," he says. Soon after arriving, he advanced and further developed a long-term leasing contract with oil company Aramco through his employer Delta Marketing.
Obeid’s successes in the region hadn’t gone unnoticed by JHT and, as the Lo family looked to expand their footprint into the Middle East, he was the person they wanted to oversee it. "They knew everything about me," he recalls. "And they wanted to know what I wanted from them so they could build the business there."
By July 2015, Obeid had moved back to Dubai with his wife and three children and started as Managing Director of JHT Middle East. Within three years and after opening up in Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, the wholly owned subsidiary turned its first profit.
Having spent the best part of 18 years away from Canada, however, Obeid was feeling the itch to return home to be close to his parents. Then, in 2019, the opportunity came to take over the leadership of JHT’s Canadian operations.
"It’s been a crazy journey," he reflects. "Now I feel like I’m able to give back to all Canadians this international experience I’ve gained."
The output of JHT’s Shanghai manufacturing plant per production line per day is 200 treadmills and 260 bikes or ellipticals.
Ready to explode
As President of JHT Canada, Obeid’s mission is to lead the company to become the best fitness and wellness company in Canada. And it’s got a head start.
"We’re the only global fitness equipment brand to have roots in Canada," he explains. From offices and warehouses in Montreal (its Canadian headquarters), Toronto and Calgary, the JHT reach extends across the whole country – and multiple market segments, including governments, municipalities, hospitals, gyms, community centers and hotels.
We are here, we’re the strongest, we’re number one and we’re taking over.
"We are growing at a good pace, while considering the current environment, all thanks to our great team members, strategic partners and, of course, the great quality of our products."
JHT’s products and way of doing business have seen it win key client accounts such as Canada’s leading fitness chain GoodLife Fitness and others, such as Gold’s Gym, Anytime Fitness, Snap Fitness, Iron Nation Fitness, Fuzion Fitness, Buzzfit and Crunch Fitness.
"That’s just in the gyms," he says, adding that last year it won eight out of eight Marriott Bonvoy opportunities. "With Matrix, we’re also in more than 3,000 homes in the country."
Now that the foundations have been laid, Obeid says his role is to lead and support the three "amazing" directors he has put in place and their teams by providing all the resources they need. "It’s also to continually invest in our people and operational systems, within a culture of high standards built on our core values of expertise, initiative and sincerity," he adds.
"We are now in Canada, and like we were in the Middle East, we’re ready to explode. We are here, we’re the strongest, we’re number one and we’re taking over."
Finding positives in negatives
Of course, it’s no secret how hard his industry was hit during the COVID-19 pandemic when gyms were shuttered overnight. "We had huge plans that all got stopped," he says. "We started losing people, we had to let people go."
Despite heading into the unknown, Obeid explains how the team remained calm. "I had the strategy that, if we stuck together, we’d be able to come up with solutions together and keep going," he says.
Other revenue streams were explored. "Gyms were closed and hotels were even worse but home use picked up, so our retail business picked up," he explains.
It was also a chance to re-engage with his people. "We made a lot of investments in emotional intelligence with the team," he says. "I was more engaged with them, they were more engaged with me."
Maybe we didn’t hit the budget or the numbers that we wanted to, but we had amazing growth.
Whereas, before the pandemic, his team might have seen him once a week, during the lockdowns they had calls daily.
"It was one of my goals not to think about the uncontrollables," he continues. What was important was keeping the lines of communication open – and ensuring plenty of time to exercise in his home gym.
And it means that the business has emerged on the other side "in a better place than where we were".
"Maybe we didn’t hit the budget or the numbers that we wanted to, but we had amazing growth. We are a stronger, more resilient team with more robust procedures," he says. "We are ready for whatever comes our way. And we’ll always have our customers’ needs as our primary focus."
Ahead of the game
One hallmark of JHT is its constant investment in research and development. "Because we own our own factories, we can really go and listen to our customer needs and bring that feedback back into our own factories to drive innovation in design," he says.
It’s something Obeid has seen firsthand: "We listen, develop and improve," he says. "From when I started in 2015 until now, our portfolio has totally changed. We are offering so much more."
And the pandemic, he adds, has driven even greater innovations. "You can now exercise in the gym and exercise at home," he says of the new trend in hybrid workouts. "Because we supply both, the question has been how do we support both and connect them together?"
Because we own our own factories, we can really go and listen to our customer needs and bring that feedback back into our own factories to drive innovation in design.
In response, the company has launched a new app called Engage 360 through the Matrix brand. "It doesn’t matter where you work out, everything is being tracked and a personal trainer can give you a workout," he says. "Wherever you exercise, we’re still going to be able to help you on your journey."
And, while its ability to manipulate steel has always been JHT’s strength, he explains that right now it is technology that’s the company’s driving force. "We have some unbelievable machines in terms of the actual product, but technology that we’re building in-house to get everyone connected is driving us forward," he says.
As one of the guinea pigs testing prototype innovations, he offers a glimpse into what the future might look like. "We’re looking at a program that gives one-on-one personal advice about what to eat, when to workout, sleeping habits and more," he says.
He sees JHT as leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else in the industry, a position that continues to be driven by the vision of the Lo family. "This is a company for the future. There is nothing holding us back."
JHT’s Brands At A Glance
MATRIX: The world’s leading name in commercial fitness products
HORIZON FITNESS: Home fitness equipment that makes working out accessible, effective and exciting
VISION FITNESS: A versatile, value-conscious equipment brand for specialty retailers and the hotel, homes and residential complex market
SYNCA WELLNESS: A Japanese healthcare brand and part of JHT’s wellness division
FUJIIRYOKI: The world’s leading Japanese massage chair brand
TEMPO FITNESS: Fitness equipment designed for the young, urban exercise market
JOHNSON FITNESS AND WELLNESS: The world’s largest fitness and wellness retailer with stores in the United States and Asia
The bright side
If there’s been one lesson to take from the last few years, it’s the increased awareness of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle – and for someone as passionate about fitness as Obeid, there’s never been a more important time to value our health.
"Yes, the pandemic had an economic effect," he says. "But look at the positive side. People have been reminded just how important it is to take care of their immune system – and exercise is one of those solutions."
And the quality of JHT’s product range makes it a particularly sweet solution.
"There are three letters that sit underneath the Matrix name, SSB, which stand for Strong, Smart and Beautiful. It’s what we put into our equipment and our relationships and also fits with the vision and mission of our mother company, JHT, to continue to make an impact on having a healthier lifestyle,’ he says.
"There’s so much more we’re looking to share with the whole world as we take innovation, technology and fitness to the next level. It’s a great time to be alive."