■ The fitness company boss started out cleaning gym lockers at 13 and would splurge on buying trees to save the planet
What was your first job?
Cleaning the locker rooms in my parents’ gym when I was 13. It didn’t pay anything at first as it was a family business so it was all hands on deck. We lived next to an athletic track and we ran a weight training gym for the athletes. As I got older I started getting some money — I used it to take my girlfriend out to what I thought of at the time as a fancy restaurant.
What has been your best investment?
Buying the family company back from the liquidators after the 1987 crash. We’d gone public with it in 1984 and my parents sold it a month before the crash in 1987 to investment companies — who then went broke. I had to borrow a lot of money to buy it back and spent five years working my way out from under a debt mountain, but it meant I could build the international business we have now. At the time, it was a gym chain in Australia and New Zealand.
What would be your money no object purchase?
I’m not a materialistic person so I’d buy 10 billion Acacia mangium trees and plant them in the tropics, which would delay the 1.5 degrees global warming figure by ten years. Global warming is the biggest challenge we have.
What luxury wouldn’t you give up?
Organic food. You don’t get the carcinogenic insecticides and so on, but you also sequester a lot of carbon. Global warming is expected to go up by 1.5 degrees by 2021 at the latest. That really is the limit before serious catastrophes happen. Switching to organic farming draws down carbon and maintains topsoil — industrial farming has reduced topsoil dramatically over the last 100 years. If you have a low tillage system, as with organic farming, the soil grows back and gets deeper and is a major way to sequester carbon.
What’s been your biggest financial regret?
We’ve had some big failures. We’re the world leader in group exercise — we have 20 proprietary group exercises including Body Pump which is in 20,000 gyms worldwide. We tried to launch personal training as well, but we failed and we lost a bunch of money. When you have some success as an entrepreneur you think you can do anything, and you start doing things you’re not very good at. I’ve done that lots of times. I’ve tried to do nutrition and supplements two or three times as well and lost my shirt on them.
Spender or a saver?
I’m a spender — you have to invest in order to succeed. You can’t save your way to success. But then I’ve spent on plenty of things that haven’t worked out. At the age of 63 I’m not as rash as I was, but I still find there are mistakes to make.
Are you savvy with your personal finances?
All my money goes back into the business. Any money we take out of it, we put into green charities. I’m not a materialistic person. I’m not into holiday homes and big fancy cars. I don’t feel the need for those things. But I am concerned about quality of life and the role the environment plays in that.
What was your last impulse purchase?
The raw sea urchin roe I had in a Japanese restaurant the other night. The waiter said it was a speciality and it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, but was strangely delicious.
Cash or card?
Mainly card, but I carry a little bit of cash to give tips for cab drivers and waiters.
■ Phillip Mills is the chief executive of international fitness company Les Mills which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, lesmills.com