Time and Life

Water and Blood, Son and Father

Turn I-Can/We-Can into an ICON.

 

By Ken Shelton

 

On some 80 different trips into Manhattan, New York City, I stood at the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street and entered the Time-Life Building, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, home to Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune magazines, all launched by Henry Luce, the journalist called “the most influential private citizen in the America of his day”.

I felt at home there and imagined working there. Of course, the Time-Life Building was featured in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (starring Ben Stiller), adapted from the 1939 short story by James Thurber about a man, Mitty, who imagines himself a hero in his daydreams. The story was first made into a film in 1947 (my birth year) and starred Danny Kaye.

Mitty is a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life. He imagines himself a wartime pilot, emergency-room surgeon, and devil-may-care killer. While the story has humorous elements, there is a darker message: even in his heroic daydreams, Mitty does not triumph; several fantasies are interrupted before the final one sees Mitty dying bravely in front of a firing squad. In the brief snatches of reality that punctuate his fantasies, we meet well-meaning but insensitive strangers who inadvertently rob him of his remaining dignity.

Perhaps I was cast into this character at birth. Maybe I was, and still am, just a Walter Mitty, giddy with the pulse of the big city, meeting at Fortune with managing editors Walter Kiechel (who became Editorial Director of Harvard Business Review) and Geoff Colvin.

Alas, Fortune and I were not meant to be. So, I became more of a Don Quixote soldier of fortune, an anti-Harvard, always tilting at windmills and reading my fortune in Chinese cookies.

 

Tic-Tock: Time and Clock

In flashbacks, I hear the ticking of time clocks and see myself having the time of my self-employed life. I would like to think that I opted wisely for health over wealth; truth over fantasy; wife over Life; rhyme over Time, good fortune over Fortune; and My Three Sons over Sports Illustrated. True, I’m not Henry Luce or Walter Kiechel; but I am still lucid and intrepid, not an insipid Walter Mitty.  I am not America’s most influential private citizen, but I am a public Citizen Ken whose fate is much better than that of Citizen Kane, the 1941Orson Welles’ film (told in flashbacks) that examines the life of Charles Foster Kane, a character based in part on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Kane’s career in publishing is born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolves into a ruthless pursuit of power. I kept my idealism. I raced not against a nest of rats but against the test of time, against the lub-dub of the heartbeat, the flow of water and blood, head and heart. I can hear the drip-drops of trips and hops, of idols and icons.

 

From I-Can/We-Can to ICON

Yesterday before driving my friend and Chinese business partner Winnie Wang and Bill Poole to Logan, Utah to meet Eric Watterson, SVP Marketing for ICON Fitness, I had lunch with Winnie and friend Eric Krueger at the Little America cafeteria. The placemat tells the story of how  Stephen Mack Covey founded the original Little America in 1952 near Granger, Wyoming, 35 miles west of Rock Springs on I-80 (old U.S. Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America) because that is where he almost died after being stranded in a blizzard with a wind chill of -40 F. Located along I-80 were several iconic hotel billboards with penguins in reference to the remote Little America station in Antarctica, reminding travelers at regular intervals how close they were to the Little America hotel and that there was nothing else available for many miles in either direction. Over time, Little America became a big chain.

My former business partner, Stephen R. Covey was the grandson of Stephen Mack Covey and the son of Stephen Glenn Covey and Irene Louise Richards Covey, the daughter of Stephen L Richards, an apostle and counselor in the first presidency of the LDS Church.

 

Making an ICON in Logan

As business missions go, the mission of ICON, a father-to-sons fitness empire, is a tall order: Helping people live their best lives. But that’s their motivation. When I was editor of Utah Business magazine (early 1990s), I looked for stories of founding fathers and son successors:

from father to son, from one to family to company. In the case of the Wattersons in Logan, it’s a story of a start-up going from idol to ICON, Water to Sons, father Scott to Eric and brothers.

Eric Watterson joined the ICON team while a student at BYU. His father, Scott, co-founded the business in 1977, four years before Eric was born. Eric served a LDS mission in Taiwan, learned to speak Chinese, and later became director of international business development in Asia, Latin America, Europe and emerging markets in China and India.

In the 1980s, ICON introduced treadmills that folded for storage, the SpaceSaver™—an innovation that lets consumers “fit fitness into the home”. Today, ICON’s premier brands, including NordicTrack and ProForm, are the top-ranked equipment in treadmills, stationary bikes, and ellipticals. They later innovated with the iFit brand into wearables and online fitness solutions, including the Altra brand of footwear and apparel for fitness, road and trail running.

The word icon has several meanings:  a graphic symbol, a religious image, an object of devotion, an emblem of something, a sign whose form suggests its meaning; a graphic symbol on a computer screen representing an object or function. ICON has become an icon in the fitness industry.

This is a story of turning I-Can into We-Can into an Icon. It’s not my story, for I ended more like quirky idealist Don Quixote, never quite making the transition from I to We, from Walter Mitty to Walter Kiechel, from lucid pen to Henry Luce, from Little to Grand America, from good fortune to Fortune, from my backyard view to Harvard Business Review. I’m Still Ken, not Ben Stiller; my small footprint is akin to the Space Saver.

My one big consolation in all of this is that I have kept the covenant of sacrament and atonement, of water and blood—not that one can’t be Christian in Manhattan, but there I could not have fulfilled my personal mission:  to help you find a wiser, better way to live your life and lead your team and organization. The Man of La Mancha rides again!

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