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Life Fitness co-founder Augie Nieto shares his entrepreneurial insights at the Kellogg School during an Oct. 6 visit.

Fitness guru achieves ‘significance’ through ALS foundation

By Aubrey Henretty

10/10/2006 -

“Half the people diagnosed with ALS die in 18 months,” said Life Fitness co-founder Augie Nieto. Nieto, who spoke at the Donald P. Jacobs Center on Oct. 6 as part of the Larry and Carol Levy Institute’s Distinguished Entrepreneur Speaker Series, went on to point that his own diagnosis with the degenerative neurological disease came 19 months ago. “So,” he added with a sly smile, “we’re doing pretty good.”

ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — is characterized by the degeneration of nerve cells in the brain that control voluntary muscle movement. Over time, the disease causes muscles to weaken and atrophy, and eventually those afflicted lose the ability to control muscle movement at all. The speaker series, sponsored by Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Kellogg and Loop Capital Markets, features outstanding entrepreneurs in various industries and will continue throughout the fall.

Nieto’s remarks spanned his entire adult life from rough beginnings and subsequent success as a physical fitness crusader to, in his own words, his newfound “significance” as a champion of those fighting ALS. “If you’re successful,” Nieto said, “you might not be missed. If you’re significant, you will be missed.”

With wife Lynne, who also spoke briefly at the event, Nieto founded Augie’s Quest not long after he was diagnosed with ALS. In the first 13 months of its existence, the organization raised $6.1 million for the ALS division of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. And Nieto said Augie’s Quest is just getting started: “Our goal is to raise $12 million, and we will raise it by the end of 2007.”

In business as in life, said Nieto, “Entrepreneurs love to bail themselves out,” and crises of self-doubt are no match for the passionate entrepreneur. “Insecurity is a good thing. It makes you try harder,” he said. “There isn’t a CEO I know who isn’t afraid someone’s going to knock on their door and say ‘The jig is up. Time to go home.’”

Because the most important lessons are learned through failure, said Nieto, the entrepreneur must press on even when what lies ahead isn’t completely clear.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can [by] looking back. You have to trust your gut.”