The First Weight Watcher
Founder of Weight Watchers International Inc.
"It's choice, not chance, that determines your destiny."-Jean Nidetch
Before Richard Simmons dealt meals.before Susan Powter tried to "stop the insanity".and long before there were "fat blockers," Phen-fen and liposuction, an overweight housewife from Queens, New York, made a life-changing discovery: Staying on a diet was easier when you shared the experience. From this simple but profound revelation, Jean Nidetch launched Weight Watchers and gave birth to the modern diet industry.
Born in 1923, Jean was an overweight child whose overweight mother rewarded her with food. Her entrance into adult life was far from easy. Though she dreamed of being a teacher, her father died shortly after she enrolled in college, and Jean was forced to drop out and work at a number of different jobs to help support the family.
When she was 24, Jean married her first husband, Marty. "I was fat and he was fat," Jean reveals in a 1981 McCall's interview. "It was our common bond. I ate all the time to be happy, and yet food only made me sad. I thought God had blessed thin people, and God had cursed me, so my fate was sealed."
Finally, in 1961, desperate to lose weight, the 38-year-old mother of two paid a visit to the New York Department of Health Obesity Clinic, where she was put on a diet of low-fat proteins and plenty of fruits and vegetables. The diet was working, but she found herself continually cheating. To boost her morale, she called up six overweight friends and invited them over to talk. With her friends, she discovered, she could talk freely about her food excesses, and they could do the same.
The six all joined Nidetch's diet and began meeting on a weekly basis. Members of the group started bringing other overweight friends to the weekly get-togethers, and within two months, more than 40 women were meeting at Nidetch's house. Each week they weighed in and talked, and each week the scales recorded a weight loss. Thanks to the help of her friends, by October 1962, Jean had lost more than 70 pounds and reached her goal of 142 pounds.
The experience turned Nidetch into a weight-loss zealot. Having exorcised her own food demons, she replaced her compulsion to eat with a drive to help others achieve what she had. She encouraged her friends to spread the word about their program, and the group continued to grow. When she began receiving phone calls from overweight people, many of them recluses, asking for help, she drove around the New York metropolitan area visiting individuals or groups. Among them were garment executive Albert Lippert and his wife, Felice.
Concerned about their growing girth, the couple had heard about Nidetch's amazing weight-loss program and decided to see for themselves if it really worked. It did. In just one week, Lippert lost 7 pounds and his wife lost 4. (He would eventually shed 53 pounds while his wife lost 50.) Lippert's marketing instincts were fired by the program's potential, and he became convinced that Nidetch had found the formula for a successful business. "With the [Weight Watchers] plan, I had provided something to myself that I needed and wanted," Lippert recalls. "I knew that there were hundreds of thousands of people out there like myself who could benefit. I was certain it would work."
Though Nidetch admits she would have preached her program "for nothing on a street corner," Lippert persuaded her to enter a partnership with him, and in May 1963, Weight Watchers Inc. opened its first office above a movie theater in Little Neck, New York. Within a year, the business had achieved such success locally that there simply wasn't enough room in the small office to hold all the Weight Watchers members. It was at this point that Lippert suggested to Nidetch that they begin selling Weight Watchers franchises.
Using a process that Lippert once likened to giving away razors to sell razor blades, he and Nidetch sold the franchises for a relatively low price, but required each franchise owner to pay the company 10 percent of their gross. It wasn't long before franchises they had sold for as little as $2,000 were returning upwards of $100,000 a year. Within five years, the company had 91 franchises in 43 states. In 1968, Nidetch and Lippert decided to go public, and Weight Watchers Inc. became Weight Watchers International Inc.
In 1973, more than 17,000 Weight Watchers members from around the world gathered in New York City's Madison Square Garden to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Weight Watchers. At the gala event, Nidetch announced that she would be resigning as president of the company but would remain on as a consultant.
Over the next few years, Nidetch would continue to preach the Weight Watchers gospel on countless radio and television programs, enthusiastically recounting her success story. By 1977, the company claimed to be recruiting more than 20 million new members a year. This success attracted the attention of H.J. Heinz Co., which purchased Weight Watchers for $72 million in 1978. As part of the deal, Lippert joined the Heinz board and Nidetch agreed to stay on as a consultant.
By 1999, Weight Watchers had become the world's largest company in the field of personal weight control, and Nidetch had helped change the shape of millions of overweight men and women throughout the world. A testament to her tremendous impact on both the diet industry and the world, Ladies Home Journal magazine voted Jean one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century.
Since its inception in 1963, Weight Watchers International Inc. has taught more than 25 million members how to lose weight. In 1998 alone, approximately 1 million members attended one of 29,000 weekly Weight Watchers meetings in 28 countries worldwide.
Run With It
The success of Weight Watchers International Inc. franchises in the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired Albert Lippert to expand the company into related markets. By 1973, in addition to the franchises themselves, the organization's spin-off enterprises included a monthly Weight Watchers magazine, a daily syndicated TV program called Weight Watchers Forum, a string of summer camps for overweight boys and girls, a line of frozen foods, and a line of diet beverages and desserts.