"Do you want to hear the story?”
Ask Red Lerille what you think is a fairly straightforward question and that is how he will often reply.
Lerille has a lot of great stories—stories about how he became interested in bodybuilding in his youth, how he met his mentor, Joe Gold, why he legally changed his name from Lloyd to Red, and what inspired him to buy his first Lamborghini and a 70-year-old ice cream parlor. But the story of how he built Red Lerille’s Health and Racquet Club, the facility he has owned and operated for almost 50 years, is the one I drove to Lafayette, LA, to hear.
Although it is Louisiana’s fourth-largest city, Lafayette is still a small town by most standards. It is not a town where everybody knows everyone’s name, but one name is known to almost all of Lafayette’s 120,000 residents: Red’s. The club—which proclaims it is the largest in the South—has an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 members, which translates to somewhere between 13 percent and 16 percent of the local population.
My journey to Lafayette to interview this year’s Club Industry Lifetime Achievement Award recipient started early in the morning with a flight to New Orleans from Kansas City, where Club Industry’s editorial staff is based, and then a two-hour drive from Louis Armstrong airport. But my full morning was nothing compared to Lerille’s. Before I even boarded my flight, Lerille had already had what many would consider a full day.
Every day, Lerille rises at 2:30 a.m. and rides one of his six bikes to the club to open it at 3 a.m. He works out for about 90 minutes before he hops on his bike for about 45 minutes of cardio and then pedals home. He takes a shower, shaves, eats breakfast and then heads to the 7 a.m. mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, down the street from his home. After mass, he heads to the private airport where he hangars the antique airplanes he restores and flies one for about a half-hour. Then, he drives back to Red’s, usually arriving by 8:30 a.m.—about the time many people are grabbing their first cup of coffee for the day.
His daily schedule illustrates the first of his five tips for success, which all of his staff members know by heart: Arrive on time, and ready to work.
Lerille’s discipline toward his fitness routine began at 8 years old when he poured cement in a can on a bar to build his own weights because he could not afford real ones. As a skinny kid growing up in New Orleans, he was inspired to start lifting weights by his uncle, Harold.
“I was so excited when I got my first set of adjustable dumbbells when I was 10 years old—Sears and Roebuck,” he says.
Lerille came of age at the same time the New Orleans bodybuilding scene did. As a teenager, he met another muscle-bound mentor, Joe Gold (Club Industry’s 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient), and started working out at Ajax Gym, the first club Gold ever opened, in 1951 New Orleans. It was Gold who first suggested that Lerille could one day win the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Mr. America title. In 1953, when Lerille was 17 years old, he was looking at a magazine with that year’s Mr. America, Bill Pearl, on the cover when Gold convinced him to make earning that title his own goal.
Over the years, Lerille racked up a number of bodybuilding titles while serving in the U.S. Navy. His trophies, now modestly displayed in the tiny staff work room next to the pro shop, show his progress from Mr. New Orleans in 1955, to Mr. Armed Forces and Mr. Hawaii (where he was stationed) in 1958, to Mr. East Coast in 1959. In 1960, Lerille won the Mr. Southern U.S.A. title, won his class in the Mr. Universe competition in London, and finally achieved his dream of becoming Mr. America.
After leaving the Navy, Lerille moved to Lafayette and soon realized his other great dream: to own his own gym. With $250 and some fitness equipment he built himself, he opened his first club in 1963 in a 4,000-square-foot space that was formerly a cowboy boot shop. Lerille’s bodybuilding achievements made him an idol—and his club a popular training spot—for other young men who dreamt of earning titles themselves.
Red’s outgrew that first location, and in 1965, Lerille moved his business to a larger facility.
Lerille and I sat in that tiny work room with the trophies as he told me story after story. At one point, he showed me on his laptop some rare photos of Joe Gold’s Ajax Gym and the presentation he gives when speaking at community events. He had shared his five tips for success just a few weeks before when he was honored at the University of Louisiana (UL) Lafayette Alumni Association’s Spring Gala. The time we spent chatting there was probably the first time Lerille had sat down all day.
“I don’t have an office. I don’t want an office,” Lerille says. “If you stay in an office, you just shoot the bull like we’re doing now.”
The closest thing to an office he has is the club’s reception desk where he keeps his “voicemail,” which is a yellow pad and a No. 2 pencil. This is where he regularly puts into practice the second of his five tips: Say hello and goodbye.
“Red gives most of the tours and sells most of the memberships,” says Connie Girard, one of the club’s five general managers. “He stands at the front, and he talks to everyone as they come in. He is here.”
When I asked Girard why she thinks so many of Lafayette’s residents choose Red’s over the other 30-plus clubs in town, she did not hesitate even a second before replying: “Red.”
“He’s our motivation, he’s our mentor, he’s our dad,” Girard says. “Because he’s here, members see the passion that he works with, he trains with, he teaches with.”
Lerille’s passion inspires not only his club’s members but his 275 staff members as well. If you do not believe in working out and do not believe that members need this facility, you cannot work at Red’s, Girard says.
The low staff turnover rate proves that the club’s employees share Lerille’s dedication: all of the club’s 25 full-time employees have been there for at least 10 years.
Impressive as that is, even a decade is nothing for the five general managers at Red’s. The new kids, Myrna Ayo and Carla Andrus, who manage the retail sales and activities staff, have each been there for 34 years. Girard, who oversees the accounting department, has 37 years (not counting those when she babysat for Lerille’s children as a teenager). Buddy LeBas, the fitness manager, has 38 years of service. Garland Barras, the club’s maintenance manager, has served Red’s the longest at 48 years, starting with Lerille in the beginning in 1963.
Today’s Red’s is still at that second location, but its appearance and size have changed greatly over the years, thanks to number three of his five tips for success: Make a change every month.
As Lerille walked me around Red’s, he explained the transformations of each area. Some months, he makes cosmetic changes, such as new flooring, but more often, he makes bigger changes that increase the club’s footprint (which now is 185,000 square feet) and services.
“We say it all the time: If Red’s not knocking a wall down, he’s not happy,” Girard says. “We actually tore a wall down once where the mortar hadn’t even dried yet. He just loves to expand this place and give the community and the members more and more.”
Girard can joke about Lerille’s love of instigating pricey construction projects now, but she remembers one ill-timed project that could have sunk the business. In 1985, the club was in the middle of a $3 million extension to incorporate a basketball court when Lafayette, a town largely supported by the oil industry, suffered a crippling blow when oil prices crashed.
“We already thought [the extension] was crazy; then the bottom fell out and we all thought: ‘How are we going to pay for this?’” Girard says.
The club lost as many as 100 members per month from 1985 to 1986, eventually totaling 20 percent of the members. Lerille was forced to shift his focus from expanding his club to keeping it afloat without detriment to staff or members. He met with his five general managers to devise a plan.
“He said, ‘I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs. I don’t want anyone to do without. We’re going to get through this, but I need everyone’s support and participation,’” Girard says. “We came up with all the ideas-as a group, as a family. We all agreed to work five extra hours a week. If we lost someone, we tried not to replace them. We tried to do with a little bit less, but nobody lost his job. No one had cut pay. And it just kind of came back. It probably took four or five years to get back where we were in the boom.”
The basketball court extension was eventually completed, too, drawing in a lot of new members as well as rental fees from city leagues.
Next to that basketball court, Red’s is completing another large-scale extension that will be used for sports and performance training. The 9,000-square-foot Maximum Intensity Training (MIT) facility will be managed by Lerille’s oldest son, Mark, who first started working at the club when he was in fifth grade. Back then, his chief responsibility was vacuuming before school, but these days he is a gym instructor and works alongside LeBas, who was his wrestling coach in school.
Mark Lerille says that, although some of the other employees kid him that the MIT actually stands for “Mark’s Inheritance Training,” he shares his father’s sentiment that Red’s does not really belong to Lerille or his family but to the club’s staff and members who helped build it.
“Dad always says, ‘It’s not our money. It’s the members’ money. We’ve gotta build a nice place for them,’” Mark says.
Providing the best member experience possible is at the root of the fourth of Lerille’s five tips: Learn as much as you can.
A few days before I flew to Louisiana, Rick Caro, Club Industry’s 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and the president of fitness industry consulting firm Management Vision Inc., offered me background on Lerille. Caro has known Lerille for about 35 years, and the two have been part of the same industry roundtable for 27 years.
Caro says that Lerille’s refusal to rest on his laurels is a big part of his club’s success.
“He still has this thirst for knowledge,” Caro says. “Many others get a little cocky or overconfident, but he doesn’t do that at all.”
During their roundtable events, which are held in a new location every year, the group always visits local clubs, which Lerille also does on his vacations.
On my tour of Red’s, Lerille paused in one of the club’s many group exercise studios to tell me how he brought one of the industry’s biggest trends back to Red’s after one of those vacations in the late 1970s. During a long-distance motorcycle ride with his wife of 48 years, Emma, the couple stopped in Las Vegas to visit a health club and saw A.J. Rosenthal, a former bodybuilder who is considered one of the pioneers of the aerobics movement, leading an aerobics class.
“He did an amazing job,” Lerille says. “I called the club from the road and told them to stop work on the two racquetball courts that we were building because we were going to build an aerobics studio instead.”
Thanks to his contacts in the industry, Lerille’s members are often among the first in the country to try new programs and equipment, says Mark, who remembers a childhood trip with his father to see some of the new fitness equipment invented by the late Arthur Jones at his Louisiana snake farm. Lerille bought the first piece of Nautilus equipment that Jones designed and also purchased the first Body Master machines and some of the first Johnny G Spinner bikes.
Lerille ordered those bikes after trying out Spinning when the concept was introduced at an industry trade show. Lerille was one of the first Spinning instructors and recalls asking students to do 60 “jumps” in the classes he taught on his 60th birthday. He continued to lead group cycling classes until he was injured in a plane crash in 1998. Giving up teaching that class was a small sacrifice compared to what Lerille could have been forced to do without—the damage to his leg was so severe that he might have lost it had he not been in such a good state of fitness, he says.
And that is exactly the subject of Lerille’s fifth and final tip: Stay in shape.
No one who knows Lerille would be surprised that he includes fitness as a key to success. Lerille considers physical fitness a means to living a fuller, happier life, rather than an end goal. He encourages his staff and members to work out, but he also encourages them to have hobbies and goals beyond that.
“The best thing about working out is hopefully your quality of life is good to the end,” Mark Lerille says, explaining his father’s view.
After showing me around Red’s, Lerille showed me some of his own hobbies. We toured the town he describes as “paradise” in one of the five cars he owns, a Plymouth Prowler. It is a modern car designed in the retro style of a hot rod, but Lerille also owns a few 1930s Ford roadsters, a Cadillac and a Lamborghini. The Lamborghini that Lerille owns now is actually his fifth—he bought himself the first as a birthday present back in the 1980s after the club recuperated from the effects of the oil crisis.
Driving slowly through Lafayette, Lerille pointed out some of the sights along the way, including the site of his original club (the building itself is no longer there) and the bar his younger son, Stanley Lerille, owns. Eventually, we stopped at the only remaining Borden’s ice cream parlor in the country, which Lerille bought in 2009. One of Lerille’s daughters, Kackie Lerille, manages it. (His other daughter, Christine Lerille McGill, is a substance abuse counselor.)
Lerille says he had had his eye on the parlor, built in 1940, for many years. The deed to the building was previously owned by the UL Lafayette Foundation, which leased it to Borden’s. The foundation had offers from other potential buyers who wanted to use the Art Deco building for other businesses, such as a bank or pharmacy, but Lerille just wanted to keep the iconic parlor open. Of course, he did more than that—he spent around $1 million to restore it to its former glory.
The expensive renovation will never pay for itself, he says, but like many of the changes he has made at Red’s over the years, generating revenue was not his goal.
“The town likes it,” Lerille says. “There’s a lot of Borden’s stories. I was in church one time, turned around and shook a guy’s hand like Catholics do, and the guy said, ‘I wanna thank you for saving Borden’s. My mom and dad met there.’ Another lady walked in [to the parlor] and said she comes every Saturday. She said, ‘My water broke here. I ordered a milkshake and went straight to the hospital, had my baby.’”
After we finished our ice cream, Lerille and I hopped back in the Prowler for the last stop on my tour of Red’s Lafayette: the private airfield where he keeps his five antique airplanes. Lerille not only pilots the planes himself, but he also does most of the restoration work, painting and varnishing the fabric that covers the planes’ wooden frames by hand. Several of the trophies on display at the club recognize his skill.
By the time Lerille finished telling me stories about the work he had done on each airplane and some of the long-distance flights he had made over the years, the sun was preparing to set, and it was time for me to head back to New Orleans.
I took one more moment to marvel at the incredible attention Lerille has paid to every tiny detail of his glossy yellow and red Mullicoup (one of only four such planes ever built) and thought about how he puts that same level of energy and passion into every aspect of his life and inspires the people around him to do the same.
“It’s something you don’t see every day,” Lerille says, accepting my compliments on the airplane with genuine modesty.
It certainly isn’t—unless you are Red Lerille.