Inner drive carried from sports into business

When Vince Danielsen extols the virtues of fitness and health, it comes across as much more than a sales pitch from the youthful president and owner of the Calgary operations of Innovative Fitness.

Danielsen’s words are laced with pure passion, hitting home with the brute force of a kick in the teeth or a smash-mouth collision of two 300-pound linemen on the gridiron, Danielsen’s former “office.”

At age 15, Danielsen was given a 50-50 chance at life after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma cancer. He has a constant reminder of that ordeal, sporting a scar on his neck from the surgery.

He not only won the battle against cancer but also played out a dream in storybook fashion, starring for eight seasons in the Canadian Football League as a receiver with the Calgary Stampeders and going out in style with a Grey Cup champagne bath.

As a professional athlete, Danielsen never forgot his toughest fight as a teenager, building his career on the foundations of health and fitness.

Shannon Oatway, Business Edge
Former Calgary Stampeders receiver Vince Danielsen is building muscles in his new career – the fitness business.

And now, as a budding entrepreneur promoting fitness in corporate Calgary, Danielsen, the 31-year-old head of marketing and promotions for the company that also has studios in West Vancouver, Kitsilano, B.C., and Bellevue, Wash., believes the same values of health and fitness can breed champions in the boardroom.

Who’s to argue with a two-time Grey Cup champ who outran cancer?

1. What inspired you to become involved in the fitness and personal training business?

“I think having that major health scare at 15 and going through all the chemotherapy and spinal taps gave me a health perspective that was really mature. I also got my kinesiology degree from the University of British Columbia. So I was able to take my degree, my sporting background and my perspective of health and put it into the fitness industry so I could help people stay in shape long term.”

2. How receptive has the Calgary market been to your innovative approach to fitness and health?

“There’s a great market in Calgary of people who are very successful and very driven. The market that we really cater to are the people who want to invest in their health and fitness. We started out with two trainers and now we have 12 to 13 trainers serving over 130 regular clients. I would say at least 60 to 65 per cent of our clients are people who own their own businesses, but even though it’s a little bit more of an expensive service (average cost is about $60 per hour), we have some people who are employees who are prioritizing and spending their money on the health and cutting down other expenses like car payments. We also have a health concierge on call at all times for our clientele. If a business person is travelling, we’ll design a program so that person can maintain their healthy lifestyle on the road.”

3. Can you explain your approach to promoting healthy lifestyles, particularly in the corporate world?

“We don’t just tell people how they can get healthy, but how they can practically get healthy. The biggest reason why people knock health out of their lifestyles or quit their resolutions is because it is starting to infringe on their careers and family lives. Life is so busy that the first thing they drop out of their life is their health, if it’s not practical. So we give people practical ways to get their exercise every week and get their nutrition. We do that with accountability. We tell people to come in and book an appointment with our trainers and treat it as another appointment in their business schedule. But this one’s an investment in themselves. We tell people: ‘Why go through life as a CEO of a company and achieve financial freedom . . . and then at age 55 when you retire, you can’t enjoy it because your body and health is broken down or you might not be around?’ We tell them: ‘Your body is the vehicle for enjoying life.’ It’s hard to enjoy your money when you’re hooked up to a bunch of machines because of years of working too hard, too much stress, not eating properly and never exercising.”

Shannon Oatway, Business Edge
Vince Danielsen built his career on health and fitness following a battle with cancer as a teenager, an experience that he believes shaped his life.

4. What’s your vision for Innovative Fitness?

“We have a service and a product that can impact people’s lives in a lot of different markets in a lot of great ways. If you look at our health-care system, there’s nothing there that’s preventative. All the money is going to the back side of it, of fixing people after they’re sick. We’re looking at putting four studios in San Francisco in the next two years, starting the first one in February, and building from there. We also feel Calgary can handle two studios. We’re growing by quality, not quantity. We’re now developing a corporate department that will go into corporations and work on employee health and fitness. Long term, we also want to eventually acquire other health-related businesses.”

5. What do you say to people who say they don’t have time to work out?

“I say there’s no excuse for not investing in yourself. We want health to become a passion for people. If you’re just loyal to inches and pounds, you’re going to quit. The relationships we have in life are the reasons we enjoy life, and in order to enjoy those relationships, you’ve got to be healthy. The biggest thing lacking in the health and fitness industry is support. If you have a membership at a big gym, who calls you if you don’t show up? No one. If you don’t show up to Innovative Fitness, we will, in a very caring way, call you. If you fall off, we’re there to get you back on.”

6. Do you wonder why students aren’t educated more about health and fitness?
“Yeah. And why the schools don’t teach people how to improve relationships. We have kids who come out who are book smart, but have no idea how to communicate properly, how to build a relationship and hold on to one. And, of course, they don’t know how to stay fit. The problem is the first thing that is cut out of the (school system) budget is physical education, the football program or the basketball program. They cut out everything that teaches how to be team players, how to set goals, how to run through obstacles, how to deal with tough coaches and everything to do with sport. They think science is more important, but I can’t remember when I’ve ever used my science class. Because kids aren’t learning about fitness, everything is quick fix. They tell you to buy this piece of equipment and in six weeks they can get your body better. What they’re promoting is that you don’t have to work hard to be healthy. We tell people up front it’s hard work.”

7. What was your boyhood dream?

“I wanted to be a professional football player. Empire Stadium was just down the street from us where I grew up in East Vancouver, and my brothers and I would hop the fence and go play football on the B.C. Lions field until they chased us out.”

8. How did your battle with cancer shape your life?

“It made me understand how fragile life is. A lot of people don’t experience that until their 40s or 50s, and then they get scared. But I worked at being healthy from the time I was 15 because I don’t ever want a doctor to tell me that (a 50-50 chance of surviving) again. It gave me a different perspective of obstacles in business and in sport because I’d already beaten something that was very large to me. I happened to have an experience where I was able to win and be a champion in defeating something that was going to take me down. Now, when I go into business situations or when I’m playing in a Grey Cup before 70,000 people with hurting legs, I know where my drive comes from. I know I’m stronger. I have that edge now, a business edge, that I think I got when I was a child fighting cancer.”

9. How did a visit from B.C. Lions star kicker Lui Passaglia to your home when you were ill with cancer affect you?

“You realize how much of an impact a professional athlete can make. When you see kids as a professional athlete, make sure you wave to them, shake their hand and say a word to them. As humans, we often feel we can’t have an impact on someone in such a short period of time. But what Lui taught me was that you can. So that inspired me to create a program for kids (with cancer) across the country called Every Yard Counts. They can come to a CFL game with their family members, they get autographs, they get to meet the players in the locker room and get pictures. It gets their minds off the chemotherapy, the blood counts and the spinal taps.”

10. How has the time you spend visiting kids in the cancer ward at Alberta Children’s Hospital influenced your life?

“We can all lose perspective when we get wrapped up in our businesses and our lives. When I visit a kid, it brings me back to earth and lowers me down. Charity is not just for the people you give it to. It’s for yourself. That’s when you know you’re involved in a passionate charity – when you get a lot out of it. The kids give me a perspective to bring me down to earth so that I can get back and attack life again with a good head on my shoulders.”

11. Who was your hero? “My dad (Per, who died of stomach cancer in July of 2001) taught me so many things about being able to communicate with people. To be able to say your father is your hero is a beautiful thing. Heroism must be deserved and to me it has to be someone who impacted me my whole life, as my dad did. He wasn’t a man of many words, but you learned from his actions. He was a (public relations) guy and he knew how to walk into a room and make everyone feel special. As a kid, I remembered how he touched people because of his demeanour, his communication skills and genuineness.” (Danielsen dedicated the 2001 season to Per Danielsen, whose name is engraved on his 2001 Grey Cup ring).

12. What do you most cherish about your football career?

“It’s the championships that are most memorable. That’s why you work so hard through the painkillers and the injuries. And it teaches you so much about life, because you can’t win championships every year. I went through eight years of football and I won three championships (including two Grey Cups). When you have that experience, you understand how to build a business properly. Nothing good comes easy. If you win the lottery, that’s a blessing, but it’s not life. A lot of players can’t transfer what they learn on the football field into the boardroom. But you know what? All the principles are the same. A lot of times I looked at Wally Buono (former Stampeders general manager and coach) and wondered why he was doing things the way he did. But, when you own your business, you look back and you know.”

13. What was it like being a spectator at Stampeder games last season after retiring at age 30, knowing that you could have played longer?

“I had a goal half way through my career to have a smooth transition out of football into business. So I’d really planned my departure long before getting out. A lot of times, athletes leave because they get cut, get kicked out or get too old and injured. When I left, I didn’t have a feeling of want anymore. So, when I sat in the stands, I didn’t yearn to be on the field again. The only thing I missed were the brief moments of competition. You know, fourth quarter, you’ve got a chance to make the big catch. That’s what I already miss. But I was finished with football when I was done with it, and I was able to look ahead. And my body hurt. Everything hurt. I didn’t want to be 40 and have arthritis.”

14. So what’s your big catch, your big adrenaline rush, now?

“It took me a long time to figure out what I’m passionate about and what gets me up in the morning. And for me it was building things. For my whole life, I’ve had to build myself up as an individual every off-season. Your business is your body, and now that’s my business. What I loved was that I was constantly building something to reach my goals, and now, when I look at business, that’s what I’m passionate about.”

15. What did Buono teach you?

“Wally taught me how to be loyal to the core people of your company and how to promote from within.” 16. How do you feel about the conflict between Buono and the Stamps’ new regime that led to the coach’s recent resignation and signing with B.C.?

“The new people (owner Michael Feterik and new Stamps executive Fred Fateri) didn’t listen to media consulting and damaged things in the community with the team. It’s going to take a while to repair that. When you run a business that’s not in the media, you just run it. But when you run a business in the media, you do things behind closed doors. It’s wrong for people to treat Wally that way. Now, should he have left on the business side? Well, maybe. But not that way.”

17. Who’s the person you most admire in sports or business?

“I admire people that start from scratch with nothing, no one gives them a chance and yet they can always prove people wrong. The person that comes to mind is my good friend Jeff Garcia (star quarterback of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers). No one gave him a chance here (with the Stampeders). I love that inner drive of people who can go into pressure situations and come out on top year after year after year. Those same traits can be used in business.”

18. God taps you on the shoulder and says you can change one thing in your life. What would that be?

“I don’t want to change anything from my past. My past is who I am. It probably doesn’t have to be God that has to tap me. It’s probably going to be the people around me. Your good friends and people around you who are your advisers should always be tapping you. I want to surround myself with people who can pull me back.”

19. What do you need to do to become more successful in business?

“I need to continue to surround myself with better people. It’s the people around you who are going to take you where you are going. As individuals, we’re good at certain things, but we have a lot of weaknesses and we need to surround ourselves with people who are very smart in all the specialized areas. You have to put your ego aside and realize that other people could know more than you do.”

20. What’s your favourite escape from work?

“I love skiing, fly-fishing and other things that get me outdoors and keep the stress level down. But on a daily basis, I like relaxing with a cup of coffee and the paper to start the day. And there are things that I do daily to keep grounded and balanced. I have a theatre in my house so I’ll go in there and watch a movie. It takes me away for two hours.”

THE COMPANY: Calgary Innovative Fitness
* Ownership: Jeff Sharpe (president, director of business development), Matt Young (personnel director), Vince Danielsen (director of marketing and promotions). Danielsen is president and sole owner of the Calgary studio, which is managed by Ranjit Bawa.
* Profile: Innovative Fitness, established in 1995, is a specialized top-end personal fitness and health organization that focuses on lifestyle management and targets the corporate market. The company has four studios – in Calgary, Vancouver, Kitsilano, B.C., and Bellevue, Wash., and plans to open a fifth location in San Francisco in February. The head office is in Vancouver.
* Estimated 2002 Revenue: $3.8 million.
* Address: Calgary Innovative Fitness: #111-1111 11th Ave. S.W., Calgary, T2R 0G5 (phone/fax: 403-244-7405, 403-244-8045).

IN PROFILE: Vince Danielson
* Born/raised/age: Vancouver, 31.
* Title: President/owner, Calgary Innovative Fitness; director of corporate marketing and promotions, Innovative Fitness.
*Education: University of British Columbia (kinesiology degree).
* Career: Danielsen launched Calgary’s studio for Innovative Fitness in 1998 and began working full time on the business after announcing his retirement from
football early last year. Danielsen played eight seasons (135 games) in the Canadian Football League as a receiver with the Calgary Stampeders, winning two Grey Cup championships.
* Accolades: Danielsen was the Western Division’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 1998 and a Western Division all-star in 1997, when he had 91
receptions totalling 1,174 yards. He also won the award as the Most Outstanding Canadian in the 1998 Grey Cup game.
* Moonlighting: Danielsen is an avid supporter of children with cancer, a frequent visitor to the cancer ward at Alberta Children’s Hospital and founder of the ‘Every Yard Counts’ program in which cancer kids are special guests at Canadian Football League games.
* Hero: Per Danielsen (his father).
* Passions: Skiing, fly-fishing, movies.