Three Alumni Who Made Weight Watchers Great
Weight Watchers turns 50 next year. Since its first meeting in 1963 above a Long Island movie theater, Weight Watchers has grown into an internationally recognized brand with 1.3 million members worldwide.
The secret of its success? Positive reinforcement makes eating healthful foods in sensible portions easier.
Still, great ideas often fail and that is why the contributions of three Baruch College alumni—Al Lippert (’49), Charles Feit (’48, LHD [Hon.] ’87), and Richard Samber (’63)—to Weight Watcher’s formative years are so notable.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for Lippert (who died in 1998 while promoting the program in South Africa), Weight Watchers would never have been launched. Lippert, who co-founded Weight Watchers with Jean Nidetch, was part of her self-selected support group for losing weight.
A retailing executive, Lippert immediately recognized the power of combining a medically sound diet (Nidetch got the diet from the city’s Obesity Clinic) with weekly meetings, where members celebrate pounds shed and confess lapses to sympathetic listeners.
“I took what I learned in college and applied common sense to it,” Lippert said of his success in creating the multimillion-dollar enterprise. The most enduring example of his savvy: every one of Weight Watchers’ 12,000 group leaders today is a “graduate” of the program.
As thousands of people discovered Weight Watchers, Lippert often worked 16-hour days before he realized that his “mom and pop” operation had become a full-fledged company. Four years after that first meeting, Lippert recruited Feit, a lawyer and accountant, to help run the company.
“Charles’s main goal was to create a trademark, which he believed was essential for the company’s future,” recalls Hedwig Feit, his widow and an adjunct professor of Black and Hispanic Studies in Baruch’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. Within a few years, Weight Watchers International was a registered trademark in 35 countries.
Although Feit was the company’s first “civilian” (i.e., he’d never been overweight), Hedwig says, “he enjoyed working at the company because the employees were committed to helping people lose weight.”
Still, Feit, with a deep love of the humanities, sought to improve the company in unexpected ways. He brought in English teachers, for instance, to work with employees on improving their letter writing.
In 1968 Samber began his career at Weight Watchers as the company’s controller and immediately set about modernizing operations. “When I arrived,” he recalls, “the books were still being kept by hand.”
When Samber retired 25 years later as the company’s chief financial officer, he had not only transformed the accounting systems, he had created state-of-the-art information, finance, and human resources operations.
The profit and loss statement sheet reflected his efforts: in 1968 Weight Watchers made $400,000 on $8 million in revenue; in 1993 profits stood at $45 million on $300 million in revenue.
Samber also laid the groundwork for future growth. To meet dieters’ demands for help, the company initially awarded franchises for as little as $5,000, with limited oversight of the quality of the programs. Later, when the company expanded, Samber led the effort to buy back North American franchises and the U.K. franchise and to start new company-owned programs in Western Europe.
“In my 25 years with the company, I never had a boring day,” says Samber, whose career motivated him to establish a scholarship at Baruch. ”Fifty years from now, I hope a recipient of the scholarship will look back on his or her career and say the same thing.”
It’s a sentiment that Lippert, who endowed a chair in marketing, and Feit, who endowed an interdisciplinary seminar series at the College, would second.
All three men relished taking Nidetch’s simple but powerful idea and creating a global business.