A bad day on water skis inspired Ken Cooper’s global fitness business

June 26, 2017

People around the world know Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper as the father of aerobics.

But there’s another side to him: Ken Cooper, businessman.

Yes, he’s still a physician first. But being a good businessman has been his great enabler.

Today, the Cooper Aerobics Center is a 30-acre urban oasis with a nonprofit research center, medical clinic, fitness center with a restaurant, spa, luxury hotel and conference center, swimming pool, tennis courts, walking trails, on some the priciest real estate in Dallas.

The company also sells vitamins and supplements and offers corporate wellness programs.

The family-owned company generates annual revenue that will approach $100 million this year and is profitable, said his son Tyler Cooper, the company’s CEO.

Once Ken Cooper was labeled a charlatan. Now at 86, he’s considered an international treasure.

Next year marks the half-century of his best-seller, "Aerobics," in which Cooper told us to get off our duffs, quit our unhealthy ways, and set in motion a national guilt trip.

To mark the 50th anniversary, Cooper is working on an updated version of his seminal book and his memoirs.

The course of Cooper’s life was changed by a water-skiing incident at Lake Texoma in 1960, when he was an out-of-shape, overweight 29-year-old Army medical resident.

He’d gained nearly 40 pounds over the course of med school, his internship and early marriage and hadn’t been on water skis in eight years.

"I’d gone to pot like 80 percent of my medical school colleagues," Cooper said.

Once behind the boat, Cooper got nauseated, his heart was racing and he thought he was having a heart attack.

It turned out to be temporary cardiac arrhythmia. But it was a permanent wake-up call.

He lost the weight in six months and ran his first marathon.

Today he’s 5 feet, 11 inches tall (having shrunk a couple of inches) and weighs 168 pounds — exactly what he weighed in high school when he was running track and playing basketball.

"I was prediabetic. I was hypertensive. All that disappeared after I lost that weight. I’ve kept that weight for 56 years now.

"That was divine intervention, I’m sure it was. Otherwise I was right on the same pathway as my other medical colleagues and I’d be dead already. I’m sure of it."

In 1970, flush with $25,000 in savings and a 1968 paperback bestseller ("Aerobics"), the 39-year-old colonel and doctor left the Air Force in San Antonio, where he was responsible for the astronaut fitness program, and moved to Dallas to practice preventive medicine.

Most people thought Cooper was loopy.

"People said, ‘There’s no way you can make a living trying to take care of healthy people. People want physicians when they’re sick and not when they’re well,’ "Cooper said. "First couple of years, I thought they were right."

He set up the Aerobics Center in a two-room office in Preston Center with two employees: another doctor and a secretary.

Cooper’s dream began to manifest in late 1971, when Cooper moved to the Preston Road location, having purchased an old mansion on eight acres and equipment using $1.2 million borrowed from Tyler Corp. Its chairman, the late Joe McKinney, was an early disciple.

The center prospered throughout Dallas’ go-go years. But things came to a screeching halt with Texas’ real estate and financial debacle. In 1988, he almost lost it all.

Cooper had borrowed $15 million to invest in expansion and still owed $9.6 million when the bank that lent him the money failed and was taken over by NCNB of Charlotte, N.C.

NCNB said the property was worth only $5.6 million and called the loan even though Cooper had never missed a payment.

Cooper fought the bank for the next three years, had bankruptcy documents drawn up and spent $600,000 in legal fees.

"I was under stress like you wouldn’t believe," Cooper said. "I got four foreclosure notices that last year of ’91, always delivered by a messenger on a Friday afternoon at 5:30, threatening to lock the gates on Monday. I panicked the first time, didn’t sleep for a weekend. The second, third and fourth time, it didn’t bother me."

He finally was able to renegotiate his debt.

Fifteen years later, in October 2004, Cooper paid off the loan and burned the mortgage.

"I don’t think we saved the ashes," he said.

There’s no chance of taking on more debt than the company can handle, he said. "We’re solid now."

Cooper attributes the company’s success to four things: divine intervention, an extraordinary staff that includes 24 physicians, proving to companies that wellness programs increase profits and providing service that keeps patients coming back.

"I’ve tried to impress upon our physicians that our patients don’t have to come back. They pay big dollars to come here. We don’t take insurance," he said. "Yet, we have a 74 percent return rate. Fifty-four percent are corporate sponsored. Our patients come back because they are equally concerned about how much we care as they are about how much we know.

"That is the secret to our success as an organization."

In 2014, Cooper became chairman and turned over the CEO reins to his son, who was born eight days after Ken saw his first patient at the center.

Cooper said the company’s future is in Tyler’s hands — particularly when it comes to the grand plan of establishing the Cooper brand internationally.

Does this signal that the patriarch is heading toward the corporate finish line?

The question — posed separately to both — draws equally incredulous responses.

"I’m confident that my dad will be thinking of something new and working on improving health around the world until the day he dies," said Tyler Cooper. "There’s no last hurrah in my dad’s mindset."

"What is retirement?" said Ken Cooper. "I like what (the late inspirational speaker) Zig Ziglar once said: ‘You don’t retire, you re-fire.’ I get bored easily."



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