The man who would make us fit Essay

Vice President George Bush regards him as a “friendly,
strong” Southwesterner with a serious commitment to physical
fitness. George Allen, former head coach of the Washington Redskins (he
is now with the Arizona Wranglers), says simply, “He’s the
kind of guy I like.”

And blond and bubbly Suzy Chaffee, of freestyle skiing (and
Chapstick) fame, calls him “a fitness genius,” while conceding
that he is also, in his quiet way, a bit sexy.

All three are describing Tom Fatjo, Jr., a Houston businessman who
has probably already had an impact on your life. If things go as
he’s planned, he may soon influence the way you feel about your
health and life is as well. “Living Well,” in fact, is the
name of Fatjo’s most recent game.

A tall, lean Texan with a wholesome, all-American glow–set off by
expensive suits and complemented by a style subdued but firm–Fatjo, at
43, is a man who has had half a dozen successful careers. Accountant,
trash collector, chief executive, hotel operator, restaurateur, spa
proprietor, builder… Better make that half a dozen and still going.
It may sound a bit Walter Mittyish, but a certain logical progression,
and a vague sense of destiny at work, have led Fatjo to his current
passion: the health and fitness of the rest of us.

An avid jogger–he has competed in the Boston Marathon the last
eight years and turned in quite respectable times–and swimmmer who
keeps a close eye on what he eats, Fatjo not always so enlightened.
Eleven years ago, he was a harried, slightly overweight and highly
stressed executive who suspected, in some visceral way, that is his life
was not at all what it should be: that his lifestyle was in truth
killing him. “I was getting a lot of satisfaction out of what I
was doing,” he said, “but I had the feeling that I probably
wasn’t going to last another eight or nine years at the rate I was

Born in Richmond, a dusty backwater just outside Houston where his
father ran an automobile dealership, Fatjo attended Rice University,
where he studied economics and accounting. After graduation, he went to
work fro the accounting firm of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells and moved
into a modest home in Willowbrook, a housing development in Houston.
When Willowbrook has problems getting its trash collected regularly,
Fatjo, as president of the community’s civic club, found himself
confronting his destiny: at one long, hot and particularly unpleasant
club meeting, an angry resident finally demanded, “Tom, why
don’t you buy a garbage truck and be our carbage man?”

An enterprising and ambitious young man of 26 at the time, Fatjo
explored and then embraced the opportunity; he bought one truck, and
each morning before reporting for his white-collar duties at DH;S,
he donned dirty blues and picked up refuse. Trash proved to be a
bonanza for Fatjo: his company expanded, grew went public, went
national. Now, 18 years later, Browning-Ferris Industries, the company
he founded, is the largest solid-waste-disposal firm in the world–some
15,500 employees and annual revenues exceeding $840 million. Chances
are that,if you live or work in any large or medium-sized city,
you’ve seen BFI’s massive blue trucks rumbling down alleys
each morning anc collecting overflowing containers of trash.

By 1973, Fatjo, though still eager, was beginning to tire: too many
trips, too little sleep, too many well-watered business lunches.
Desperate to bring some sanity back to his lifestyle, he took up
jogging, and during a race at Dallas’ Aerobic Center with other
toned-up executives, made the connection between physical fitness and
business efficiency. The better he felt, the better he worked, he

It was as though destiny were beckoning again: in 1975, Fatjo
stepped down as the head of BFI in order to fashion something new.
“I wanted to create a center that would have a positive impact on
the lives of busy people, that would help them to be productive for a
long period of time–both personally and professionally,” he
explains. “I wanted it to be a place where people could attend
conventions, learn something about fitness, enjoy some exercise–a place
that could bring balance back into their lives.”

Today, the Houstonian, a lavish $39 million, “healthful living
complex” set on 22 beautifully wooded acres in southwest Houston,
stands as a living, breathing and profusely sweating testament to his
vision. It features a gracious 300-room hotel and a fitness center
replete with five tennis court, eight racquetball courts, an
Olympic-sized pool, a gym, an indoor track with computerized timing
lights and a one-mile outdoor track carpeted with artificial turf; there
is also a women’s spa, The Phoenix, which has played host to the
likes of Shirley MacLaine and Brooke Shields, and the Preventive
Medicine center, which has tested more than 10,000 individuals during
the past four yeas. “It’s what God would have done if
he’d been rich,” goes the local joke, but the results are
anything but funny. James L. Ketelsen, chairman of Tenneco, the
Houston-based conglomerate, discovered that he needed coronary-bypass
surgery during a Houstonian physical; he has since recovered, now
exercise regularly and–lesson learned–has set up a fitness center for
Tenneco’s headquarters employees.

Also in the grounds are the The Houstonian Estates, a luxurious
28-story condominium that numbers Vice President Bush among its
contented owners.

Fatjo reputation for excellence in the field of fitness catapulted
him into a number of new worlds; he was appointed to the
President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in 1980 and was
soon pulling together projects for chairman George Allen.
“He’s a worker, get things done,” observes Allen with
forthnight admiratioin, “the sort of person I’ve always wanted
on my coaching staff or team.”

Asked to organize the Fitness Classic–a colorful, competitive
event that, by virtue of its celebrity, business and media entrants,
would draw attention to the importance of exercise–Fatjo quickly
donated The Houstonian and the services of many of its employees. This
year–the third for the classic–some 200 participants (Suzy Chafee,
Roger Staubach, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, Gregg Marx of “Days
of Our Lives”) and nearly 2,000 spectators (including Bush)
gathered for two days of fun-and-fitness events; the four-mile relay,
football throw, obstacle course, basketball shoot-out, tennis serve for
speed… ad exhaustion. Fatjo competed in several and turned in a
creditable time of 5:44 in the time run, behind a publisher who zipped
up the track in 4:30. “But it was a ton of fun,” recalls
Fatjo with a beatific smile.

When Allen decided that a national fitness test was another top
priority of the President’s council, he once more turned to Fatjo.
It was Allen concedes, a “difficult project”–one that would
ideally give all Americans a chance to see how fit they were–but, he
notes, he only give Fatjo “the tough ones.” The first
National Fitness Testing Week, held last May in some 800 locations, put
more than 100,000 citizens through a simple but telling ordeal of
exercise–the three-minute step test, sit and reach, arm hang, curl-ups
and push-ups–designed to gauge their flexibility, strength, muscular
development, endurance and cardiorespiratory health. Participants were
accorded bronze, silver or gold status in each category, and more than
one came away surprised.

Chafee, a member of the 1968 Olympic ski team. A world-class
freestyle skier and herself the author of a book on fitness, found the
top award elusive. “I’m skiing better than ever have in my
life,” she explains, “and so I thought my cardiovascular
health was excellent… but I didn’t get a gold.” As a result
of the discovery, she’s now added more running and stationary
bicycling to her exercise routine.

And George Allen, the man responsible for it all, wound up with a
silver in flexibility. Next year, Allen hopes to test more than half a
million Americans.

Though straying a bit from his business origins–dabbling withe government and celebrity socials-Fatjo hasn’t lost sight of his
pin-stripped-suit roots: He is, in his soul, as entrepreneur, a
businessman, someone who thrills to the growth of a company the way
others might exult in the growth of a child or grandchildren. And more
and more, and has managed to intergrate his personal interest with that
professional passion. The Houstonian has not only established a
reputation as “perhaps the world’s most unique [sic] hotel and
club”; it has also come to be a model for those, like Ketelsen, who
have enjoyed the life-or death benefits of the place. “We saw a
number of executives going back to their companies and trying to set up
fitness programs,” explains Fatjo, “but without much
success.” When they approached him for advice, Fatjo was, as
usual, a man prepared to heed, once more, destiny’s siren call.

Last year, Fatjo created Living Well, a company that will market
comprehensive “wellness” programs to corporations and,
eventually, to the public. The Living Well course–“Taking a Stand
on the health of a Nation,” avers its brochure–is a bit of high
tech, a healthy dose of lectures and plenty of good, old-fashioned

Living Well enrollees are evaluated at the outset, and their
fitness figures–weight, blood pressure, etc.–entered into a computer,
so that their progress can be accurately tracked; they attend two
classes a week, 15 minutes of which are devoted to discussions of such
subjects as nutrition, smoking, stress and self-esteem. The remaining
45 minutes are spent in vigorous exercise (designed to promote
flexibility, muscle strength and endurance and cardiovascular health).
Some 4,900 employees, working for 45 corporations, have already taken
part, and the benefits are accruing rapidly.

“we’re very pleased with Living Well,” says Lorraine
Daigle, corporate manager of occupational nursing and special medical
programs for the Allied Corporation, based in Morristown, New Jersey.
Daigle, who had never before been involved in a regular exercise
regimen, took the course. She glows with pride at the results.
“I’m sorry to say that I used to be a three-packer (of
cigarettes) a day . . . and I’ve just completed six months of
abstinence,” she notes.

Concerned that graduates might not persist in their new health
habits and that so many other Americans might never even acquire them,
Fatjo is now setting up Living Well Facilities in 50 cities. In order to
expedite the process, he merged his new company with a much larger one,
health Resources Corporation of America, in July. Eventually, Fatjo
hopes, the energetic Living Well logo–a lively scrawl that races across
the page or the sweatshirts of participants–will be as familiar to this
country’s citizens as those lumbering BFI trucks.

When that day comes, you too–like Bush, and Allen, and
Chaffee–may have something kind to say about Tom Fatjo.


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