Phillip Mills is CEO of Les Mills International, which has licensed 100,000 people to teach its fitness classes globally. Son of Les and Colleen, the Commonwealth Games finalist is also a committed environmentalist.

1. How would you describe your childhood?

I grew up on Grey Lynn Park, which was at that time New Zealand's No1 track and field athletics venue. I watched many great athletes, including Peter Snell racing Kip Keino there. From age 7 to 10 we lived in the US while my dad was at university. I remember the first few weeks there - there was colour TV with multi-channels. For a kid, the Americans had all the materialistic cool stuff. And junk food. I went to De Anza Primary in what is now Silicon Valley but was mostly orchards then, and 32nd St School in downtown LA. As one of few white kids I got chased home from school a lot. My mother said that was where I learned to run. From ages 10 to 17 we lived in Pt Chev and I went to Mt Albert Grammar. I had a boat hidden on Meola Creek and went fishing a lot instead of going to school. We used to paddle to Te Atatu. When they tested me at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games they said I should have been a rower instead of a runner.

2. Was there a lot of pressure on you to succeed at sport because your dad was an Olympian and your mum a successful sportswoman?
None. My parents wanted me to find what I loved. They were too busy with their own sport and business to pressure me anyway. My dad's father died when he was about 10 so he always had to work very hard and was seriously driven. Mum came from a very working class background - her dad was a truck driver. So we worked. They had two shops in Pt Chev, a home appliance store and a shoe shop, and we learned to sell, product knowledge, customer service. Mum was working fulltime, a great mum and training. Dad was a typical man of that age. They were workaholics. You often didn't see a lot of them.

3. You're running a very large organisation now. Have you worried about spending too much time at the office?
I did for about five years, after we bought Les Mills back [from private investors who went bust in the 1987 sharemarket crash]. We borrowed millions to do it and I worked 100-hour weeks. When you are in that it's survival and you're fighting every day in the trenches. I don't think you see it at the time, but when you have a holiday you think 'I've lost a whole bunch of my humanity, the ability to communicate as a human'. You come back and appreciate people.


4. Was it a mistake to sell Les Mills to investors?
It was my parents, not I, who sold and it's hard to say whether that was a mistake for them, as they went on to a career in politics [Les became Mayor of Auckland]. The company was taken over by an investment group a month after the crash and I had to buy the gyms back from receivers. I will never sell our company. I am opposed to the whole idea of building businesses just to create a capital gain on exit. An organisation and the people in it should mean more than that.

5. You were very successful at rebuilding the company. Did you enjoy that achievement?
I had a full-on black dog depression for about six months after emerging from the debt mountain. It had been enormously stressful, years of worrying about how you were going to pay the wages, and then there were no goals and you're just burned out from all the work. You don't admit it but it takes the joy out of life. You get up and trudge through life with no expectation of joy. I'd stopped my whole exercise regime. I weighed about 105kg and now I'm about 85kg. Finally [wife] Jackie and I talked about it and she had experience as a GP in dealing with depression. Now I've learned to relax more, take more time in my life. I probably now work 60 hours a week.

6. How did you meet Jackie?
Jackie was one of my first group of teachers when I introduced aerobics to New Zealand in 1980. She was a gym rep working her way through university and it was love at first sight. She went on to a 25-year medical career as a GP-obstetrician. But she maintained a key creative role at Les Mills and five years ago became our fulltime chief creative officer. The long-term success of Les Mills is more down to her than anyone else.

7. Your son and daughter also work for the group: How does a family learn to work together?
Just like any team, really: patience, tolerance, listening, respect, love. We thought "let them find their joy" but they wanted to work here.

8. Your mum, sister and you all competed at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Did you train as a pack?
Dad ran a big squad and we all trained together. I remember a lot of embarrassing Woman's Weekly stories about [the family at the Games]. Mum had a stress fracture but she still ran in the heats with painkillers numbing her leg from the knee down. She was pretty adventurous. She died about 10 years ago from melanoma which was too early but a lot of people said she'd lived two or three lives in that time. While it's hard to lose someone, I don't think she felt she had missed out on too much.

9. Were you always a left-wing party supporter?
I went through a conservative period. I was rebellious at school but then I swung back when I first went into business and I voted National for a long time. Part of it's being in business and the imperative to make money for that business or it will go broke. That drives a lot of people. That's why we need to regulate capitalism. About 15 years ago I started to understand climate change and the scale of the problem - that it was capitalism and the free market [behind it]. I've always been interested in social justice but I just think a lot of that gets overridden by commercial imperatives because business is cut-throat, it's a fight to survive. If people can get something for free, they will. You have to regulate.

10. You've been agitating for the Government to do something positive about climate change. Does the fight get you down?
Sometimes. But only for a day or a few hours then I'm up and working on the next plan. What [the Government] is doing is immoral. We are going to [a climate change summit in] Lima proposing non-binding [emissions] targets which everyone knows don't work. [The Government is] chasing commodities and old industries like coal mining and I think, are they Luddites or lackeys? Who's got in their ear? Or are they ideological morons?

11. Are you sure you'll never go into politics?
Yes. I can do a lot more outside of it. You get dropped in a political system and you have to toe the party line. There's no opportunity for bipartisan stuff. It's all adversarial.


12. What is your own fitness regime?
Bodybalance [yoga fusion] class twice a week. Weight training twice a week. RPM [spin] class once a week. I mountain bike in Woodhill Forest once a week. I gave up sugar eight years ago. I eat a lot of probiotic foods like kefir. I get as much vitamin D from sunlight as possible short of burning. I do our family shopping and buy only organic wholefoods. In our business we push people towards healthy sustainable living. The things that are good for your body are good for the environment, like walking or biking to work. Food without pesticide and insecticide. If we switched the world to organic farming, we would deal with the climate change problem. Just switching America would deal with climate change.