Zumba's Founding Fathers
By Suzanne McGee
What happens when three Colombian expats in Miami put their heads together to launch a new business? In the case of the three Albertos—dot.com entrepreneur Alberto Perlman, his childhood friend Alberto Aghion, and dancer and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez—the result is a vast fitness empire sweeping gyms from Manhattan to Milwaukee: Zumba Fitness. Conventional workout classes may seem like, or even be described openly as, “boot camp” sessions; Zumba feels like a dance party that just happens to have fitness side effects. The startup that kicked off with 200 of Beto Perez’s fiercest fans shown dancing on a beach in a video filmed on a shoestring budget more than a decade ago is today a global phenomenon that has spread from Miami to Mumbai, Cape Town to Beijing—and even the Pentagon, home to the bootcamp approach to fitness. The company’s growth has been just as explosive. The privately held company doesn’t disclose details of its finances, but it is now a business empire with an estimated valuation of $500 million, 250 direct employees, tens of thousands of licensed instructors, and courses offered in 150 different countries.
Zumba is the kind of phenomenon that could only have gotten its start in today’s Miami, where so many Latin American trends and traditions in food, music, and art mix and mingle with their US counterparts to create something altogether novel. Miami, explains Perlman (the company’s CEO and marketing and business development expert), “helped us with the image and is part of our brand. It offers South Beach coolness with classic Latin American and Colombian flavor, mixing them into something unique and distinctive.”
The impetus for the phenomenon belongs to Perez, who crafted his dance-based workout routine while still working as a choreographer (clients included Shakira) and dance and fitness instructor in Bogotá back in the 1990s. “I wanted more. My country felt too small, and I wanted to challenge myself,” Perez explains today. Four trips to Miami reinforced his conviction that this was the place where he could test his new approach to fitness, discovered almost by accident in the early ’90s when he forgot his usual aerobics music tape at home and instead popped a mix tape of classical Colombian dance music—cumbia, salsa, merengue, and more—into the player. It was a hit in his hometown, and Perez’s voyages of discovery to Miami made him realize that nothing like it existed in the United States. “I think that Miami was waiting for me; what I did wasn’t there, so there would be a space for me,” he says.
It didn’t hurt that Perez found ready-made fans among the Colombian expats who had begun to relocate to Miami in the late 1990s or to establish second homes there and in the surrounding communities, such as Aventura and Key Biscayne. One of these was Perlman’s mother; when her son’s Internet incubator flamed out during the dot.com crash, she suggested that he find a way to create a new business with Beto Perez. “I had been complaining about how I was 23 years old, broke, and unemployable, and she said, ‘Maybe you could start a gym or something.’” But when Perlman dropped in to watch one of Perez’s classes at a Miami gym, he realized that there was potential for something much bigger. “I was watching people enjoying a workout instead of feeling that they had to be there, and none looked at their watch the whole time!”
Back then, in 2001, Miami may have been a hot dance and entertainment scene, but it wasn’t viewed as a logical place to start a new fitness business. Not only was the fitness world not an obvious one for a Latino businessman, Perlman says, but the hubs of that industry were Los Angeles and New York, both cities where trainers could attract the kind of celebrity following that would allow them to build a brand name. The Albertos—Perlman brought in Aghion, his best friend since the age of 5, as president and COO—took a different approach to growth, focusing on Beto’s Miami clubs and infomercials, as well as the Midwest. Thanks to that first video, filmed on a Miami beach, they teamed up with an Ohio company to produce a collection of tapes and DVDs, marketed via infomercial, and suddenly found themselves fielding calls from people all over the country eager to take classes and become Zumba instructors. Where middle-class mainstream Americans in Kansas City and Milwaukee went, celebrities like Jennifer Lopez,Natalie Portman, and Victoria Beckham have followed. The trio’s efforts have put Miami on the map as the next fitness industry hub.
Initially, the Albertos had thought to profit principally from selling the dance fitness videos. When their cell phone service couldn’t handle the volume of all the calls, the trio decided to branch out into teaching and training; five times the number of attendees they had expected showed up at their first session at a Miami hotel in 2003. That model—relying on fans to proselytize and to generate funds for the company by running their own businesses—has proved immensely successful for Zumba. To become licensed requires eight hours of formal instruction, at an average cost of about $250. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: The vast majority of newly fledged instructors continue to generate a stream of revenue for Zumba by signing up for ZIN, the Zumba Instructor Network. In exchange for $30 a month, they receive new choreography and new music (students get bored with the same routine, however much fun it is at first) as well as marketing support and links to job openings worldwide. Zumba also generates revenue from the sales of its accessories, clothing, and footwear (sales are expected to nearly double this year from 1.8 million units in 2012), its own CDs, and at-home workout DVDs, as well as from video games (more than 8 million of those sold to date).
Perez, the company’s chief creative officer, is also the brand’s global ambassador, showing up at the annual instructor convention or dashing off to visit Zumba classes in China, all the time trying to push the envelope in terms of choreography. “It has to stay fresh,” he says. “We only succeed if our instructors succeed, and I feel the responsibility of providing them with the material to do so.” Part of that creative process involves Perlman’s push to identify and develop new Latin artists. “We’re like a radio station,” he says. “About 14 million people now take Zumba classes every week, so this is a great way to introduce up-and-coming artists to a potential audience.” Perlman and Zumba team up with Latino musicians such as rapper Pitbull (born Armando Pérez, the son of Cuban immigrants to Florida) to create music for Zumba classes; two CDs featuring original Zumba music as well as other music hits used in the routines and released in Europe in partnership with Universal Music Enterprises have just gone platinum in France.
Perez, for his part, spends time flying up and down the Florida coast on his custom chopper (painted with an image of Batman on one side and the Joker on the other). But he insists, “I’m not a wild and crazy guy; my perfect weekend means going to the beach, a good restaurant, and a movie.” He will sometimes just show up at the movie theater and pick something to see when he gets there. “I’ll watch anything and everything,” he says. Perez pauses, suddenly reflecting on the possibilities. “There are no limits to our dreams here in America, right? So maybe the next step is Zumba the movie.”
Photography By Gary James
Photography By Alex Markow (Perlman); Seth Browarnik/WorldRedEye.com(Pitbull)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.