David Kirchhoff isn’t just the CEO of $1.4 billion Weight Watchers International—he’s a client. Ten years ago, the 44-year-old CEO lost 30 pounds on the weight-loss company’s regimen, in the process getting the skinny on just how the company’s program of weekly meetings and keeping tabs on food intake works.
Not surprisingly, Kirchhoff, like many among his executive team and the approximately 15,000 program veterans who lead weekly Weight Watchers meetings in the U.S. and 23 other countries, has been a passionate advocate of the celebrated system that worked so well for him and legions of satisfied customers. But he’s even more passionate about the recent makeover of the very core of that program—the celebrated point system by which members keep tabs on food intake. “I truly believe this is going to be the single best weightloss program ever put on the Planet Earth,” says Kirchhoff.
That might sound a tad dramatic for a system that simply takes into account that not all calories are created equal by making fruits and vegetables point-free and allotting points to other foods based on a complex formula that considers each item’s mix of protein, fiber, carbohydrates and fat. But Kirchhoff is on a mission—albeit a for-profit one—to beat back the global obesity epidemic.
“Twenty years ago, 10 percent of the [U.S.] population was obese; now it’s a third,” he notes, pointing out that obesity contributes to the development of chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “About 75 percent of the [$2.5 trillion] a year we’re spending on healthcare goes to the treatment of chronic conditions. And depending on the conditions, 50 to 80 percent of those are driven by lifestyle. You can’t have long-term healthcare cost containment without addressing lifestyle.”
Enter Weight Watchers. In addition to reinvigorating his B2C business with the flashy new Points Plus system and snazzier, more visible retail locations, Kirchhoff unveiled a new partnership with Merck, which will use its network to disseminate educational information about the Weight Watchers program to healthcare providers. “Merck has a whole range of medications for people with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues, all of which work even better when combined with a lifestyle change,” explains Kirchhoff. “But while doctors can create a tremendous amount of urgency around weight loss, they are not set up to deliver a weekly behavior modification program.”
And neither are corporations, even though the payback could be significant. “If you look at the impact of obesity on employee engagement, productivity, absenteeism and health care, you can see the deleterious effect it has,” he points out.
Ultimately, Kirchhoff seems to envision a world where doctors and employers become, in effect, marketers for Weight Watchers and everyone—consumers, companies, countries, and, of course, Weight Watchers—benefits as a result. “We have an important role to play in being part of the solution to address obesity, but I don’t think I can do it by myself,” he says. “I would be much more successful if I had a good partnership with doctors. I’d be much more successful if I had an increasingly strong partnership with corporate HR groups and insurance companies. When you imagine a whole ecosystem that starts to work together to address it, you can actually see how we could improve the odds of success.”
It’s a whole new meaning—and method—for a leaner, more productive workforce.