Weekend Warrior: Fitness World president and CEO Chris Smith digs into his love for living holistically

The head of the Richmond-based organization also runs a hobby farm out of his Washington State home.

Credit: Hana Pesut

The head of the Richmond-based organization also runs a hobby farm out of his Washington State home

On paper, Chris Smith is the ideal candidate to run a fitness chain. Growing up in California, he played baseball and basketball and ran track and field before trying his luck at professional football as a young adult. “Leadership, I think, came naturally to me,” he says.

What you probably wouldn’t guess is that the skills required to run a hobby farm were also instilled in him from a young age. Smith started visiting construction sites with his father at 10 years old, so manual labour and the more technical aspects of running a farm were things he learned naturally.

He also spent a large chunk of his childhood in the countryside: “I grew up in rural Northern California, and my wife is also passionate about animals and holistic living.”

In 2017, Smith and his wife, Randal, purchased their six-acre farm in Washington to “live off of the land,” and to control the quality of the food they consumed as a family. As the president and CEO of Richmond-based Fitness World, he splits his time between the Lower Mainland and across the border, claiming that his daily commute is much shorter than his colleagues’ from Maple Ridge and Abbotsford.

Smith took over as the operating partner when Steve Nash Fitness World went bankrupt three years ago. He was president and CEO of the former enterprise, so not only did he take a risk by buying the business, he also carried out the tough job of laying off hundreds of employees during COVID.

“In our business, there are certain things that might not be the most fun to do, but you’ve got to do it,” he maintains. “And that’s sometimes what you’ve got to do on the farm.”

Now Smith operates 16 Fitness World facilities in B.C. and runs three separate entities under the company’s umbrella: the British Columbia Personal Training Institute, for aspiring personal trainers; All Things Fitness and Wellness, a digital media company spotlighting “people behind the businesses”; and, most recently, Train by FW, a boutique personal training space for independent trainers.

Work keeps Smith busy, so he usually saves projects like upgrading the chicken coop and tending to the fields for the weekend. He doesn’t like to sit still, and with goats, chickens and cows on the land, there’s never any shortage of work to be done—even with five kids to help him.

Lately, Smith has been researching solar and wind power. Although the farm already has its own well and septic system, Smith says he has a vision for greener pastures, perhaps with a bigger greenhouse: “It’s something I’m definitely interested in.”

You quickly get the sense that he’s the type to make things happen. When he first bought the property, it was in such bad condition that arborists quoted him $50,000 to clean out the overgrowth and rot. But Smith said no, and instead bought some chainsaws, chopped a bunch of wood and started cleaning up the land until it looked the way he wanted it to. “And if I have a question, honestly, I just Google or YouTube it,” he notes matter-of-factly.

To be fair, sometimes he does bite off more than he can chew. One year, Smith tried expanding the range of produce on his farm and ended up with a 600-square-foot garden. “It was crazy,” he recalls. “You’ve got to weed it, pick it, obviously water it. And then you’ve got to deal with all the harvest.” That plan got scrapped real quick, and now he only grows what he wants.

On a day-to-day basis, though, Smith is mostly concerned with feedings and general maintenance on the farm. He enjoys being part of a community that enables him to barter “old school” with his neighbours, maybe trade a little beef for some vegetables. But as it is with most passion projects, some days are harder than others—like when Smith came home one night to a neighbour asking, “Are you missing three cows?”

“Anything could have potentially spooked them,” he explains of the escape. With a broken fence and lost cows to find, Smith spent the next five hours tracking and herding them back.

Ultimately, he says, his love for the farm is tied to his mental health. Whether he’s mowing the lawn or fixing fences, his favourite part is getting lost in the work at hand. “I don’t really care if it’s snowing or raining; I just put on the right coat and gloves and I go outside,” says Smith. “I don’t have to think about all the other stuff that goes with the business side of things.”

Warrior Spotlight

Fitness World has 700 employees and 16 gyms across B.C. Fifteen of those are in the “HVLP category,” according to its president and CEO, Chris Smith, which means “high value, low price.” Smith remembers seeing his own body change through exercise and conditioning as a young adult, and he started his career in the fitness industry as a personal trainer himself. “I never set out to be a CEO, I never set out to own a company, I just wanted to help people,” he says. “And I still think about it that way today. It’s just on a different scale, from a different position, on a different chair.”