Tony Vassallo is one of Harvey Brooker’s notable success stories.
When he walked in the door at Brooker’s North York offices in June 2010, he weighed in at a hefty 290 pounds. Today, he looks fit and lean and closer to 172 pounds. “I lost more than 120 pounds in 13 months and I’ve kept it off for a couple of years,” he said.
That’s just the kind of endorsement that’s music to your ears if you’re in the weight loss business. And Harvey Brooker, the guy behind the Harvey Brooker’s 20/20 Weight Loss Program for Men, has been in business for more than 25 years.
Vassallo attributes his weight loss to the advice, support and camaraderie he received as a member of the program. Today, he’s a part-time employee of the program, passing along his experiences and motivating other overweight men to begin shedding excess pounds, enhancing their health and boosting their self-esteem.
Like others who preceded him into the program, Vassallo had his photo taken as a fat man. A wall in the offices features profile photos of “before” shots that resemble a police mug shot, only it’s the protruding guts of the incoming members that stand out, not their faces.
At the centre of the offices is a meeting room with dozens of chairs facing a slightly raised dais and whiteboard. It’s there that Brooker and staff like Vassallo address members in a manner that’s been compared to a revivalist meeting.
Brooker doesn’t dispute that characterization. In fact, he said, “I get guys walking out of here saying, ‘Thanks rabbi.’”
As much as he preaches healthy eating and good choices, he also pitches motivation and enthusiasm, rules to live by, and even what to shop for. Tony Robbins, meet the Iron Chef.
“Our philosophy here is all about motivation,” Brooker said. “Guys come here to lose weight, but they get motivated and enthusiastic.”
In that respect, the company he and his wife, Helen, founded reflects his own personality and history.
At 22, Brooker, who on his toes is barely five foot seven, weighed 212 pounds. Today his weight fluctuates between 155 and 159. He’s another living testament to the power of will and good eating.
But according to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, 60 per cent of Canadian adults are overweight or obese. That’s a huge market for weight loss programs.
Brooker said he focused on the male market because men were largely underserved by the weight loss industry. Women dominate the sessions in other programs. They talk about cooking, their periods, maternity, “information that was unique to women,” he said.
“Guys don’t want to hear that stuff. I have guys who’ve been to [other programs]. They tell me, ‘Thank God I found you, so I don’t have to listen to someone who lost three pounds to get into a dress to walk at a wedding,’” Brooker said.
“My forte is, I’m a guy’s guy. I love working with men.”
When it comes to weight and health issues, men are quite different than women, he continued. “Men don’t understand food, health. They don’t look after their body until they get threatened… Seventy per cent of men who finally get here because they’re scared.”
During the slow summer months, about 200 members attend one of three sessions each week. In the winter, that number grows to 260 to 270 members per week.
Participants can purchase six-, nine- or 12-month memberships. The fee for a six-month membership is $2,000.
The cornerstone of the program is the Sunday morning session, which Brooker’s been running for 26 years. In recent years, he’s added others on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, and in September, he plans to add another meeting on Tuesday mornings.
Brooker, who is self taught when it comes to health issues and motivational speaking, based his program on his own experience in the weight loss business.
As a young man in his 20s, he worked as a news and sports broadcaster. Badly overweight, he attended a Weight Watchers class.
“I was enthralled with losing weight myself and I wanted to work with other people.”
He found a U.S. program he thought would suit the Canadian market, called the Diet Workshop.
To raise the $5,000 franchise fee, he and Helen took out a third mortgage on their house. At first, the business was successful and expanded rapidly. But over the years he found himself in repeated conflict with head office over a number of issues.
After about 10 years, “they disenfranchised me,” he said.
In 1985, he and Helen opened The Diet Weigh. They had thought they would retain many of the clients they’d had previously, “but we lost the brand loyalty. The ship started to sink rather quickly. It was a tsunami effect.”
They soon found themselves closing outlets, cutting back, but it was not enough. In the end, they had to make a big sacrifice.
“We walked away from our beautiful home in 1992, the home I brought my children up in and we found ourselves living in a rented townhouse… People say, ‘You’ve got a really great life Mr. Brooker,’ but I’ve paid my dues,” he said.
At the time, he still had “the remnant” of his earlier business, a small group of mostly Jewish guys who met on Sunday mornings in rented premises at Bathurst Street and York Downs Drive in Toronto.
“My thinking was, if I did the job properly and if they lost weight like I had, they’d bring their friends. But it didn’t happen.”
Weight loss businesses are “non-referable,” he said, “That’s why organizations have to keep advertising,” he said.
“It’s hard-fought. I have to spend so much money to bring in every man who comes in here.”
Once they’re in the door, a group dynamic takes hold. Vassallo believes the program appeals to men, because “most important was being in a group of other guys. I just felt like I was part of a team.
“Part of it is the believing part. A lot of us tried to lose weight before. When you fail, you say you can’t achieve your goal of weight loss. When you’re in a room and see guys losing weight, you believe.”
Abstinence is an important concept at the program, Vassallo said. For him, it meant giving up sweets, cold turkey.
“I tell people not to reduce, but to abstain. In the long run, that’s the only way people can sustain their weight,” Brooker said.
Brooker believes he’s hit on a winning formula in the men’s weight loss space. He’s received calls from the United States asking about his business and he’s planning to introduce new elements, such as a “webinar,” to reach members.
“There’s nothing like what we do anywhere,” he said.