How to Bid Farewell to Microsoft

Brent Zempel wasn’t sure when or how it happened.

But as CIO of Life Time Fitness, he had to untangle the $225-million-a-year health club and food retailer from the comfortable constriction of Microsoft’s Web-based software, in favor of a more flexible technology that would evolve with—rather than define—his company.

“Basically, we reached a critical point when Microsoft terminated support for what they held out as their platform for Web applications,” Zempel said. “When that happened, it made us pause and really think about where we were going. It was clear that we’d become too tied to Microsoft.”

Every aspect of the company’s collection, ordering and scheduling processes were controlled through Microsoft’s Internet Information Server running on the Windows NT operating system. Using Active Server Pages and the Visual Basic programming language, the company wasn’t able to write specific applications it needed to service its accounts back in the Internet-crazed days of late 1999.

If a customer at one of its 26 locations across the country wanted to schedule a massage online, Life Time Fitness couldn’t accommodate them because a “quick and dirty” solution created in Visual Basic didn’t leave any room to allow for each and every service the company might want to offer its customers.

With customization difficult, there was no way Life Time could market a specific service to individual members who might prefer one masseuse to another or wanted to arrange for a personal trainer or even to do something as mundane as check a monthly statement.

As the company began to sell its products to health food stores and earthy eateries, the information technology department realized that Microsoft’s Web applications weren’t flexible enough to provide the day-to-day interaction Life Time needed to attract new customers and maintain the ones it already had.

Collecting monthly dues took several days to a week, stifling Life Time’s cash flow and bringing on what Zempel called “accounting nightmares.” Getting an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the company’s financial health was out of the question. Executives couldn’t get answers—say the number of members using a babysitting service in a given month—because the Web applications couldn’t cull the right information from legacy databases.

And getting answers from Microsoft proved difficult. As Baseline went to press, the software company was even having difficulty identifying an account representative assigned to Life Time.

After years of running all the company’s applications on a Unix server and Microsoft software, Life Time Fitness and its 4,000 employees had outgrown the standardization that originally had been the most alluring aspect of Microsoft’s products, in Zempel’s estimation.

“We had always been a Microsoft shop,” Zempel said. “But it’s a one-way street. We were told from on high what will and won’t be supported and had to adjust our business accordingly. It’s no way to run your business.”

Along with building on the point-of-sale system employed at its health spas and vitamin outlets, Life Time Fitness wanted to communicate electronically with its growing stable of health-food cafes and restaurants and continue collecting monthly dues from thousands of clients each month, something that had become far too complicated and superficial using Windows.

It was time to break what Zempel felt was an unhealthy dependence on one vendor.

After window shopping and consulting with other retailers, Life Time Fitness switched to Sun Microsystems and its J2EE middleware to develop its business applications. The idea was to start from scratch on a more open architecture that could accommodate additional business units, personalized scheduling, targeted marketing plans and, most important, bill and collect dues from members in a timely fashion.

“We gave up our comfort zone of not having to think about our options with Microsoft,” said Wesley Bertch, Life Time Fitness’ director of software services. “With Microsoft, all these decisions are made for you. We were accustomed to not making decisions.” Microsoft officials were unavailable to comment on Life Time Fitness or to identify the company’s former sales representative.

Unlike most other CIOs, Zempel didn’t bother to show his boss the return on investment that such a massive change would bring. He just did it and dealt with the ramifications later.

“I told my boss, the CFO, about four months into the transition and he almost killed me,” he said. “I figured it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission. By that point, we were already seeing the benefits of this move but if it hadn’t worked out, I would have lost my job. No question about it.”

Now Life Time is able to access an up-to-the-second snapshot of all its customers, billing information and orders, but it can also develop the type of novelty software pieces it needs to cater its marketing endeavors.

The collection of monthly dues is now completed in a matter of hours rather than days, improving the company’s cash flow and eliminating many of the complaints it used to hear from customers.

One of the first decisions Life Time made was to get all its members photographed and entered into a database that worked in every location around the country. A simple swipe of a 5″ x 7″ card identifies the member, shows his or her preferences, purchasing habits and pops up a picture of the member so the check-in process is reduced to mere seconds.

Escaping from Microsoft and adopting Java brought challenges. The technical staff had to be retrained to program and debug Java applications. Employees from the CEO down to the rookie sales associate had to be able to sit down at any counter at any health club location and know how to operate the sales desk.

Zempel said the only real cost of making this transition was the retraining of its internal IT staff and the use of outside consultants. He pegged the costs as somewhere between “$10,000 and $20,000.” The additional hardware and software costs were a wash because he would have spent the same to install and maintain Microsoft’s offerings.

“We’ve got 16-year-olds that work our desks,” Zempel said. “They are the face to our customer. We had to give them something easy to learn, with a simple user interface. It had to work for the 16-year-olds and for the backend business processes.”