“Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t are both right.” Henry Ford
Mr. Gerry Hargitai is a recognized business leader, investor, athlete, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and advocate of a healthy, active lifestyle. In the 1970’s, he broke the constraints of the iron curtain and risking his life in the process, immigrated into the United States and Canada, where he reached freedom and learned about business.
Gerry Hargitai has played a prominent role in a wide array of industries worldwide including food and nutritional supplement industry, sport supplements industry, medical technology, health service industry and motorsport industry.
He is the founder and charismatic leader of CaliVita® International, a leading nutritional supplement and vitamin company, present in over 30 countries worldwide. Over the years, Gerry has helped many people improve their lives, and achieve their goals and dreams through perseverance and positive attitude.
Gerry Hargitai is a dedicated athlete and a passionate promoter of fitness and healthy lifestyle. He has successfully competed in many different sports like judo, boxing, kayak, moto-cross, karting and he was also the founder and president of the International Fitness Federation® (IFF).
Gerry Hargitai is an active member of his community and has created community-supporting programs such as the corporate blood donor program, as well providing products and services to those in need. Despite his many business commitments, Gerry still finds time to be a dedicated and loving husband and father. Happily married for 15 years, he and his wife are the proud parents of two girls and a boy.
Gerry Hargitai is the founder and charismatic leader of CaliVita® International, a leading nutritional supplement and vitamin company, providing high quality food and sport supplement all around the world. Present globaly in over 30 countries CaliVita produces and distributes top-of-the-line products in the health and vitality sector.
In addition to pioneering vitamin and health equipment distribution in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, California Fitness also helped people recognize the importance of healthy lifestyle. In order to achieve that goal Gerry created a team of several thousand highly qualified doctors and launched a region-wide educational campaign teaching the methods and techniques of health preservation, and in the process changing the long-term attitude to health in the region.
The educational process and training are continuing to this day and have grown into full-feature seminars and conferences, featuring free medical consultations and introducing the latest diagnostics techniques (live cell blood analysis, bio-resonance examinations, etc.) aimed at maintaining health-consciousness and awareness.
His ability to motivate people enabled him to build a network of businesses and to help others do the same by sharing the know-how, providing guidance and requiring no starting capital.
In the process, he created jobs, and insured a healthier and wealthier future for hundreds of thousands of people. Since California Fitness’s (later CaliVita) conception in 1991, Gerry Hargitai has managed to build a business that grew to an internatinoal network of over a million members and growing.
Gerry Hargitai’s skills as a motivator and speaker have been recognized across various industry sectors worldwide. For over 30 years he has been instrumental in motivating and inspiring people to think big, and to effect positive changes in their lives through positive mental atitude. With the strong conviction that positive change must happen in the mind first, before it can manifest in outward circumstances, Mr. Gerry Hargitai has always placed a strong premium on human relations and personal development and growth.CaliVita International
A healthy lifestyle and regular excercise are not only Gerry Hargitai’s profession, but also his passion. He has been organizing and promoting international fitness competitions for fully two decades.
International Fitness FederationStep to a higher level
Gerry Hargitai has founded and presided over the International Fitness Federation® (IFF), for over ten years. Furthermore, he was the driving force and inspiration behind many successful brands such as FitnessWoman®, FitnessMan® and Fit Kid® and was heading these organizations for a number of years. IFF is present in 47 countries and fosters fitness programs for schoolchildren and other Grand Prix fitness competitions, including European Fitness Championship, aimed at helping improve fitness.
Gerry Hargitai has had a life-long dedication to sport. As a young man, he was a competitive sportsman in many different types of sports including, judo, boxing, kayaking, moto-cross racing and karting in which he is still an active and very successful driver.
With 11 Hungarian Karting Championship titles under his belt, and over 60 first place finishes in international competitions, Gerry Hargitai is considered one of the most experienced drivers, and continues to rank highly in both local and worldwide competitions.
The Hargitai Racing team has has scooped 22 Championship titles, 5 team Championship titles and dozens of international podium appearances over the past 10 years.
He has inspired generations of younger carting enthusiasts to seek challenges and to use the sport as a springboard for a competitive edge in life.
Gerry Hargitai takes the ‘responsible’ entrepreneurship seriously and has created company programs that support the community. He has developed a corporate blood donor program and he provides free medical consultations and company products to nonprofit organizations serving people in need.
The CaliVita International Blood Donation Drive (2007) was the largest INTERNATIONAL effort in the world to raise awareness and importance of giving blood and helping others in the past five years. An effort embraced 15 European countries and counted 20000 simultaneous blood donors.
Craig Hall: Responsible Enterpreneur
Chapter 5th.(2001. Carrier Press Inc.)
Paradise is seven kinds of bread
When Gerry Hargitai was 18 years old, he was desperate to leave communist Hungary and see what was out there in the rest of the world. While visiting nearby Yugoslavia, and risking his life in the process, he sped through the heavily guarded border crossing
between Yugoslavia and Austria on a small, borrowed motorcycle. Through luck, timing, and who knows what else, the guards did not shoot.
After reaching freedom, he eventually made his way to Canada and the United States and learned about business. With the fall of Communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe, he made what some might consider an odd choice. He chose to go back to Hungary and start a business there to teach business skills to the Hungarian people. After a misstep with his first idea, he founded California Fitness, a multilevel marketing company selling vitamins and nutritional supplements. Financial problems almost shut him down several times. Also, the Hungarian drug companies, owned by former Communist bosses, did everything they could to drive him out of business. Day by day, he managed to stay in business and now the company is thriving with well more than 160,000 independent distributors in more than 30 countries.
An endless drizzle of rain slicked the road as 18-year-old Gerry Hargitai approached the Yugoslavian-Austrian border. His cold hands gripped the handlebars of the 125cc East German motorcycle he’d borrowed from a cousin, and he shivered. He wondered if the Yugoslavian border guard would take aim with his machine gun. A stream of deadly bullets would have ended the dream that he had nurtured over the months he had planned his flight from Communist Hungary.
Gerry’s desperate escape from Hungary was more than 20 years ago, but his voice still trembles with emotion as he recounts his experience.
“I couldn’t turn back. I was too scared, and, if they saw me, a young guy with Hungarian plates, I would have been in great trouble. My passport didn’t allow me to travel so far into the Austrian border area, so, when I finally got there, I knew that I had to try. If I didn’t, I would go to jail. My only choice was to keep going.”
Gerry remembers how his body tensed and sweat mixed with rain as he focused on maneuvering the little motorcycle past the guards and through the slightly open barrier. He had only the clothes he was wearing, a false passport, and the equivalent of about $100 in deutsche marks in his pocket. As he approached the first border gate on his borrowed motorcycle, he saw guards talking with the driver of a car they had stopped. Farther on, he glimpsed the second border gate: It was open. Revving the engine, Gerry sent the small bike speeding through the gates that separated Yugoslavia from Austria. He got past the guards by going as fast as the motorcycle could, and by being willing to risk getting shot in the process.
Gerry’s uncles and aunt had emigrated during the Hungarian rebellion against Communism. Soon after, the Soviet army effectively closed Hungary’s borders. One of Gerry’s uncles, John Czinege, now a successful Canadian businessman, was only 16 years old when he left Hungary. While Gerry had only heard about him from his mother, who spoke proudly of her brother, this unknown uncle was an important role model to him. He had been a freedom fighter during the 1956 revolution, responsible for dropping Molotov cocktails into the Soviet tanks from a city bridge. When it was clear that the Soviets could not be overthrown and would retaliate against the rebels, Gerry’s young uncle joined thousands of others who escaped before the Iron Curtain firmly closed. A little more than 20 years later, Gerry followed.
“I was very scared. Scared of the different languages, leaving home, scared of the border guards. I can still feel it today, riding through the gates and wondering if I would get bullets in my back...but the Yugoslavian guard did not shoot.”
Gerry left his home and family behind, risking his life to cross that border. When I asked him why he left, I expected that he had great plans for his future, or a philosophical pearl of wisdom to share. But he said, “I heard that in Sweden there were seven different types of bread, and in Hungary there were only two. I wondered, was it chocolate, vanilla? How do they make it? I wanted to see it. I had no plans for the future in terms of jobs.”
He wanted to know what other kinds of bread there were in the world! This was the amazing motivator for an 18-year-old. When Gerry and I discussed it, we both laughed. It was hardly what I thought would motivate someone to risk his life, but, in a way, it’s exactly what freedom is all about. Being able to freely explore the world, including finding out about little things like different kinds of bread, should not be restricted.
In addition to learning about the world’s breads, Gerry had other plans.
“I thought I was going to become a world champion in motorcross racing! I knew that I would never have enough money to buy a Western motorcycle. Ever since I was a child I wanted one. I thought that if I go to the West, I would be able to buy a motorcycle and become the world champion.”
Gerry had no intention of ever returning to Hungary, telling only his mother of his plan to escape to Austria via Yugoslavia. She had been a saleswoman and Gerry’s role model for his own youthful entrepreneurial activities.
“One of the things that helped me leave,” Gerry remembers, “was that my mother’s two brothers and a sister had left Hungary in 1956 and emigrated to Canada. So at least my mother knew that the stories we heard about America were not true—about there being no medical coverage and people having no jobs. That is what the propaganda was telling us.”
The Reluctant Storyteller
When I first met Gerry Hargitai, I liked him instantly. He is a quiet, soft-spoken, straight-talking man. He is hard working and should be an inspiration to any young Hungarian entrepreneur. We are separated by age, upbringing, and nationality. But we share a feeling of mutual understanding and common ground. We are both entrepreneurs, but, more importantly, we share a belief in the ideals of responsible entrepreneurism, though Gerry had never thought of it with that terminology. He innately believed you could be an entrepreneur doing well for yourself while doing good for others. Meeting Gerry and hearing his remarkable story also confirmed my belief that there is what I call a “hidden entrepreneur” in many people—people like Gerry—regardless of where they are born. Despite the suppressive history, there are many entrepreneursin-waiting throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Some are in full bloom; others are dormant and untapped. Some people become entrepreneurs in spite of difficult environments. But we will never know how many additional productive entrepreneurs there could be if the environment were more encouraging.
Gerry is a hard-driving entrepreneur who, like any of us, takes pride in his accomplishments. Yet he is very reluctant to talk about his success. Like most successful entrepreneurs in former Communist countries, he keeps a low profile. It took some coaxing for him to share his story for this book. When he finally agreed, he said, “Craig, I’ll do it for you. This
is an important story for people in this part of the world. I want them to know, if they follow their dreams they can succeed like I did.”
Gerry hopes that by learning about him, Westerners will understand the struggles to make legitimate businesses work in these countries. More importantly, he wants to inspire other Central and Eastern Europeans to follow their entrepreneurial aspirations. Many successful, responsible entrepreneurs he knows do their best to camouflage their success. They fear both organized crime and the resentment of masses of people who are still struggling to find their place in the new and frightening world that replaced Communism.
It has been enlightening for me to meet people like Gerry. He helped me understand that years of Communism created a society in which a few powerful bureaucrats lived a pampered, isolated existence, surrounded by luxury items, but with food unavailable to the ordinary citizen. Immediately following the fall of the Communist governments, corrupt politicians and even organized criminals moved into the void, creating lives of incredible richness for themselves at the expense of working people. It’s no wonder that ordinary people, even in Hungary, which has done far better at transitioning than most other former Communist countries, can’t imagine a life of wealth without assuming that it was created through unethical use of power or criminal activity. Sadly, there are not enough well-known, truly positive role models like Gerry. Yet, with people like Gerry who are willing to come forward, perhaps we will see some real, positive role models for future entrepreneurs, one entrepreneur at a time.
Yugoslavia Was “Economically Successful” Communism
Gerry grew up in Hungary, a Soviet satellite country with a state-controlled economy. Many consumer products we take for granted, they simply did not have. One of six children, Gerry enjoyed bananas as a treat only when an uncle came to visit from neighboring Yugoslavia, a country that in those days he describes as being far more modern than his homeland. Christmas brought relatives from Yugoslavia bearing gifts of chocolate and oranges. These luxuries were totally unavailable in Hungary. Looking at Yugoslavia today, it is hard for me to see that other Communist countries once regarded it as so much more advanced. Yet
in Gerry’s Hungarian youth, Yugoslavia was the rich neighbor. What we in the West might regard as small differences, such as the availability of fresh fruit or chocolate, meant the world to those across the borders in the Communist-ruled 1970s.
Gerry lived near what was then the Yugoslav border. He was fortunate to obtain a travel permit allowing him to cross into Yugoslavia. This meant that he could make a little extra money by being entrepreneurial, even before he had ever heard the word entrepreneur.
“I used to go to Yugoslavia 20 years ago to buy jeans and other easily transportable consumer products,” Gerry remembers. “I bought jeans and Persil, a laundry detergent. I’d bring them back to Hungary and sell them.”
Gerry’s early entrepreneurial ventures were a natural response to his desire to make some extra money. I identified with these efforts, which were similar to my childhood Greenrivers stand and numerous other ventures. The difference between Gerry’s story and mine is that in America, entrepreneurial creativity is not only legal but also encouraged. People want to support the enterprising young American child with a lemonade stand. Gerry, on the other hand, had to be a part of the underground economy that was not government approved but developed nonetheless as a way to trade scarce goods.
Not Quite There—The Life of a Refugee
After his escape in 1978, Gerry first lived in a refugee camp in the countryside outside of Vienna. He was processed and then given “official refugee status,” which enabled him to leave the camp and look for work. Gerry has told me many times that life in the refugee camp was frightening and dangerous. He remembers that he didn’t want to stay in the camp.
“It wasn’t a stable situation. That year, there was a really big riot and a number of people died fighting in the camp. There were Molotov cocktails thrown. If people didn’t like you, they would pick you up and throw you out the window.” One of Gerry’s roommates was killed when struck by a broken bottle in a fight in their room. Gerry decided he had to get out of the refugee camp.
Around parts of Vienna, there are small family-owned vineyards and wineries that have been passed down through the generations. They survive only through the labor of all family members, and the few non-family members willing to work for the low wages these small wine farms can pay. Eugene Kelemer owned one of these farms and offered Gerry his first opportunity. Gerry was happy to get a job on the farm. He left the refugee camp as quickly as possible, moving to Vienna and sharing an apartment with friends. Mr. Kelemer not only gave Gerry a job, but he treated him as an equal, not as a refugee. In fact, to this day, Gerry and Eugene Kelemer, who lives in Vienna, remain good friends.
When he called his mother to tell her about the job, she was sure her young son was lying about his salary. She also could not understand why people would be as nice as Gerry described. He told her that he earned 15,000 shillings in about five weeks. She did not believe him. This was 20 times the average monthly wage in Hungary.
Once he was able to converse in German, Gerry quickly found an even better job. He became an assembly line worker at a Grundig television manufacturing plant, a job he held until he left Austria. His position was so financially lucrative he did not even bother to try to convince his mother about his new salary, though whenever possible he would have those he knew who were going to Hungary smuggle some money back to his family. Over time, he even saved enough money to buy his cousin a new and better motorcycle than the one he had “borrowed” to make his escape.
Gerry’s official refugee status enabled him to travel freely in Austria and other Western European countries. This was an experience he was never allowed in Hungary. During his first August at Grundig, he learned that European workers were entitled to a paid holiday. Every August they actually got one month of paid vacation time. Gerry went to Italy.
“It was like nothing I had ever experienced before,” he says. “They gave you a month’s wages and sent you off on a holiday. So I went to Venice to see the ocean for the first time, and that was an experience. We slept in the car because we didn’t have enough money to rent a hotel room. Nevertheless, it was a great time.”
As Gerry spent more time in Austria, he began to long for even greater freedom. The Austrian system was too regimented and familiar, not the place he wanted to settle. Always mindful of the uncle he had never met, Gerry decided to emigrate to Canada. He went to live with his uncle in British Columbia in a small fishing village, 100 miles from the Alaskan border. With family help, Gerry adjusted to Canada well. As a political refugee with family sponsors, he applied for citizenship and quickly and proudly became a Canadian citizen.
Welcome to North America, Land of Opportunity
Gerry worked at a variety of jobs in Canada. At the same time, he listened to every motivational tape he could find. He also worked hard at perfecting his English and decided to move to the United States. He had always heard that that was where the action was. He was getting himself ready for a bigger future.
A Canadian passport meant free access to the United States. And, with his Canadian passport, he went back to Hungary in 1984 to visit his family. By the mid-1980s, life in Hungary was getting a bit freer. It was great to visit, but he was happy to leave Hungary again. A few years later, when it was clear that the political situation had improved, Gerry began thinking about business opportunities for Hungary. By then, Gerry was living in Los Angeles. He had become deeply immersed in sports fitness and training. He became a sales representative for a health product from his sports club, and he watched with great interest as the political situation changed in Eastern Europe. Day after day in 1988 and 1989, Gerry and a friend, a fellow Hungarian refugee, brainstormed at a beachside table in Los Angeles to create a business they could one day take to Budapest.
Thinking about what those changes would mean for him and his country of birth, he had an inspiration: There were no coin laundries in Hungary. He also realized that there was no one in Hungary selling health products like those he represented in Southern California. After a decade away, he wanted to return to Hungary and pursue his entrepreneurial ideas. He also felt passionately that he could help others to improve their lives without having to leave their homes behind as he did.
Gerry and his Hungarian friend, George Szabo, drew up a business plan to build American-style launderettes and put them in large apartment buildings in Budapest. He shared his business plan with an acquaintance, John Ritch, who was the senior staff member for the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a successful real estate entrepreneur in Washington, D.C. John was intrigued by the idea and financed the venture to get the laundry business started. They were sure the business would be a hit.
Gerry returned to Budapest in May 1991, installed coin-operated washers and dryers in apartment buildings in Budapest, and waited for business to boom. To his chagrin, he found that most Hungarians wouldn’t pay to use the modern laundry machines. They preferred their old machines and the traditional hand-washing methods.
As is often the case in entrepreneurial activities, things did not go as planned. For Gerry, as the laundry business was failing, a sideline activity caught fire. Gerry had begun a business on the side selling vitamins and fitness products. He had brought 96 bottles of vitamins with him from California and went door to door to gyms in Budapest to sell them. At that time, vitamins were virtually nonexistent in Hungary. Gerry’s efforts were met with overwhelming response. Within six months, he had more than 100 customers. The fact that his vitamins were American made them a great hit.
Despite lots of effort, the laundromat business simply didn’t work. Gerry came to realize that getting people to change from using simple, nonautomatic washing machines to his new ones would be a long-term process. His coin laundry business was doomed. With entrepreneurial resilience, he decided to focus on his growing health products business. Gerry started a vitamin sales multilevel marketing club and hired an assistant. He began to think big.
California Fitness Begins
Gerry’s business plan was simple. He would import name brand vitamins from the United States, mark them up, and sell them through a network of friends, who would receive commissions. Based on recruiting additional friends to join the sales network, they would receive a higher
level of commissions. The business grows through an ever-larger network of friends and family. The multilevel strategy was perfect for the widely connected, family-oriented society in Hungary. But, unfortunately, Gerry’s Hungarian partner unexpectedly died soon after the company’s formation. His partner was in the process of raising a $35,000 loan for the business. With his death, the loan efforts fell apart. Gerry had lost a business partner and needed funding.
Without the loan, the business Gerry had named California Fitness did not have the cash flow to purchase needed inventory. Even worse, sales were booming! Gerry sent urgent telegrams to John Ritch pleading for cash to purchase the vitamins for his growing network. He was actually worried that his customers would beat him up if he didn’t deliver soon. Now he needed not the $35,000 his partner was to invest, but, instead, $300,000 to buy inventory and fill the orders he had in hand. Fortunately, as Gerry says today, “just in the nick of time” John Ritch came through and loaned Gerry $300,000.
Gerry wanted both to sell vitamins and to help family, friends, and others in the region who “didn’t know what it was like to be entrepreneurial, have their own business, or pursue a dream.” He was trying to create a business and help as many people as he could along the way. It became clear, very quickly, that a multilevel marketing concept with good products, like health supplements and vitamins from the United States, and a system that encouraged individual involvement, would work well in the former Communist countries. It was a perfect tool to help people learn about individual rewards for productive efforts. Gerry would encourage participants to become their own boss with a very small investment. In the process, they would learn the benefits of free markets.
“In addition to the very low start-up costs, typically $10, people had a chance to learn entrepreneurship from their sponsor [the person who brought them to the network] and company-run training seminars,” Gerry explains. “It’s practically for free, which is important to people with no capital to invest. More importantly, as naive as it may sound, California Fitness was started based on family values. The first members were my mother and brothers, relatives and friends. Now we all get ahead by helping each other to succeed. One of our mottoes is: You cannot be successful until you make others successful.”
Gerry’s vision is reflected by successful multilevel companies in the United States like Mary Kay, Avon, Amway, and more recently, Excel Communications.
“When my mom asked me how to go out and sell the products, I told her go see the people you love and tell them what you feel about using our products. She went to her friends, got eight people involved, who in turn got more people involved. She ended up with 4,000 members. That is really how the first people approached our business and how it has spread to the other countries,” Gerry said. “I’d like to tell you we are such smart people or have some special way or knowledge, but the truth is, most of our members care more about helping people than about the business itself. Of course, it does not hurt if they make good money by helping other people, across borders and cultures, to live a healthier, more balanced life. My experience is that people like to help others. We’ve created the right environment, and most of our people are living the responsible entrepreneur’s life.”
California Fitness officially started business in 1991, but the network with members started February 1993. On its first day, it acquired 10 new members. On the second day, it added another 60. By the end of the first month of operation, the California Fitness network had 3,000 members. Membership tripled by the end of the second month, and, one year later, California Fitness claimed more than 100,000 members—approximately
1 percent of Hungary’s total population! Clearly, there were a lot of people ready to buy into the entrepreneurial life Gerry espoused.
“I noticed that people wanted to belong to something, something that gives them the sense of a club with other types of people who think like they think,” Gerry says. “They want to belong to something that is worthwhile, and, of course, the need for money is a big reason to join California Fitness. People were coming because they wanted to live a happy lifestyle, have the promise of a better life, and a better financial future.”
The Establishment versus the Entrepreneur
It wasn’t long before California Fitness network’s success was all too apparent to the large formerly state-owned Hungarian drug companies. It prompted a vigorous response by some of them, who felt the
best way to compete with Gerry was to put him out of business any way necessary. Controlled by former Communist bosses, the drug companies engaged in derogatory attacks, maligning California Fitness network products in television, radio, and print advertising. They said that the American vitamins were injurious to consumers and would cause birth defects in children. Gerry’s company was slandered by one dirty trick after another. With truth on his side, he hung in and fought each incident of lies with factual counterstatements.
Gerry’s troubles continued when suspect “consumer protection” inspectors attempted to seize and shutdown the 35 California Fitness warehouses over a period of a few days.
Gerry knew that once the warehouses were sealed, it would take him months of court action before they were operative again. His brother, on the advice of one of the company lawyers, recruited 20 rather large new employees and they physically resisted the inspectors by linking arms and barricading the doors to the largest warehouse. Finally the inspectors left, vowing they would be back in force in the morning. That night, Gerry’s staff removed $1 million worth of vitamin inventory by ferrying it away in car trunks. For many months afterward, the vitamins were actually sold from car trunks. From then on, for a number of months, all new inventory coming into the country was hidden. The warehouse was a series of cars. Entrepreneurs always find creative solutions to what seems impossible, even under the pervasive bureaucratic corruption in Hungary in the early 1990s.
Over a two-year period, California Fitness and its wide network of members gained public acceptance and respectability. Finally, as the business and political environment improved in Hungary, the Hungarian government left them alone, and the business became visible and mainstream again. The company expanded throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and then into the European Union. Gerry’s charismatic leadership and faith in individual entrepreneurship has inspired literally tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans to join his company. It is the number one multilevel marketing company in most of the countries in which it operates, with both a direct sales force and a growing number of retail stores.
Serbian People Are Entrepreneurial!
One of California Fitness network’s most successful countries prior to the Kosovo NATO bombings was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which is made up of Serbia and Montenegro. To my surprise, Gerry explained that the Serbians were extremely entrepreneurial people and were an important part of California Fitness. I was amazed when he showed me a videotape of a Yugoslavian California Fitness network meeting held in Belgrade in the fall of 1997. The 3,500-seat convention center was almost full. People cheered boisterously as various sales representatives were honored for their performance. To me, it was like watching a revival meeting, yet Gerry himself is soft-spoken and modest, unlike the stereotypical revival minister.
Gerry gave a 45-minute impromptu speech, striding back and forth across the stage, and then down into the audience. I asked him later how he prepared for his speeches.
“I know where I want to start and where I want to finish,” he said, “and then I just say what I really believe.”
Speaking from his heart that day, Gerry focused on the idea of “The Dream,” emphasizing again and again, “All the things I have achieved started with only a dream.” He continued in softly accented English, “Take my advice. Select your dream today, now, set your goals. Do something for them, and you will achieve them.” As he walked through the crowd, Gerry made clear, “There is no difference between you and me.” Men and women, dressed in business suits and sweat suits alike rose to clasp Gerry’s hand. He told them about his escape from Hungary, describing his fear as he crossed the Yugoslavian border on that little motorcycle. Then he added emphatically, “You can make it from nothing.”
Gerry is living proof that there have been tremendous successes in Central and Eastern Europe, even during the difficult first 10 years of transition from Communism. I was amazed watching the video at how captivated the Serbian people were with Gerry’s message. He wove an international theme of success and hope that transcended the political quarrels going on outside the Belgrade auditorium into a belief system for the participants.
It is ironic that less than two years after such an exciting high point in Belgrade, Gerry’s Serbian network faced virtual ruin as a result of
the NATO bombings related to the war in Kosovo. Serbia had been one of California Fitness network’s biggest markets. It will take years to recover. Yet the Serbians have remained among California Fitness’ most loyal members, selling vitamins while a war raged in their country. Serbian California Fitness members were more interested in their growing business than in fighting against their neighbors.
The Kosovo War Hits California Fitness
Gerry struggled with enormous problems that the war in Kosovo created for his company: the slowdown in the economy and subsequent reduction in disposable income, the fear of his 40,000 members to leave their homes to sell the product, and the impossibility of importing the vitamins they needed to fill orders. A major dilemma was the loss of all corporate accounts based on the dinar, the Yugoslavian currency, as well as the freezing of all hard currency accounts. When the banks were closed during the NATO bombing, California Fitness kept operating, but only at a large loss for every day of business. California Fitness bought bicycles for its employees so they could travel to work. It took the “California Fitness” signs off its retail stores, fearing reprisals similar to the vandalizing of the McDonald’s in Belgrade. McDonald’s and possibly other “American” companies were a symbol of America and thus were in danger because Milosevic and his followers were preaching hatred and violent reprisals for NATO action.
In Yugoslavia, dinars could be exchanged for hard currency only by companies that had export sales from Yugoslavia. In his case, Gerry set up a separate business selling Yugoslavian products like raspberries, paintbrushes, and logs to gain access to hard currency exchange. While an unexpected diversification from the vitamin and health product business, this was a creative way to keep California Fitness alive. American entrepreneurs generally do not experience such extensive barriers to operating a business. Untraditional competition, currency crises, unethical and anti-private sector governments, and organized crime can make for a treacherous and unpredictable playing field. These kinds of problems certainly limit the numbers and success of entrepreneurs, but Gerry and many others I have met simply greeted each obstacle with a new solution and kept on going.
Stronger, Larger, “Fitter”: California Fitness Network Expands
In only eight years, California Fitness network has grown from a dream to a multimillion-dollar, multinational company. Gerry Hargitai’s dreams are very big though, and he plans not only to expand the membership base worldwide but also to develop a broad health product line to complement the vitamins. The company has products tailored to individual blood types. Through research and development, it is always looking for improved health supplements. California Fitness is at the forefront of health improvement efforts in Central and Eastern Europe.
Gerry takes the “responsible” part of entrepreneurship seriously and has created company programs that support the community. He has developed a corporate blood donor program, and he provides free company products to nonprofit organizations serving people in need. California Fitness network members receive free medical consultations, the company sponsors the Hungarian Fitness Federation and other national fitness federations in the region, and manages Fit Kid, a fitness program for schoolchildren. He has also created the International Fitness Federation in 47 countries, which fosters programs like Fit Kid, and others aimed at helping improve fitness.
The company-sponsored fitness program for children is part of Gerry’s dream of offering hope to young people. He envisions the program teaching them about physical education and good nutrition, but also instilling in the children the idea that, if they work hard, they can be winners. The last part sounds very much like the American Dream, doesn’t it?
If Gerry has any regrets, it is the schizophrenia that overlays responsible entrepreneurial life in the Central and Eastern Europe region (CEE). He told me that, unlike the United States, which has active groups such as the Young Presidents Organization for successful entrepreneurs, the CEE provides no such support system. In fact, he doesn’t socialize with other entrepreneurs, preferring like most of them to keep a low profile. Despite his concerns for his personal safety and his occasional wistful desire to move to the United States, he continues to travel extensively, selling the California Fitness network. His business has taken him to the Czech Republic, Poland, Yugoslavia, and many other countries. In each, he tells his story, encouraging others to find and reach for their dreams.
Today, California Fitness has approximately 160,000 independent distributors, or members, operating in 32 different countries. The company provides a commission check every month to thousands of people in Central and Eastern Europe alone, with some checks being more than $25,000.
John Ritch, who made Gerry the original loan for California Fitness, went on later to become Ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna. After John retired as an Ambassador in early 2001, Gerry asked John to become Chairman of the Board of California Fitness, and John accepted. To Gerry’s credit, he finds highly qualified people like John who believe in him and in turn makes sure he never lets them down.
Entrepreneurship Triumphs Over Ethnic Prejudice
Much has been made of the ancient ethnic animosity that seems to exist in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe. An argument also could be made that similar, though not as historic, rivalries exist in the United States as well: African Americans versus Hispanic Americans; Chinese American entrepreneurs threatening Korean American grocers; middle-class Caucasian Americans feeling rising pressure from many different minority groups. All of these conflicts have received their share of the media limelight. My own experience has been that when people are working together to create an enterprise, they put aside their differences and work as partners for a common good: an improved economic future. I was pleased to hear Gerry echo some of these same ideas recently. As I see it, his business is the epitome of inclusion.
“In my experience with the California Fitness network, the ethnic divisions are gone when people have an economic future,” Gerry says. “They no longer hate each other. As an example, each year we take the best managers on a week-long trip to a nice place. Last year it was the Canary Islands. Eight nations were represented there. We organized many sports events, and, of course, immediately teams wanted to be formed according to nationality. I said we have to do mixed ones. Most of the players could not talk to each other due to language differences, but during the games they really came to understand and like each other. Those people who played on the same teams have stayed friends.”
Like Gerry, I believe that people are more tolerant when they are not struggling for economic survival. Responsible entrepreneurism is one important way that the West can encourage the people of Central and Eastern Europe to work together to create a viable future for their region. Any regional recovery plan should include a specific goal of creating multinational working teams, which will enable people of different ethnic backgrounds to reach the understanding that California Fitness network members have: By working together they can reach their common, shared goal of economic success. This same concept also applies to neighborhoods in the United States that have been left out of the American Dream.
“Our network is very multinational, and we have done many international seminars. How is it that in our company the Romanians no longer hate the Hungarians, and they invite each other into their homes to stay? Why is it that the Czech people in the California Fitness network do not dislike the Slovaks? Why is it that the Serbs, Hungarians, and other nationals work so well together and help each other in this company? How do you create the feeling of being on the same team? By having them involved in the game of entrepreneurship,” Gerry said.
Gerry is an example of the type of entrepreneur the world needs. He makes a positive difference. He leads, sets a positive example, creates jobs, and shows that responsible entrepreneurism works.
Gerry and I have become good friends and frequently exchange ideas. As an investor in his ventures, I have found him to honor every commitment. I hope to make additional financial investments with Gerry and to be a partner of his forever. He is a man of true integrity who has been good for Hungary and this troubled region of the world.
Craig HallCraig Hall is a recognized entrepreneur, author, civic leader and philanthropist. Formerly Hall was the owner of the Dallas Cowboys and The Hall Financial Group's diversified business interests include real estate ownership, development and management; software application development, vineyards and wineries; and oil and gas. In addition, along with Time, Inc., he participated in growing the US's largest chain of health and sports clubs. Craig Hall has supported a variety of community causes with an emphasis on art, education and entrepreneurship.
Gerry as seen by others
"I have met few people in my life more impressive in their vitality, entrepreneurial energy, and personal integrity than Gerry Hargitai. In building and sustaining the CaliVita empire, Gerry Hargitai has demonstrated true brilliance in his business vision and his rare ability to inspire and lead people from a dozen different national cultures. I regard Gerry as a man of uncommon character, and I am proud to call him a friend. "
John B. Ritch
Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and Director General of the World Nuclear Association
"Mr. Gerry Hargitai is an example of the type of entrepreneur the world needs. He makes a positive difference. he leads, sets a positive example, creates jobs. I have found him to be a man of integrity who honors every commitment."
Businessman, author, civic leader an philanthropist
"We from Central Europe have come a long way. Gerry Hargitai plays an important part."
former Secretary of State, United States of America
"I came to know Gerry Hargitai as a result of my role as an International Kart Race Commentator. I have seen him race many times in both World and European competitions, and commentated over several of his race victories. Subsequently, I got to know him as a person as well as a kart racer. Now I count him as a good friend. He is an articulate but quietly spoken gentleman with good manners and always well dressed. Clearly an intelligent guy, he is pleasant to be with and I always enjoy our conversations. But the gentlemanly off-track ways contrast with his hard racing determination to win once he is out on the circuit. Even after some time away from racing, he returned to the track at Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates for the 2011 World Challenge Grand Finals where he finished a highly creditable 4th place in the Final. That performance confirmed to me that Gerry is still one of the best international kart racers around."
Internationally renowned motorsport commentator
"I met Mr. Gerry Hargitai many years ago, and realized that we had a lot in common. Although our opinions differ at times, our business relationship grew into one of mutual respect and friendship. In Gerry, I discovered a talented businessman, motivator and mentor. Having authored a number of business books, I could easily dedicate an entire volume to what he has taught me."
Businessman, Author, Motivational speaker
"A few years back, Gerry Hargitai was one of my biggest rivals on the karting circuit and we spent a few amazing years racing all over Europe. Over the past decade that I have known him, we became really good mates, and he has given me the energy and inspiration, guidance and encouragement needed to realize my dreams...
Gerry has achieved so much, he is successful, he has a beautiful family and an amazing wealth of knowledge and life experience. What makes him really special however, is that he has a heart of gold. Throughout our friendship Gerry has always been so honest and caring I feel blessed to have met such a great friend."
2006 Rotax DD2 Karting World Champion
"Gerry Hargitai is the quintessential entrepreneur. He leads by example. He is unfailingly positive. He inspires you to try harder and take control and better care of yourself. He has a contagious energy that makes him not only successful in business, but also a joy to know."
Kathryn Walt Hall
vintner, HALL Wines and former US Ambassador to Austria
"Mr. Gerry Hargitai is a visionary leader who has inspired countless entrepreneurs like myself over the years. His passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle and improving people's quality of life has led to a successful business in CaliVita International and staging exciting events like the Fitnesswoman, Fitnessman and FitKid competitions. I am proud to have been a part of his International Fitness Federation events and to have him as a friend and mentor."
Founder and Chairman, Dynaforce International PTE LTD
"Working with Gerry Hargitai since 1991, I have had the honor of learning from him as he grew and developed his business. His honesty, integrity and love of life help motivate everyone around him. He has a unique ability to make people want to be better people and raise their level of success and contribution in creating a better world. "
Richard K, White Jr.
CEO / Sportika Export, Inc.
“Gerry’s vision and wisdom have positively influenced hundreds of thousands of people, including myself and its thanks to him that my life has changed for the better. In Gerry I have gotten to know a highly trustworthy business partner and an incredibly modest man. My respect for him grows every day and I am honored to call him a friend.”
“My wife and I met Gerry Hargitai in the autumn of 1998. We were deeply impressed by his charisma, youthfulness, energy and enthusiasm. From the very beginning, we have felt his sincere wish to help people. This was the very thing that attracted and convinced us to build the CaliVita business. We witnessed first-hand, how many lives have been improved, ours included, thanks to Gerry.”
Alexandrina and Marius Găliceanu
“I met Gerry Hargitai 20 years ago at a lecture about the business opportunity with CaliVita. At that time I was a beginner in network building, but Gerry`s positive aura, goal-oriented speech, confident and resolute stance were so impressive, that I decided to give it a serious try. Five months later, I reached the Palm Manager level. Over the years, I found Gerry to be a true leader with a great personality. His experience, and unique motivational power are a gift to those, who want to achieve prosperity, financial security and independence. ”
“We are delighted to personally know Gerry Hargitai, since you don’t get to meet such a special person every day. Gerry has laid the foundation for many success stories. At the same time, he remained a kind, humble man. He is a living example that proves, that if someone has the proper dedication and vision, they can achieve truly great things. Gerry Hargitai is a true role model, and we all can learn from him.”
“Those who know Gerry, know that despite his fame and fortune, deep down he is still the same good-hearted person. Gerry is friendly, full of positive energy and has a great sense of humor. He is a prudent observer unbound by the limitations of reality.”
Lucyna i Marek Czajkowscy
Entrepreneurs, Motivational speakers