Busi­ness­man Karsten Well­ner shares how fit­ness doesn’t just shape your health, it shapes your out­look

Karsten Well­ner is a suc­cess­ful CEO, ded­i­cated dad – and Iron­man. Chan­nel his am­bi­tion



most pow­er­ful lead­er­ship tool is in his back­pack. As the CEO of the multi­na­tional health and care com­pany As­cendis Health, Karsten firmly be­lieves that good lead­ers lead by ex­am­ple, which means he makes his health and fit­ness a pri­or­ity – no matter where in the world he might be. “Be­ing fit def­i­nitely changes your abil­ity to live your life and do your busi­ness, so you have to make time for it.

“A lot of peo­ple com­plain that they can’t train be­cause they’re trav­el­ling so much, but that’s com­plete rub­bish. Even if you only travel with hand lug­gage, you can put your run­ning shoes in your bag, and train wher­ever you are.” It is this prac­ti­cal, no-non­sense ap­proach that has kept Karsten at the top of his game, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. “At As­cendis we have a slo­gan: ‘Healthy Home, Healthy You’; and as the head of the busi­ness, I have to live that slo­gan and lead by ex­am­ple,” he ex­plains. “Your en­ergy lev­els, your pas­sion, and your phys­i­cal be­ing are all things that in­spire peo­ple to fol­low you as a leader, so be­ing healthy and tak­ing care of your body and mind is very im­por­tant. A healthy work­force that feels stronger and hap­pier is go­ing to work harder, and pro­duce bet­ter re­sults.”

At 57 years old Karsten is a vet­eran of the health­care in­dus­try, hav­ing worked in both Ger­many and Switzer­land be­fore mar­ry­ing a boere­meisie and mov­ing per­ma­nently to South Africa. He sel­dom misses a day of train­ing, and puts most younger ex­ec­u­tives to shame on the track and on the road – and it is this phys­i­cal

edge that he be­lieves makes him a bet­ter busi­ness­man.

“There is no ques­tion that your health af­fects your whole out­look on life. If you feel good about your body and your­self, you feel hap­pier, and you don’t mind go­ing the ex­tra mile at work,” he says. “Know­ing that you’re fit also gives you the men­tal en­durance and phys­i­cal abil­ity to push your­self fur­ther than you would nor­mally. I can think more clearly and I feel younger when my body is healthy.”

Lead­ing by ex­am­ple is cru­cial to gain­ing the re­spect of your col­leagues; but when you work in a health and care com­pany, as Karsten does, it’s non-ne­go­tiable. “You have to walk the talk, no matter what in­dus­try you’re in. In my case, this is es­pe­cially true. If I want my col­leagues to be pas­sion­ate about the work they do and the healthy life­style we be­lieve in, I have to be an ex­am­ple of that same pas­sion, en­ergy, and fit­ness.”

Stay flex­i­ble

“A lot of peo­ple don’t like fly­ing through Dubai be­cause of the long lay­overs; but I pack my gym gear in my hand lug­gage, and I make the most of it.” Karsten’s blis­ter­ing travel sched­ule means that last year, he spent more than 40 nights on an aero­plane. “And that doesn’t even take into ac­count day flights be­tween Cape Town and Joburg and the like; so my of­fice – and my gym – is where I make it.”

“Many peo­ple don’t know that there’s an in­cred­i­ble gym at Ter­mi­nal B in Dubai; so when I land, I wan­der over to the gym, hit the bike, and do some weights. And then I catch my con­nect­ing flight, and I sleep like a baby,” he says.

His long hours, and the fact that he of­ten has to work on week­ends or when he’s at home, make it dif­fi­cult to stick with the reg­u­lar train­ing pro­gramme, but that suits him just fine.

“I find that I get bored quickly with a set

“If you feel good about your body and your­self, you feel hap­pier and don’t mind go­ing the ex­tramile at work.”

rou­tine, and my work­days sel­dom fol­low a set sched­ule, so I choose the sport that best suits the sit­u­a­tion. I do a bit of road run­ning, trail run­ning, road bik­ing, moun­tain bik­ing, spin­ning – what­ever I have time for on the day.” Liv­ing near a la­goon in the Western Cape means that Karsten has easy ac­cess to his boat when he’s at home; he en­joys noth­ing more than an undis­turbed hour on the wa­ter, he says, where he can be truly alone with his thoughts.

“I’m also pas­sion­ate about ski­ing, and I’m a trained ski in­struc­tor. When I lived on the Swiss bor­der I was able to ski to work in the morn­ing and then home again in the af­ter­noon – it was phe­nom­e­nal. I ob­vi­ously don’t do that much now, but in sum­mer I love to scuba dive. It’s more of a hobby than any­thing else, but it’s im­por­tant to stay fit if you’re in the wa­ter.”

“I try to make sure that I ex­er­cise ev­ery day. The only time I might miss a sin­gle day is if my travel sched­ule is too tight; but even then I try to do some­thing, even if it is only half an hour in the gym, where I’ll do the cir­cuit and some weights.”

This prag­matic ap­proach to fit­ness is what has al­lowed Karsten to main­tain an en­vi­able level of fit­ness de­spite a busy sched­ule, but he’s no stranger to putting in the hard yards when he has to. “I got hooked on triathlon in the late 1990s, and I’ve never looked back,” he grins. “At the time I couldn’t go to a braai with my friends with­out some­one talk­ing about triathlon, so a friend and I de­cided we would give it a try. I did my first race on a moun­tain bike, but it didn’t matter. I loved it.”

Paradigm Shift

It was triathlon that re­ally changed his view about en­durance – and busi­ness. “It’s amaz­ing what you can achieve with your body, if you have men­tal strength to match your fit­ness.” A few years later, dur­ing Iron­man South Africa, Karsten won the ti­tle of ‘Fittest CEO in Africa’, and qual­i­fied for the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onships in Kona, Hawaii.

“I was work­ing par­tic­u­larly hard at the time, liv­ing in PE and com­mut­ing to Jo­han­nes­burg, so dur­ing the week when I didn’t have my bike with me, I did a lot of spin­ning. If you do a dou­ble ses­sion on the spin­ning bikes, it’s quite a work­out. Of course, it al­ways de­pends on how much you turn the knobs.”

Although the train­ing was bru­tal, the big­gest chal­lenge was deal­ing with his frus­tra­tion when he couldn’t stick to the sched­ule. “I got very grumpy if I missed a ses­sion or couldn’t find a pool on the day when I was meant to be swim­ming; and I wanted to give up or make ex­cuses, but I had to keep go­ing.”

“In triathlon you have to push your­self hard and keep the end goal in mind, and the same is true for busi­ness. When we do in­vestor meet­ings where we talk to per­haps 50 or more in­vestors and an­a­lysts over a few days, and we an­swer the same ques­tions and tell the same sto­ries, it some­times feels like along-dis­tance triathlon!”

Join the Team

“Two years ago, the staff of one of our fit­ness brands de­cided to take part in their own 12-week chal­lenge to lose weight, build mus­cle, and get fit. They ate a low-carb diet and fol­lowed an on­line sup­port and train­ing pro­gramme. I was ab­so­lutely amazed by how many peo­ple took part.”

More than 170 em­ploy­ees par­tic­i­pated in the 12-week chal­lenge, and the com­pany shed a to­tal of 700kg. “We had prizes for the men and women who lost the most weight, and for those who un­der­went the big­gest trans­for­ma­tions.” Karsten re­mem­bers one phone call in par­tic­u­lar, from the woman who had lost the most weight. “I thought she was phon­ing to say thank you for the prize she had won; but in­stead, she wanted to say thank you be­cause the chal­lenge had changed her life.”

“How you feel about your­self def­i­nitely has an ef­fect on your out­look on life and how you per­form at work, so we try to en­cour­age ev­ery­one on the As­cendis team to stay fit and healthy.”

Work it Off

Karsten’s com­mit­ment to lead­ing a happy, healthy life doesn’t stop when it comes to what he eats. “I love sweets, that’s my prob­lem. I love choco­lates, marzi­pan, liquorice, Nutella... and on top of that, my wife is a trained chef, so I eat ex­tremely well when I’m at home.” His so­lu­tion is moderation in all things. “Ex­cept Nutella, that is.”

“I have to be hard on my­self with my train­ing regime, be­cause if I stopped ex­er­cis­ing I would def­i­nitely put on weight. I get this awe­some, healthy, tasty food at home, so I have to be care­ful not to overindulge. Luck­ily I’m not very big on al­co­hol – even though I live on a wine es­tate – and of course, I don’t smoke.”

His other indulgence is the ladies in his life. “Be­cause I travel so much, I miss spend­ing time with my wife, my daugh­ter, and my Great Dane. So I try to do my train­ing very early in the morn­ing, or al­low my­self a rest day on a Sun­day so that I can spend qual­ity time with my fam­ily.”

Karsten is still keep­ing an eye on the big­ger picture. “Be­ing fit isn’t ev­ery­thing. You need to be happy to be truly healthy; and my fam­ily is my great­est source of hap­pi­ness.”

“Howyoufee­labout your­selfhasan ef­fec­ton­howyou per­for­mat­work.”

HIGH FLYER Look like this even af­ter a long life and a long haul.

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