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.”
“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.”
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.