After some lean times in 2009, Weight Watchersdecided to "take destiny by the horns" and become more aggressive in getting the overweight to lose pounds using its program.
"The pernicious effects of America's weight problem are popping up all over the place," CEO David Kirchhoff told CNBC Tuesday. Employee health-care premiums have been up 8 percent a year over the past 10 years, he said, and obesity "is playing a big role."
Part of the problem is unrealistic expectations. If you want to drop enough weight to look like someone on the cover of People magazine, he said, that's too difficult for most to achieve. If, however, you want to lose 10 percent of your body weight and reduce your risk of diabetes by 60 percent, "that's achievable," Kirchhoff said.
The company decided that after 2009 it had to be more aggressive in drawing in new members. So it hired singer/actress Jennifer Hudson to promote the health benefits of the Weight Watchers program, and former basketball star Charles Barkley to be the face, and body, of its newer Weight Watchers for Men program.
Besides the television ads, Weight Watchers "throws a lot of weight behind our online product" and "ramped up the pace" of technological innovation. The program of group meetings, shared stories, and counting calories is the main difference between his company and competitors such as Nutri System, he said.
Kirchhoff, who will be ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday, said the company bought back a lot of its stock in 2010 and used its cash to work down debt and pay dividends. "It's been a good balance for us," he said.