Fistfight Caps Falling-Out of Pair Who Own Several La Lanne Spas : Health Club Partners Battling in Court
It was on a Thursday in late January that a business dispute between Win Paris and Bill Hubner, co-owners of several Jack La Lanne health clubs in the Los Angeles area, turned ugly enough to make the evening news.
Paris beat up two of Hubner’s business associates at the Jack La Lanne club headquarters in Downey during a confrontation that was captured on film by a news crew from KNBC.
A segment of tape shown on television that evening showed John Laspia, one of Hubner’s corporate attorneys, staggering out of an office, blood flowing from his face. Laspia was later hospitalized with a broken nose and Paris was arrested for assault.
Paris later told The Times he was temporarily insane at the time. “I write of God and love,” he said in one interview, “but if someone is driving you bankrupt, you’ve got to go a little crazy.”
So it goes these days in the impassioned feud involving two of the leading personalities of in the U.S. health club field.
Helped Found Clubs
Hubner is one of the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs in the industry, while Paris is a highly visible figure who helped found the Jack La Lanne health clubs nearly 20 years ago, when the industry was still a pup.
Image-conscious health club insiders feel the fight has soiled the reputation of an industry that has had its share of bad press for years because of high-pressure sales methods and well-publicized failures. There are an estimated 7,000 health clubs in the United States, industry experts say.
“Anything like this doesn’t do the industry any good, I’ll tell you that,” says Ray Wilson, a health club executive in San Diego who founded the Family Fitness Centers.
The battle has now shifted to the Los Angeles Superior Court. The issues are relatively narrow but the squabble is intense.
Three lawsuits have been filed since the altercation, two by Paris and one by Hubner. Paris filed the latest one just last week.
In court papers, Paris accuses Hubner and his business associates of trying to drive him out of business, while Hubner claims Paris libeled him and damaged business at the Jack La Lanne clubs. Hubner owns a half interest in 30 Jack La Lanne clubs in Southern California, including four in partnership with Paris.
One of Paris’ companies, Spa Nutrition, filed the first court action in early February--a $10-million suit charging Hubner’s business associates with illegally interfering with the juice bars and nutrition centers that Paris operates at 22 Jack La Lanne health clubs in Southern California.
Hubner retaliated with a $2-million suit on Feb. 11 that accused Paris of writing “defamatory materials” about Hubner and business associate Carmen Baratta, as well as telling customers and employees that the Jack La Lanne clubs were “going into bankruptcy and would be closing.”
Hubner, in pressing his suit, has obtained a court order preventing Paris from entering the Downey headquarters building without 24 hours advance notice. The order also prevents Paris from harassing, either verbally or physically, the employees of the Jack La Lanne clubs.
Paris fired the latest salvo last Thursday in a $250-million damage suit that accuses Hubner and Baratta, among many others, of conspiring to cut off his income and ruin him financially.
According to associates of both men, Hubner and Paris have sharply contrasting business and personal styles that make them natural adversaries. Both men, in interviews with The Times, openly expressed a deep dislike for one another.
“This is a collision of two very different personalities,” said Long Beach lawyer Don Caffray, a friend of Paris’.
Paris is a classic Southern California fitness zealot with a child-like enthusiasm for good health. Exercise has kept his body rock-hard even though he’s in his early 50s, and he likes to be called “Dr. Paris” because of his Ph.D. in physical education from a correspondence school.
Never one to understate his accomplishments, Paris describes himself in his writings “as the father of fitness medicine, one of the pioneers in the fitness industry, the father of nutrition in the fitness industry, the founder of the Jack La Lanne health spas in 1967 . . . and one of the most educated fitness educators in the fitness industry in the world.”
Luxurious Life Style
Hubner has a life style of expensive homes, luxury cars and travel by corporate jet. Associates say he’s an indefatigable, street-smart entrepreneur for whom physical fitness is a business, not a way of life.
His financial interests include real estate, restaurants, health clubs and a gym-equipment company. He is “one of the few businessmen in this field who could make money at anything he does,” says one associate.
Both men have beautiful homes in the Los Angeles area that stand as monuments to their financial success. Paris lives in a Rancho Palos Verdes house that has a spectacular view of the ocean (and a life-sized statue of Jack La Lanne in the back yard), while Hubner has a home in Beverly Hills with an equally impressive view of Los Angeles.
Jack La Lanne himself has refused to be drawn into the dispute. He declined repeated requests for interviews, saying through an assistant that the dispute has nothing to do with him. He owns no interest in the clubs.
La Lanne, now in his early 70s, occupies a special niche in industry circles as one of the first entrepreneurs to promote physical fitness as a way of life.
He’s “the patron saint of this business,” said Rudy Smith, president of a Orange County-based company known as Holiday Spa Health Clubs. “He has done for us what Billy Graham did for the Christian movement.”
The Paris-Hubner partnership dates back to 1981, when Hubner acquired a company known as Health Industries that owned a 50% interest in the Jack La Lanne health clubs in Southern California. (Those clubs are known as Jack La Lanne’s American and European Health and Fitness Spas.) Paris owned the other 50% interest in clubs in Long Beach, Rosemead, Santa Ana and Torrance.
Health Industries used to be a leading nationwide health club company, but slipped into a steep decline in the 1970s and early 1980s because of heavy losses and management turmoil. Though Hubner is liquidating most of its properties, he has kept the clubs in Southern California.
At the center of the controversy is the issue of whether Paris should be paid a monthly stipend for his interest in his clubs. Those four clubs are run by business associates of Hubner, including Baratta, and until recently had been paying Paris more than $20,000 a month for years.
The payments were cut off last fall for reasons that remain in dispute. Though Paris claims he is entitled to the money, Hubner says the payments stopped because he and Paris agreed last September to forgo consulting fees in order to make much-needed renovations to the four clubs.
Paris took the issue public on Jan. 27 when he issued a press release, stating: “The Jack La Lanne European Health Clubs are declaring bankruptcy this week. Telephone me for more information at. . . .” The release clearly implied all the Jack La Lanne clubs in Southern California were going broke.
Reason for Filing
What Paris did was to file an involuntary bankruptcy petition for the four clubs that he and Hubner co-own. He said in a later interview that he filed the petition in the hope of being appointed receiver for the clubs, a move that would wrest operational control away from Hubner.
Paris, after alerting the media, had the involuntary bankruptcy petition served on Gregory Andruk, chief financial officer for some of the Jack La Lanne clubs. In a court declaration that accompanied the Hubner libel suit, Andruk said he and Laspia were discussing the bankruptcy petition in Andruk’s office in Downey when Paris “stormed in.”
“After screaming obscenities,” Andruk declared, “Paris punched Laspia in the nose, sending him reeling backwards against the wall and onto the floor. Paris then kicked Laspia while he was on the floor. I managed to pull Paris off Laspia, and Paris left the office. A few minutes later, Paris charged back into the office with his companion or bodyguard and attacked me.”
According to Laspia, whose version is also contained in a court declaration:
“Paris immediately began screaming at me in a rage, calling me a ‘legal whore’ and accusing me of taking his kids out of college and that I was going to bankrupt him. During this rage, he . . . punched me in the face. The force of the blow broke my nose, knocked me against the wall and then to the floor. While I lay helpless on the floor, he began kicking me and I became fearful that he was going to kill me.”
Will Plead Innocent
Tom Kontos, Paris’ attorney, said his client will plead innocent to the pending assault charge “by reason of temporary insanity.”
Kontos, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, said Paris’ behavior in recent months reflects the intense financial pressure Hubner has put on him. Almost all Paris’ income has been cut off and he’s now in danger of losing his home, Kontos said.
The fight notwithstanding, Paris is well-meaning, if somewhat eccentric at times, his friends and associates say.
They point out that he’s a trained physical therapist who genuinely wants to assist people through his gospel of healthy living. Among his admirers is George Allen, former Ram and Redskins football coach and fitness devotee, who says Paris helped his wife with her back problems.
He is often both entertaining and outrageous. Caffray, the Long Beach attorney, remembers with affection the time that Paris started doing handstands in his law office while wearing only a bathing suit and bathrobe.
Some of Paris’ other trademarks include the word, “GOD,” tattooed on his bicep, a reflection of his strong religious beliefs, he says. He changed his name from Irwin to Win a few years ago because he felt the new name better suited his healthy image.
He also likes to write poetry and health books that emphasize love and fitness. He’s constantly promoting health food products that, he says, will make him rich and famous.
Fight Hurt Cause
Paris has tried hard to use the media to publicize his fight, but coverage thus far has been limited largely to the incident on television. But in his quest for attention, Paris has sometimes displayed a remarkable gift for hyperbole.
He once warned Hubner in a letter that “I have brilliant national media to expose you. . . . I will only expose the truth, which the National Enquirer, Globe, Star and many other publications use to earn profits.” The letter was included as part of Hubner’s libel suit.
But arguably his most controversial effort were fliers that he admits writing under the byline of “Investigative Reporter” and “Special Investigative Reporter” that labeled Hubner “The Hitler of Fitness” and Baratta as “The Godfather’s Double-Cross.”
Those fliers were sent to competitors, employees and business customers of the Jack La Lanne’s health clubs, court records show, and were a key reason why Hubner, Baratta and their affiliated companies filed the libel suit against Paris.
They’re also vivid proof of why Paris doesn’t deserve serious attention, Hubner says.
“This whole story should be in the comics section, not in the business section,” he said. “It’s just a lot of silliness.”