Gambettola, Italy

Technogym founder Nerio Alessandri muscled his way to No. 2 in the global market for fitness equipment by pumping his exercise machines full of electronic intelligence. Trained in college as an industrial designer, Alessandri's career took an unexpected turn when the 21-year-old casually offered to improve on a piece of gym equipment at a local fitness center in Cesena, near Bologna. After a year of cobbling together smoother, better-designed machines out of his garage on nights and weekends, the Italian entrepreneur launched his own line of equipment under the name Technogym in 1983.

Today, the company's high-tech treadmills, steppers, weight machines, and stationary bicycles are staples in health clubs around the world. "The magic word is innovation -- across 360 degrees of the business," says Alessandri, who in 1988 helped pioneer a revolution in fitness machines by patenting a mechanism using sensors to read a trainee's heart rate and regulate the resistance of the fitness machine based on the user's pulse speed. The heart-rate monitoring machines helped expand the market for gym equipment beyond young men eager to just pump iron.

Technogym's team of software engineers next designed digital software that can read a trainee's fitness profile and workout plan from a microchip-encoded key that is inserted into a Technogym machine. The privately held company, headquartered in Gambettola in north central Italy, pumps 6% of revenues into research and development. Sales have nearly doubled over the past four years, reaching $269 million in 2003 -- roughly 12% of the market. Profits for the year are estimated at $32 million.

Determined to edge past the market leader, Franklin Park (Ill.)-based Life Fitness Inc. (BC ), Alessandri, 42, has set his sights on an acquisition in the U.S. Technogym's latest line of equipment, dubbed "Excite," offers access to TV, stereo, a Sony PlayStation, and aromatherapy through a plasma touch screen. "The payoff is tempting your senses," he says. If Alessandri can make fitness entertaining, he well may bench-press Technogym to another level.

By Gail Edmondson in Frankfurt

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