Love Parade Organizer Schaller The Catastrophe and the McFit Man

Until recently, few people in Germany knew Rainer Schaller. But with his McFit line of fitness studios and brash marketing campaigns, including the annual Love Parade, he rose to become one of the country's most successful businessmen. His rise had been meteoric until Saturday's tragedy.

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Up until this weekend his life had been a success story. Entrepreneur Rainer Schaller founded McFit and turned it into the largest chain of fitness studios in Germany. And it was with the same determination that, a few years ago, he took over the Love Parade and moved it from Berlin to the Ruhr region in western Germany, where he transformed an already large festival of techno dance music into a mass festival.

But on Sunday afternoon, the man facing the press no longer seemed like quite the mover and shaker. Shortly after 12 p.m., Schaller announced the end of the Love Parade. "The Love Parade was always a peaceful event and a happy party," Schaller said, somberly reading a statement. From now on, it would be forever overshadowed by the tragic events of the weekend and that was why it could no longer be held, he said. "It's over for the Love Parade."

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Love Parade's Tragic End
A mass panic on Saturday resulted in 19 deaths and over 300 injuries at the annual event. The reasons behind the tragedy are still being investigated, with public prosecutors probing the safety and security planning for the mass event. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, police and emergency services had developed their own, sweeping plan for a party that was expected to be attended by over a million people -- but they were unable to push it through city officials. The people were "victims of material interests," the deputy chief of the police union in North Rhine-Westphalia said.

Besides officials responsible for the event within the municipal government, Schaller, the 41-year-old McFit founder and the driving force behind the Love Parade since 2006, has become a lightning rod for criticism. Four years ago, the businessman invested around €3 million euros in the event. Ever since, sponsorship of the event -- along with that of boxing champions Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko -- has been a central part of McFit's marketing strategy. Schaller is also head of Lopavent, the Berlin-based company that acts as "the main sponsor of the biggest party in the world," as McFit's Web site states. On Sunday, the homepage featured a statement that "the people and the makers at McFit are shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible misfortune that occurred at the Love Parade in Duisburg."

A Parade Built on the Success of Germany's Top Fitness Chain

This year Schaller again invested at least €3 million in the Love Parade. "This money will be used to finance the planning and realization of the parade," the Duisburg city government's website states. "Among other costs, this includes the clean up of the event area and the payment of around 2,000 people who will be employed on the day of the parade." Additionally, the website says that "McFit has provided an additional contribution the city of Duisburg's financing plan," it continues, without providing specific information about the amount of money involved.

Schaller explained the reasons behind his involvement with the Love Parade in an interview with the financial daily Handelsblatt in 2009. "With a relatively small budget we wanted to achieve a high degree of brand recognition (for McFit)," he told the paper. "For a long time we thought about what crazy things we could do to become better known. And we decided on the Love Parade."

Schaller founded McFit in 1997. The concept centered around a fitness studio that is open 24 hours a day, that only costs members €16.90 ($21) per month to join, far more inexpensive than most other gyms. Schaller is able to keep prices low at his fitness studios because they aren't equipped with saunas or other trappings of the wellness industry. On average, auditors at the multinational firm Deloitte found, there are only 10 trainers for every 7,000 customers at McFit gyms. And a five-minute shower costs 50 cents extra.

'Just Look Good'

Schaller was always a good salesman. The first gym he opened in 1997 boasted the slogan: "McFit -- now in Würzburg too," as if it was part of some giant American chain that had finally reached the city. His family and the banks thought he was crazy. At the time he owned four branches of the supermarket chain Edeka and the fitness business did not look as lucrative. But the Arnold Schwarzenegger fan battled on: He sold two of the supermarkets, purchased a 700-square-meter furniture showroom and began managing his first McFit on his own, a one man show. "Just look good," was the fitness studio's slogan. In the beginning, Schaller did everything -- working as receptionist, trainer, cleaner and accountant.

But that was over a decade ago. In the time since, McFit has grown to comprise of 120 branches, with 3,000 employees and over 800,000 customers. There are gyms in Austria and on the Spanish holiday island of Mallorca, and Schaller wants to expand further. During the last fiscal year, the gym chain had a turnover of €134 million ($172 million), although Schaller is secretive about profits. However, an entry in Germany's public federal registry, in which corporations are required to provide basic information about themselves, states that McFit had profits of €10.3 million on total revenues of €110 million during the 2008 fiscal year.

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