WASHINGTON — His blue eyes are blazing and a vein throbs in his forehead as Werner Erhard talks up his longtime passion: coaching people in exploring life's possibilities.
For Erhard, the father of Erhard Seminar Training (est), anything does seem possible.
Despite two failed marriages and jabs about his slick packaging, this super-salesman of personal effectiveness just keeps attracting buyers. Since the birth of est in 1971, his power switch has been perpetually on.
The 52-year-old San Francisco guru left a generation of growth groupies "transformed" and talking funny, a flock of searching souls who came out of est "getting it" and "creating space for their lives to work."
At least 500,000 people stopped at the est space station, a place where participants were shredded by militant trainers and long hours of leg crossing separated bathroom breaks. And the enlightenment at the end of a grueling two weekends? Finding out you were an ass caught in a pitiful belief system.
Zealous followers who spoke the est lingo were satirized as Me Decade icons in movies like "Semi-Tough." The movement got another shot of celebrity flak when John Denver signed up and so did Valerie Harper.
"Sure, there was a certain amount of cliches people used. But you know, the so-called funny talk has now become a part of the culture," Erhard says in a raspy voice thickened by cigars.
"In the daily newspapers, you find people talking about 'space' and today everyone knows what that means. In the last few months, there have been four major business books talking about 'transformation.' There's no question that a lot of the principles that we developed in our work in the '70s have found their way into the mainstream."
He points to the buzz line of a MasterCharge ad campaign, "master the possibilities."
This is the former car salesman who left his first wife and three children in Philadelphia and changed his name so they could not trace him. It was 1960, and Jack Rosenberg became Werner Erhard, taken from theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and Ludwig Erhard, the West German minister of economics.
In his new California home and identity, Erhard became an avid growth groupie himself, devouring a range of human potential movements and Eastern disciplines. As the story goes, the est training came to Erhard one day on a crowded freeway when he "got it"--the awareness he was not his emotions and beliefs and intellect. Rather he was the creator and the source of his experience.
Today he's an executive in a sleek European jacket with a reach that extends far beyond an est clubhouse with its own secret code. His organization has spawned a multimillion-dollar network centered on the principles of transformation. Erhard views the enterprises as a "pie cut in thirds," and they're fat, lucrative chunks.
The slice bearing his signature is Werner Erhard & Associates, a San Francisco company that stages The Forum, est's successor, and various workshops such as one on relationships. WE&A projects gross revenues of $39 million for 1988.
When est was "retired" in 1984, The Forum was launched with a goal of giving "a decisive edge in your ability to achieve." While it sprang from the same seeds, The Forum deviates from est's rigid authority and high theatrics. It's also more expensive, running $595 a session compared to $475 for est. Since it began in January 1985, 100,000 people have gone through the program.
The second slice is Transformational Technologies Inc., a group of independent management consulting firms that lists corporations like Allstate Insurance Co. and Monsanto as clients. Co-founded by Erhard in 1984, TTI's annual income is about $25 million.
Lastly, there are nonprofit humanitarian agencies rooted in Erhard's teachings, yet operating as independent entities, legally and financially. The Breakthrough Foundation falls in this category, working in the area of juvenile delinquency, as does the more widely known Hunger Project, a grass-roots commitment to end hunger by the turn of the century.
Critics have called Erhard a healer bearing quick-fix solutions, yet dozens of vintage esties have stuck loyally in his camp, swearing his system works. The majority of Forum leaders are ex-est trainers and the pie is filled with layers of old-timers.
"Werner's programs deliver on what they say they're going to deliver," says Gary Arnstein, who left his Chicago hometown and dental practice in 1984 to move to San Francisco and become a senior manager of Werner Erhard & Associates.
"Although I consider him to be a powerful leader, I consider myself a full partner as opposed to a follower," says Arnstein. "The shared goal is about opening up possibilities in peoples' lives."
When Arnstein did est in 1976, the biggest effect was on his relationship with his family. "It went from black-and-white to Technicolor, good to great."