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A True Believer : Tony Robbins Has Attracted Converts--and Critics--to His Positive-Thinking Empire

October 01, 1991|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The distributor operation was a new business and suffered the problems of any new business," Hahn says from his office in La Jolla. "The failure rate of new businesses in this country is high. People try things, and it doesn't work. That's what some of this is all about.

"And when someone fails at a business--and it's particularly true with franchisees--it doesn't make any difference whether you're a human development training company or a fast-food chain, the first person they blame is the franchise owner," Hahn says.

Hahn says the American Bar Assn.'s franchising committee "estimates that, of the typical chain, only a third of the franchises do well, a third break even and a third are losing money." But he doesn't say whether he or Robbins alerts franchisees to the gloomy forecast before or after they sign up.

To hear Robbins tell it, he's as concerned as anyone about the charlatans of get-rich-quick extravaganzas.

"I didn't want to be in a no-money-down real estate genre," he says in an interview at the castle when the topic veers to infomercials. "To me, that was real scummy, and I'm not trying to be negative toward that industry. I just didn't . . . want to be attached to that."

Robbins' infomercial, one of many distributed by Palm Desert-based Guthy-Renker Corp., is different, he says, in that he produces it and it's watched by more Americans than any other--an estimated 100 million viewers in 200 markets.

Infomercial is the moniker given 30- or 60-minute broadcasts that resemble a talk show or documentary but are in fact paid advertising. Infomercials hawk everything from cosmetics to remedies for baldness to Robbins telling viewers they can lose weight, improve their relationships and "master" their destinies by heeding his philosophy of "never-ending" improvement.

The strikingly handsome Robbins has had no trouble drawing celebrities into the fold. In addition to Sheen, actor LeVar Burton ("Star Trek: The Next Generation"), former Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), author Charles J. Givens ("Wealth Without Risk") and retired Navy Capt. Gerald L. Coffee, a former prisoner of war, have appeared in Robbins' infomercial or endorsed his material.

In Del Mar, which may be to the self-help movement what Nashville is to country music, Robbins numbers among his friends fellow authors Ken Blanchard ("The One-Minute Manager") and Warren Farrell ("Why Men Are the Way They Are").

One wall inside the castle is like a gallery of famous friends: Robbins is pictured with rock star Michael Jackson, Dodger manager Tom Lasorda and Laker guard Byron Scott.

Those who knew Robbins at Glendora High School, where he emerged as student body president in 1977-78, say they're not surprised by their classmate's success.

"A lot of us look at this guy who had the same socioeconomic background and status that we did--poor--and look at what he's done. If he can make it, we can too," says Scott Salter, who sells sprinkler systems for a Glendora landscape company.

Says another Glendora High alumnus, John David Eckert, an air quality inspector for a regional agency: "I think Tony's position on life is a good one, that you can go out and make life happen. I wish I . . . had done that more."

Now, were Robbins to come face-to-face with his former classmate, he probably would tell him what he tells the scores of customers who pay for his tapes, his seminars and even his fire walks: "If you can't, you must. And if you must, you can."

The goal, Robbins says, is "to reach as many people as possible, in the shortest period of time. I believe I can make a difference. I know I can, and the sky's the limit. I'm not a guru. I want to be a coach--or a friend. I can change people's lives forever. I know it. I already have."

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