Weight Watchers’ Florine Mark has built a career on helping people live their best lives
By Leena Rao
Growing up on the northwest side of Detroit, Florine Mark’s nickname in elementary school was “FF,” which stood for “Fat Flo.” When she was 12, she started taking a mix of amphetamines, thyroid pills and tranquilizers to curb her appetite. At 16, when she got married, she lost weight to fit into her wedding dress, but gained it all back a few months later. By the time she was 25 and the mother of five children, her size — 22 — was causing health problems. “I was gaining all this weight,” says Mark, who’s now in her 80s. “It was because I didn’t believe in myself.”
Mark’s story is relatable for people the world over: A staggering 72% of adults in the U.S. are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But instead of solely focusing on her own weight loss, Mark decided to help others with theirs.
Mark, who lives in Farmington Hills, first discovered Weight Watchers in the 1960s when she saw an ad for the studio while flipping through a Woman’s Day magazine. When she called the number listed, she was told there were no locations in Michigan. So she left her five children with her parents and husband and took off for Queens, New York, where she attended a week’s worth of classes and meetings in the home of Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch.
Within one week of following Weight Watcher’s points-based, healthy-eating system, Mark lost five pounds. After four months, she had dropped 40. She begged Nidetch to bring a studio to Michigan, and Nidetch agreed. In 1966, Mark opened the state’s first franchise.
Getting a loan to actually build it proved more challenging. Armed with a business plan and sales projections, Mark went to her local bank and applied for a $5,000 loan — but the bank would only grant it if her husband signed as CEO and president. “I told them he wouldn’t be signing since I’m the CEO and owner,” recalls Mark. “They denied me the loan.”
She eventually found a bank willing to lend her money and debuted her first studio on Seven Mile and Livernois in Detroit. “My mother never felt that there was a glass ceiling,” says Mark’s eldest daughter, Sheri Mark. “She truly believed, ‘I’m not going to let anything or anyone stop me.’’’
Thanks in part to Mark’s huge bet — she was instrumental in expanding Weight Watchers to the Midwest as well as Canada and Mexico — Weight Watchers sparked a weight-loss movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Mark eventually became a national face of the brand and the world’s largest franchisee of Weight Watchers studios; at one point she owned locations in 14 states and three countries.
But while Mark was building her empire, she faced some of life’s biggest challenges at home. When Mark was 35, her husband, Irving, passed away of cancer, leaving her a single mom. “The hardest part…was realizing I’m not superwoman and I can’t do everything,” says Mark. “There were a lot of unmade beds in my house.” But like every great CEO, Mark was a master at assigning tasks, according to her daughter, Lisa Lis, who was 6 when Mark started her business. “My mother was the master motivator for us and the master delegator,” says Lis.
Mark’s parents and sister would help if she needed to travel or couldn’t be home after work. She hired a driver to chauffeur her kids to school and activities and to do shopping and errands. “[My driver] Joe was the one to hear what my kids talked about when they got in the car after school,” says Mark. “I loved my kids but showed my love to them in other ways.”
Through the years, Mark has leaned on her business during tough times. A few years ago, her second husband, Dr. William Ross, passed away after a battle with ALS. Mark was at his bedside for his last year, bathing him and helping him as he fought the incurable disease. “I learned quickly that if I’m overweight, I can’t handle these challenges in my life,” she says. “The Weight Watchers program has helped me accept all these things that have come my way.”
It’s also inspired her to help other people through struggles beyond weight loss: Mark is one of Detroit’s most charitable executives, helping fund everything from a fitness center at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield to a unit at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. “Philanthropy is as important to me as my job,” says Mark, who’s also served on the boards of several Jewish organizations.
These days, Mark continues to help lead The Weight Watchers Group, which employs close to 800 people across all franchises (Mark sold about 70% of her franchises back to Weight Watchers, now known as WW International, some years ago but still operates a few.) She’s also adapted to the industry’s digital shift by teaching classes on how to use the program’s apps and count points online.
Mark takes special pride in the fact that 80% of her employees are women. Given her experiences, she says, she simply feels strongly about supporting women in business. (She’s also mentored many female entrepreneurs, both in and out of her field.) It makes sense, given the fact that she’s dedicated her career to helping people live more confidently. “I never think of myself as a woman and I never forget that I’m a woman,” she says. “I like to think of myself as a businessperson.”