It was April 4, and Michael McDevitt had just watched the Orioles beat the Detroit Tigers during their home opener. To celebrate, he and a buddy headed to Porters of Federal Hill, ordered some beers, and started chatting with fellow patrons. Then, as so often happens in this country where an estimated 68 percent of adults are overweight, the talk turned to dieting. A woman in her late 40s was raving about the weight-loss plan developed by Owings Mills-based Medifast that had recently helped her shed a few pounds.
As the woman extolled the virtues of the company’s products, McDevitt enjoyed a surreptitious sense of accomplishment. At no point, though, did the fit, boyish-looking 33-year-old let his new bar buddy in on his secret: that he is CEO of the firm that makes the diet-friendly oatmeal-raisin bars and chocolate-chip pancakes that helped her succeed.
“You can’t help but feel proud when people are talking about something you have so much passion for and helped grow,” McDevitt says. “It’s a good feeling.”
The bar story is typical of McDevitt, say his friends and colleagues: He’s hum-ble, unassuming, and more eager to listen than talk.
“He’s a great listener,” says Cecilia Grunder, McDevitt’s executive assistant. “He remem-bers everything you tell him and brings it up again.”
It’s his ability to relate to Wall Street and Main Street that has enabled McDevitt, to run the firm Forbes named the number one small company in America in 2010.
Still, the brand—which offers meal-guidance, weight-loss support, and portion-controlled meals—lacks the name recognition of its largest competitors: Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig, and Herbalife. What’s more, despite the fact that Medifast is headquartered in Owings Mills, most people don’t even know that it’s based in Baltimore.
“For years, the Medifast name was not known in the local market,” McDevitt laments, adding that he’d like the company’s reputation as an employer to rival that of local giants like Under Armor or Zynga, which are known for sleek offices and dynamic growth.
But McDevitt’s vision for the company extends well beyond Baltimore. “As far as our growth strategy, there are still so many people to help in this country, so our current strategy is to bring health to as many Americans as possible,” he notes.
The key to Medifast’s weight-loss formula—like some of its competitors—is portion-controlled meals that are high in protein and low in fat and sugar, says Dr. Scott Kahan, a faculty member at The George Washington University who specializes in weight management.
“From a nutrition standpoint, it’s a desirable makeup for healthy food,” says Kahan. “Their meal plans are thought out, reasonable, and structured.”
If Medifast’s ascension into the ranks of household namehood is in the offing, this is the year it will happen, as the company gears up for a growth spurt that McDevitt describes as going “from adolescence to prime.”
Yes, in order to help more people slim down, Medifast is beefing up.
Earlier this year, the company unleashed its multimillion-dollar ad campaign featuring before-and-after weight-loss testimonials and asking viewers, “What if you wanted to lose 20 pounds this month, and you could do it just like that?” In addition, McDevitt plans to nearly double Medifast’s payrolls next year as the company adds 60 weight-loss centers across the Eastern seaboard. (There are already weight-loss centers in 10 states, including eight in Maryland.) If all goes according to plan, Medifast will operate 250 of these centers within the next five years—six times as many as they have today.
“We’re going to, in a single year, double the number of employees,” McDevitt says. “There’s a need out there for it. It’s challenge, but we love challenges.”
McDevitt joined Medifast in 2002, after a two-year stint at a New York private-equity firm. He started out as controller and rose steadily through the ranks. He was appointed CEO at the tender age of 29 in 2007.
Getting to run a multimillion-dollar business before his 30th birthday was “pretty cool,” McDevitt acknowledges while, in the next breath, downplaying his rapid ascendancy.
“I don’t really consider what I’ve done to be success,” says McDevitt, who recently relocated to Federal Hill after five years in Owings Mills. “I think life gives you a bunch of opportunities, and success is to have all the planets lined up. It’s not something you can plan for.”
In fact, the way he tells it, success merely ratchets up the pressure.
“It was an honor and a lot of responsibility,” he says of being named CEO. “It makes you work extra hard to meet the expectations of the business.”
McDevitt, who grew up in Fairfax, VA, where his mom was a schoolteacher and his dad worked for the FBI, was basically recruited to the company at his father’s retirement dinner. Though the event attracted a “smorgasbord” of international spies, McDevitt spent the whole evening—from cocktail hour through dessert—speaking to family friend Bradley MacDonald, who, at the time, was Medifast’s board chairman and CEO. MacDonald—an “energetic individual who can get you excited about anything,” according to McDevitt—began giving McDevitt the hard sell.
At that time, Medifast was a $12 million company but MacDonald told him it would one day become a much bigger one. (Sales are projected to hit $311 million this year.)
“He saw what Medifast was going to become and he could speak about it with such clarity,” McDevitt recalls.
Though he knew nothing about Baltimore, save the Orioles, he quit his New York job and started working at Medifast two weeks after the retirement dinner.
But McDevitt also says it was the company’s mission to improve health—not just MacDonald’s bullish enthusiasm—that drew him in.
“Here was an opportunity to help a lot of people get healthy. And as soft and cheesy as that can sound, it’s something that inspires you a bit more than getting up to make a couple more dollar signs,” McDevitt says.
“We have consumers who will write us one-, two-page stories about how [Medifast] changed their life, how it got their confidence back, raises at their jobs, crazy stuff. That’s something I could really get into and support,” he notes.
(Not that he isn’t well compensated: McDevitt pulled in $1.2 million in salary, bonuses, and stock options in 2009, according to public documents.)
McDevitt believes that if he is going to run a weight-loss company, he better lead by example. He works out several times a week in the company gym next door. He also goes on long bike rides in Hunt Valley.
“We have to live the healthy lifestyle,” McDevitt says. “If we’re not doing it, how do we expect our customers to do it?”
McDevitt is just as earnest about setting goals and following through in his personal life.
On weekends, he likes going to Landmark Theatres in Harbor East and frequents The Point restaurant, which is owned by the parents of his girlfriend, Erica Russo. He gets to Opening Day each year and takes an annual 10-to-14-day vacation, which has taken him to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Brazil, among other locales. He also mentors on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland and is determined to see his newborn nephew in Richmond, VA, at least once a month so the little guy gets to know his uncle.
“You’ve got to have that balance in life,” McDevitt says.
Still, while he’s not all work and no play, his company is never far from his thoughts.
Several times during this interview, he carefully steers the conversation back to Medifast. Take, for instance, his trip to Brazil.
“Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, it’s a wonderful place,” McDevitt enthuses. “That’s probably my favorite culture in the world; such warm people. Unfortunately, they don’t have much of a weight problem yet, but eventually they will so we can maybe start an office in South America somewhere.”