How the CEO of Celsius Turned a Failing Brand into a Legitimate Red Bull Competitor

It’s late afternoon on Halloween day when Celsius CEO John Fieldly picks up the phone in the Boca Raton offices of the popular energy drink brand. “I’m dressed as the ringmaster from the Barnum and Bailey Circus,” he tells me. It’s a fitting costume for the head of a brand whose recent performance has been nothing short of a spectacle. When Fieldly took over as CEO in April of 2018, the company was valued at $280 million. Today, it’s worth $13.4 billion, making Celsius the fastest-growing brand in an energy-drink market that has itself exploded during the pandemic.

In fact, Fieldly’s success and the company’s fortunes have followed the same playbook for over a decade. In 2012, his mentor Gerry David was hired as CEO, and Fieldly, then just 31, successfully pitched himself as the company’s new CFO. At the time, Celsius was performing so poorly that it had been delisted from the Nasdaq; soon its drinks were no longer stocked by Costco, which accounted for 60 percent of the company’s revenue. But there was an opportunity in that failure: Celsius could reinvent itself. Health and wellness was becoming a lifestyle movement, and the company decided to market itself as the maker of “better-for-you” energy drinks, ones with no added sugars that were loaded with vitamins. Regardless of whether its beverages actually speed up your metabolism, as the company claims (read the medical studies for yourself), the pitch is clear: Drinking Celsius doesn’t just give you energy, it reflects something about the health-conscious person you’re trying to be.

The plan seems to be working: Last year, PepsiCo invested $550 million. Monster Energy and Red Bull remain the sector’s runaway leaders, but the recent injection of capital has helped solidify Celsius’s stature as a legitimate competitor. “We’ve been growing like crazy,” Fieldly says, estimating there’s about 180 people in the south Florida office there with him. “We’ve got new team members every week, it’s like Monday roll call. I feel bad, because I don’t know everyone’s name.”

GQ: How many people did you guys have in this office this time last year?

John Fieldly: Probably about half. Probably the largest department that’s grown is finance, and marketing within social media, events management. We built out a sports marketing team as well. We’re in about 95 percent of all stores in the country with the partnership with Pepsi.

Are you guys full-time in the office, or are you doing a hybrid situation?

All hands on deck. I’ve never missed a day during Covid. We got a small team, probably about 10 to 15 of us that were here all the way through. We tried to do remote during Covid. It’s very difficult to build a high-performance team, especially in the competitive consumer products world. The energy category is so competitive with Red Bull and Monster and all the new entrants that come to the category every day. We have a lot of new team members. So it’s important that we’re learning from each other. When you have a meeting that’s on a Zoom, or on Teams, you have your formal agenda, but it’s all about the small talk that’s leading up to the meeting, and the refinement that happens after the meeting on your way back, the water cooler talk, which just doesn’t happen when everyone’s remote.

When you were young, what did success look like to you? What did you want to be?

I wanted to be an astronaut at the time. Shoot for the moon, you know? Then as you go through life, you start to learn about what opportunities are out there. I’ve been working since I was 14. I started my first job at Mancini Car Wash, to save up for a car. I washed dishes at Steve’s Place for a little bit. When I was younger, when I would visit my grandparents, we would take the train down to Manhattan and see Wall Street. So that got me really interested in finance and public companies and how the stock market worked.

Is there something you learned from those early jobs—washing cars, washing dishes—that you still draw on now?

Hustle. Abraham Lincoln said, “Things may come to those who wait, but only things left by those who hustle.” That comes right from my roots. That comes through feedback you get from your parents and your grandparents. Excel at everything you try to do. I say to my kids, “The opportunity’s out there. But capturing the opportunity is on you.” When you look at where Celsius is today, the opportunity was there. This company is actually a turnaround. Most beverage companies don’t get turned around. They wind up in the beverage grave. Over 5,000 new brands come to market each year in the beverage industry. Less than 10 percent will make it to a million dollars in sales. One percent of those makes it to a billion dollars in sales. It’s really, really unlikely for beverage companies to be successful. Opportunities come each and every day, but it’s on you to maximize those opportunities. Otherwise they pass by.

When you look back at your own career trajectory, what’s the opportunity that jumps out to as the big one you capitalized on?

The biggest opportunity I seized was getting a job at Celsius as the CFO when I first started in 2012. There were some changes over here at Celsius, the main investor acquired a majority stake in the business and was changing the management team—

That was Carl DeSantis, right? The billionaire entrepreneur.

Yeah, he took a majority ownership, and he brought on Gerry David as the CEO. [Gerry] was a mentor of mine. I met him at Oragenics, a biotech consumer products company, and I called him and asked if he needed a strong CFO. I was 31 years old.

What’s the lesson in that?

Starting off my career, I was not as assertive as I should have been. You need to make the effort for yourself. It goes back to that Abraham Lincoln quote. You have to insert yourself into conversations. If you don’t insert yourself, opportunities will pass you by, time will pass you by. The opportunity now to be what you want to be is in your hands. And it’s really about asserting yourself.

So you take over as CFO in 2012—

January, 2012. And the company was struggling, right? In the first 90 days after I started, we got delisted out of Costco, which represented about 60 percent of our revenue. Then we got delisted out of other retailers. At that point, I didn’t think I was going to have a job in six months. We went back to the basics. We knew that we needed to build a strong foundation of loyal consumers. Loyalty is the only name of the game in consumer products. You can get trial, but if you can’t build loyalty, you won’t be able to build a brand. So we focused on continuing to build this loyal consumer within the fitness community. That’s a slow road. It’s not flashy for investors, but Carl saw the bigger opportunity. We wound up getting the company to be profitable in late 2015.

So how do you turn trial into loyalty?

You need to create some awareness, some trial, and then ultimately create an emotional connection to create that sustained loyalty. We’re all creatures of habit. We’re all on the same path each and every day, a track that we run on individually. So when you’re building a loyal consumer, it’s really important that you need to be able to disrupt that path in the consumer’s life. Not just disrupt for trial, but to disrupt and get into the daily lifestyle.

And how did Celsius do that? What was the key insight you guys had about how to get people to consume your product every day?

It’s really maximizing the opportunities. As an example, we recently partnered with Inter Miami. We’re in South Florida. We wanted a winner in our backyard and it was kind of our first entry into sports marketing. You got the World Cup that’s coming to the United States. So in January, we partnered with Inter Miami. Months later, Messi shows up. That was a huge opportunity that just landed on our lap. So we were able to further that partnership, to be a national MLS partner now. We saw that opportunity come, we maximized the moment.

Also, when you look back 12 years ago, fitness was something you did as a routine, but it was not something that you really aspired to. You had to work out for your health or a specific goal, maybe weight loss, maybe muscle gain. But now you look at where fitness has gone, how broad it is. Look at athleisure wear. That didn’t even exist 12 years ago. Gymshark, Lululemon, Fabletics—people wear that to go out to dinner. Fitness wear is part of our lifestyle and part of our culture. If you look at gyms and health clubs, the amount of memberships that the Millennials and Gen Z have, it’s more memberships than ever before. If you ask the CEO of SoulCycle, “What kind of business are you in?,” he’ll tell you he’s in the business of entertainment—his prior career was at Disney. It’s just fascinating when you look where the category is gone.

Celsius has been through that fitness journey the last 12 years, starting off in Vitamin Shoppe, GNC, Gold’s Gym, 24 Hour Fitness, to today, we’ve partnered with Barry’s Bootcamp. We’re a fitness lifestyle brand today. Drinking a can of Celsius says something about who you are. That was a really an aha moment for us. We were marketing a product, which is liquid in a can. Once we realized the beverage is an extension of who you are, that a beverage says something about you, that changed the way we went to market. It changed us to be more of an aspirational brand versus a beverage for a specific need state.

I’m curious who you see as your main competitors and what you think is disruptive about your product that has allowed it to experience such explosive growth?

We play in the energy drink space. The two largest competitors in the category, they drive about seventy percent of the volume within the category—

And those would be Red Bull and Monster?

That’s correct. But what we’re seeing is the next generation of consumers coming in. Celsius is incremental to the category, so we’re bringing in new consumers. Consumers want more out of their beverages than just energy as a need-state. Celsius offers more than that with our functional vitamins. And we’re really capitalizing on three of the fastest growing trends in all food and beverage. Everyone wants better for you, but they don’t want to sacrifice flavor. The second megatrend is functionality. We all want more. We want our food to be more. We want our water or hydration to do more than just hydrate. We want other functionalities out of it. The thing’s happening in the energy category. Celsius is truly a functional energy drink. And then number three, fitness is a mega trend, so being really aligned with today’s health-minded consumer. Especially coming out of Covid, it’s important that you stay active, it’s important that you really watch what you put in your body.

I’ve read that you’re a big psychology guy. What’s the one lesson you’ve learned about psychology that’s most important for running a business?

It’s all about how to better motivate team members. It’s really being able to convince your teams that your vision is their vision. So we’re all one team heading forward. Driving high-performance teams comes down to learning about people, trying to motivate them to perform better, to learn something new. Whatever we did today, reevaluating that, and how do we better improve upon that? How do we better execute? Having a tone and a mindset of continual improvement is really important. But you can’t be negative. Having the right tone, the right approach, creates for that thought process of a continual improvement without being seen as negative. That’s a little bit more of an art than a science.

Can you give me an example of how you do that?

You can’t be direct. It has to be part of a process. Within sales and marketing, we have what we call playbooks. So each project or each task has a playbook. No matter what role, no matter what position you are, everyone’s critical to taking the next step through that process when you’re looking at what worked, what didn’t work, where were opportunities. It needs to be managed appropriately, so that it’s not perceived as anyone attacking anyone. It has to be communicated indirectly: We’re all just trying to get better. As long as you have that mindset and you have it be part of a process, you’re able to really talk about the negatives, but in a more productive way.

In the health-wellness-fitness space, there’s always some fad or hack. How do you think about positioning a brand in a market where there’s always something new and shiny?

The key to a successful consumer products brand is loyalty and repurchasing. We focus very heavily on a high quality product, we focus on our authenticity. A lot of products are not that authentic in the way they’re promoted. We won’t sponsor athletes or teams or if there’s not an authentic connection to the brands. We make sure that who we work with that there’s authenticity, that they love the brand as much as we do.

How have you decided who to work with in the sports world?

Within sports, we partnered with Jake Paul. He’s now a professional boxer. That relationship started off because we were at a dinner and he walked into the restaurant, and I wound up just walking over and saying hello to him. I know he was drinking Celsius, so I introduced myself, asked him his favorite flavor, I got his information, we followed back up and wound up doing a partnership. Also Dustin Poirer, a UFC fighter, he’s been drinking Celsius as part of his training, his daily workout routine. We partnered with PFL, which is a professional fighting league. We partnered with them because a lot of athletes have been using Celsius as part of their training regimen. So that’s kind of the authenticity.

On the Jake Paul thing: You’ve talked so much about your ability to build an emotional connection with consumers that fosters loyalty. Jake Paul is a pretty controversial, polarizing figure. So I’m curious how you thought through that.

So we partnered with the Professional Fighting League as their official energy drink. They’re really advocates of fair fighter pay. There’s a bracketed system that’s clearly defined, that you can win a million dollars a year in the championship. So we partnered with them. Then, like I mentioned, I ran into Jake Paul at dinner, and learned that he was also starting his boxing career and that he was really going after fair fighter pay as well. If you look at his past, he’s been seen as controversial, but when you see what he’s doing today for the sport of boxing, he is very much an athlete, he’s an advocate of fighter pay, he’s bringing boxing back for the first time, he’s selling out stadiums for boxing matches. He’s a great brand advocate and at the end of the day, he’s a great athlete.

In the health and wellness industry now, there’s often an attempt to capitalize on the quick fix. There was a story in The New York Post where people were comparing Celsius to Ozempic. That’s obviously not something that you guys are marketing, but I wonder how you think about positioning a health drink in a way that promotes fitness, but doesn’t promise an unrealistic version of health.

It’s a good question because you’ve got to be careful. I guess if you’re a quick fix, you’re not creating that long-term loyalty. It’s the whole concept of, it’s a daily lifestyle. It’s a daily routine. With Celsius, our mantra is Celsius Live Fit. We require people to live better, live life to the fullest. We don’t market it as a quick fix to anything. It’s to inspire you to accomplish your goals. Celsius says something about who you are. You care about life and you’re ready to tackle that next challenge in the day, ready for the next interview because you just crushed a lemon-lime.

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