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Eric Roza, the newest owner and CEO of CrossFit. Photo courtesy of CrossFit

Eric Roza Is Ushering in a Healthier Era of CrossFit

For eight years, Eric Roza dreamed of running CrossFit. Last summer, with the brand reeling from controversy, the former tech executive from Boulder got his chance.

Eric Roza arrived for the flight that would change his life wearing the casual uniform of a former tech CEO: a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He parked his Tesla at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, greeted his traveling companion, David Woods, and boarded the private jet of embattled CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman.

It was June 2020. Earlier that month, Glassman had become embroiled in controversy after responding to an email from a gym owner concerned about the company’s silence regarding racial injustice. “I sincerely believe that quarantine has impacted your mental health,” Glassman wrote. Days later, he replied “It’s FLOYD-19” to a tweet that called racism a public health crisis.

Almost immediately, gym owners, sponsors, and elite CrossFit athletes began loudly decrying the fitness brand. Companies dropped their sponsorships, and people promised to boycott the CrossFit Games, a global competition that attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year. Despite the community’s reputation for cultlike loyalty, hundreds of CrossFit gyms threatened to de-affiliate if Glassman didn’t step down as CEO—and many weren’t content with that. They wanted Glassman, the company’s sole owner, to sell the business to someone else.

Roza, the now 53-year-old former CEO of Westminster tech company Datalogix and a longtime CrossFit enthusiast, hoped to be that someone. On June 13, Woods (a former member of the gym Roza owns in Boulder who had no previous connection to Glassman) sent an email to Glassman: “I think you need to meet Eric Roza.” Minutes later, an email landed in Woods’ inbox, and a California number buzzed on his phone. Glassman would send his jet the next day to fly Roza and Woods to his home in Santa Barbara, California.

Now Roza was aboard the promised plane. At the edge of the airport, inside a converted airplane hangar, was the gym where Roza had completed his first CrossFit class. Today, it sat with its giant garage door open, as if beckoning with opportunity.

Roza was no stranger to a company in crisis. In 2008, the Stanford Graduate School of Business alum became CEO of Westminster-based NextAction, which analyzed shopper data for print catalog companies. NextAction was in the early stages of building a digital operation that would track shoppers’ online activity to better target internet ads, but the company’s founder, Karl Friedman, was convinced he needed to kill the project and lay off half the staff.

In one of his first moves as CEO, Roza, who had previously been the company’s chief operating officer, did the opposite. Instead, he lowered salaries to avoid layoffs and stoked employee morale so NextAction could successfully build the online ad business that, under the new name Datalogix, would eventually serve giants such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

A few months after Roza became CEO, a colleague introduced him to CrossFit, which combines gymnastics, strength training, and body-weight exercises. Roza, who was nursing a running injury and itching for a new physical outlet, attended a class at MBS CrossFit, the gym adjacent to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.

His first WOD (a CrossFit acronym for “workout of the day”) was an adapted version of the Marine Corps physical fitness test: a three-mile run followed by two minutes of situps and a set of as many unbroken pullups as possible. Roza says he found the challenge humbling, “but it felt right to me. I couldn’t wait to get back in there, and I started telling all my friends about it.” Within a month, he hired the owner of MBS to coach CrossFit classes at Datalogix—next to office cubicles, in the parking lot, and eventually in a gym the company built on campus.

Eric Roza was introduced to CrossFit at MBS CrossFit in Broomfield. Photo courtesy of CrossFit

By early 2012, Roza’s friend Jon McNeill had heard enough about CrossFit. “All right, Eric, I get this is awesome,” McNeill said, and suggested Roza buy the company. McNeill connected Roza with the then chief marketing officer at Reebok, the title sponsor of the CrossFit Games. The CMO’s advice: Don’t waste your time. Since Glassman had incorporated the company in 2000, it had grown into a global empire by 2020 with 14,000 “boxes” (CrossFit-speak for a gym) around the world, all of which were paying annual fees to license the CrossFit name. Along with making Glassman a fortune, the business fed his ego. There was no way he’d sell.

Disappointed, Roza did the next best thing: He opened his own gym, CrossFit Sanitas, with his now ex-wife Melissa (they remain co-owners). Still leading Datalogix full time, Roza spent his early mornings manning the gym’s front desk and his evenings writing newsletters or web content for his CrossFit outpost.

Datalogix employees who participated in the CrossFit classes saw positive changes to their health. Some lost weight; others quit smoking. Incoming engineers cited CrossFit as one of the draws to working there. In 2013, the New York Times published an article highlighting Datalogix’s CrossFit culture. Roza brought the fitness methodology to industry conferences, leading workouts on the beach at a creative marketing event in Cannes, France. “I didn’t see myself as a digital advertising executive,” Roza says. “I was like, ‘No, I’m the CrossFit guy.’”

By 2014, a mere six years after nearing bankruptcy, Datalogix had grown from about 100 employees to about 400, its culture of health and fitness had earned the company a shoutout as one of Outside magazine’s Best Places to Work, and prospective buyers were readying their checkbooks. (One reportedly expressed concern that Roza would “get distracted by CrossFit—which was so funny, because that was not at all the case,” says Michelle Hulst, a former senior vice president at Datalogix.) In 2015, Oracle bought the business for upwards of $1.2 billion.

Roza stayed on as CEO until significant upheaval struck his personal life. In November 2018, his mom died of an autoimmune disease, leaving Roza to care for his dad, who lived nearby and had Alzheimer’s. Then Roza’s marriage of 20 years ended, and the father of four found himself navigating life as a single dad with shared custody of young kids. He decided to leave Datalogix, renamed Oracle Data Cloud, in June 2019.

The changes spurred Roza to examine his life. Making digital ads work better at Datalogix had never really inspired him. But helping people live healthier, happier lives—he saw that as a calling. Could he spin his tech executive experience into a health-centered gig?

By early the following year, Roza had joined the boards of a few companies that fit his vision, namely Denver-based SonderMind, a virtual behavioral health provider, and Boulder-based TrueCoach, an app for personal trainers. He also skied nearly 50 days in one season—more than he ever had before. But he wanted to do more. Roza spoke to a few headhunters about roles in the tech space, but none of the companies excited him. Then, this past summer, controversy erupted around Glassman, and Roza suddenly had the opportunity he’d dreamed of since 2012.

Even before summer 2020, Glassman had a reputation for being kind of a jerk. In January of that year, Outside published a profile that quoted Glassman describing people who hate him as “losers” and “fucking idiots.” Matt Chan, a Denver-area firefighter and a former member of CrossFit’s Seminar Staff, which teaches certification courses for CrossFit coaches, says he kept his professional distance from Glassman. “I was very aware of the loyalty required by the CrossFit brand,” Chan says. “Going against the brand in any way would be considered disloyal and jeopardize your role with CrossFit HQ. And when I say CrossFit HQ, I’m talking about [Glassman] and the leadership.” (Glassman could not be reached for comment.)

The contrast with Roza is stark. Colleagues routinely describe times when, in some sort of professional interaction, Roza shifted the focus to attend to their personal needs: redirecting a financial conversation with a co-worker when she mentioned that her marriage might be ending; taking a moment in a one-on-one meeting to gently nudge colleague Robin Opie to think about his health when he was 320 pounds and gaining. “I don’t think he would say this, but he’s got crazy high [emotional intelligence],” says Opie, 51, who has worked with Roza at multiple companies, including Datalogix and CrossFit, and credits Roza for his physical transformation. (Opie, of course, is now an avid CrossFitter.)

Roza’s interpersonal skills proved crucial after arriving in California to meet with Glassman. During the first of two days in Santa Barbara, Roza and Woods spent about nine hours listening to Glassman talk about metabolic health problems, CrossFit, and the controversy swirling around him. Roza says he didn’t try to ingratiate himself. Instead he challenged Glassman about the “FLOYD-19” tweet. But Roza also knew that he would have to tailor his pitch to appeal to Glassman.

The second day, after interrupting Glassman in the middle of another pseudo-lecture in front of a whiteboard, Roza asked if he could talk for a few minutes. Then he asked for the marker Glassman held in his hand and requested he sit down. Glassman complied.

Roza knew Glassman wasn’t interested in talking business. So instead of pointing to his professional success, Roza spontaneously thought up five bullet points and wrote them on the whiteboard. He can’t remember now what they were exactly, but they all focused on how Roza would help CrossFit improve people’s health. After outlining his vision, Roza heard Glassman say quietly, “I think I like this.” They had a deal. On August 7, with other investors, Roza bought CrossFit for an undisclosed amount.

Since he took over, Roza has been busy. Externally, CrossFit had a PR mess to clean up, substantive apologies and diversity and inclusion commitments to make to its community, and action to take to support gym owners in the middle of a pandemic that crushed their businesses. Internally, the company lacked organizational structure; for example, CrossFit didn’t have a human resources department.

Roza moved the company’s headquarters to Boulder from Scotts Valley, California, and hired his former Datalogix colleague Trish Gerlitz to lead CrossFit’s new human resources department. Gerlitz immediately started interviewing existing staff. “What I heard was: ‘Change CrossFit, don’t change CrossFit,’” she says. “And what they meant was, change a culture of favoritism, or a sense of bullying, or of not being seen or heard or valued…but don’t change the methodology.”

Making people feel seen and heard has been Roza’s main mission since taking over. He’s held virtual town halls for CrossFit gym owners, inviting those who dropped their affiliations. He hosts monthly meetings open to all of CrossFit’s staff. He made his email address public so anyone in the community can contact him directly.

Before the acquisition had even been finalized, Roza convened the first CrossFit community summit, renting out space in Boulder’s St Julien Hotel & Spa and inviting athletes and gym owners to participate in three days of conversations about fitness, competition, and ways to make CrossFit more inclusive. The company now has a 10-person diversity, equity, and inclusion council composed of gym owners, coaches, and athletes. “I didn’t see Glassman do any of that,” says Rayvan Hawkins, an Aurora firefighter who competed in the 2018 CrossFit Games. “For Eric to come in and do that, it shows me as a minority that he’s trying to change things.” Hundreds of gyms have re-affiliated, including many that had dropped out before last summer’s turmoil. No athletes ended up boycotting the CrossFit Games, and corporate sponsors including NoBull and LifeAid have signed back on.

Chad Pinther, the owner of Colfax Strong, a CrossFit affiliate in Denver, believes Roza is chasing the same goal that Glassman pursued: helping more people get fit. “But [he’s] getting people to come together, talk about it, agree on it,” Pinther says, “instead of being confrontational and saying, ‘Screw you.’”

Roza plans to lead the company for years and has set a goal of transforming 100 million lives with CrossFit during his tenure. He wants to expand its international reach and make CrossFit more accessible to underserved populations. What started in an airplane hangar more than a decade ago now appears to be lifting off.

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