Next Score View the next score

    Charles M. Leighton, 77; raced to build firms, raise funds

    Riding the success of NordicTrack, Mr. Leighton became a titan of the leisure industry.
    Tom Landers/Globe Staff/file 1993
    Riding the success of NordicTrack, Mr. Leighton became a titan of the leisure industry.

    In the early 1990s, sales of the NordicTrack exercise machine soared with the help of TV ads that showed tanned, chiseled models burning calories while gliding in place on wooden skis.

    NordicTrack’s success turned Charles M. Leighton into a titan of the leisure industry. His miniconglomerate CML Group, which took its name from his initials, became a Wall Street favorite, adding brands such as Boston Whaler sport boats, The Nature Company, and Smith & Hawken.

    CML, which Mr. Leighton founded in 1969 with fellow Harvard Business School alumnus G. Robert Tod, was named the Globe 100 Company of the Year in 1993, the year Mr. Leighton took a reporter on a tour of his stores at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.


    “The consumer of the ’80s was Gucci-fied,” he told the Globe. “Consumers of the ’90s . . . they want to say, ‘I can feel good about myself; I want to feel good about myself.’ ”

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Mr. Leighton, who was replaced as chief executive of the Acton-based company a few years later when the NordicTrack market cooled and CML’s stock foundered, died of heart failure Feb. 24 in Lahey Clinic in Burlington. He was 77.

    A former longtime resident of Concord, he had homes in Vero Beach, Fla., Middletown, R.I., and Islesboro, Maine.

    After he was replaced, CML filed for protection in US Bankruptcy Court and sold off its companies, but retirement was bittersweet for Mr. Leighton, who craved more success, rather than a better golf game, according to his family.

    A longtime sailboat racer and former commodore of the New York Yacht Club, he returned to the sailing world in 2005 as executive director of US Sailing, the sport’s national governing body, and reinvigorated the nonprofit organization where future Olympians and Paralympians hone their skills.


    “He took that Rolodex and his passion for sailing, put them together, and developed a real solid strategy that helped us raise $5 million for the six plus years he was there,” said Jack Gierhart, US Sailing’s executive director.

    “He brought the best out in everybody,” Gierhart said of Mr. Leighton, who retired from US Sailing in 2010. “He was a friend to everyone, from the person who had just started to the folks who had been there 25 years. He made it a fun place to work.”

    Mr. Leighton “was one of the most positive people I’ve ever known,” said Tod, his former business partner, who added that “he loved to make acquisitions and I loved to run the companies. We acted as a team. I will miss him beyond explanation.”

    Tod said that during the heyday of CML, which at one point had thousands of employees, he and Mr. Leighton flew around the country visiting stores and looking for promising companies.

    “We flew coach, too,” Tod said. “We thought it’s important the employees don’t see you flying around first class when they can’t do that.”


    Then competition from another exercise machine, the HealthRider, and rising costs for television time combined to complicate CML’s business model, Tod noted. The wave Mr. Leighton was riding crested and fell.

    Mr. Leighton ‘wanted everybody else to succeed. That was his personal measurement tool of success.’

    In his offices, Mr. Leighton kept a plaque with one of his favorite sayings: “Ships are safe in port, but that’s not what ships are for.”

    “He was willing to take risks and buy young companies and help them grow,” said his wife, the former Roxanne McCormick, to whom Mr. Leighton was married for 21 years.

    “He always saw the upside of something,” she said. “He was very outgoing and he loved making people feel good about themselves. He was my best friend.”

    Born in Portland, Maine, Mr. Leighton grew up in Chatham, where he learned to sail when he was about 8.

    He graduated in 1957 from Bowdoin College, where he founded the school’s sailing team, and graduated three years later from Harvard Business School.

    Mr. Leighton’s marriage to Deborah Leighton of Bedford ended in divorce after 30 years.

    They had two daughters, whom he taught to embrace competition and sports well before Title IX transformed schools, according to his daughter Julia, who is chief counsel for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

    “He made sure I didn’t throw like a girl,” she said. “I learned a lot about how to win, how to lose, and not be afraid of competing.”

    She said her father relished being a mentor, often asking: “What is your five-year plan? How can I help you?”

    Mr. Leighton chaired the New York Yacht Club’s entry in the America’s Cup race in 2000, and raced his own yacht, named Whitecap, well into his 70s. He also was a longtime pilot and owned a Cessna Skylane.

    As competitive as he was, Mr. Leighton enjoyed watching others succeed.

    Mr. Leighton “felt like he had won” if he influenced a situation that mattered to him and “left light tracks and others were given the credit,” his friend Dan Cooney of Newport, R.I., wrote in a tribute. “While he sparkled in the spotlight, he more often than not deferred it.”

    In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Leighton leaves another daughter, Anne of Chicago; and a brother, Fred of Portland, Maine.

    A memorial gathering to celebrate his life will be held at 11:30 a.m. May 17 in the New York Yacht Club in Newport, R.I. Burial will be private.

    Gary Jobson, a former president of US Sailing and a member of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, recalled a time when Mr. Leighton called when Jobson returned to sailing after being treated for cancer and won a race.

    “Charlie calls, says it’s nice to see you won the regatta, but more importantly this means you’re back in our world,” Jobson said. “It meant a lot to me for a guy like Charlie to do that.”

    Mr. Leighton also was an adviser and fund-raiser for Sail to Prevail in Newport, which teaches disabled children and adults about sailing and overcoming adversity.

    “He had a special passion for disabled children and veterans,” said chief executive Paul Callahan, a Paralympic sailor who is a quadriplegic. “When you worked with Charlie, the funds would come in, but he would live it, too. He would roll up his shirtsleeves and really understand what we were trying to get accomplished.”

    Mr. Leighton “just wanted everybody else to succeed,” Callahan said. “That was his personal measurement tool of success. Whatever it took to make that happen, that was Charlie. He was a leader of leaders.”

    J.M. Lawrence can be reached at