Needle in a haystack
My biggest asset at the time was naivety. I had no idea of the barriers. I wanted to create a more British version of Crunch. That brand was very American and ‘in your face’, I wanted to tweak it and make it more understated, so I started from scratch instead of trying to franchise.
Nobody wanted to finance my idea – which I understand now, having seen how difficult this industry is to operate in. But I found the needle in a haystack. I had some people round to watch a football match at my flat. One of these guys read my business plan while I was getting the beers. Turned out his dad was a non-executive director of Fitness First. He called me the next day and said, ‘Hey, do you want to meet my dad?’
Through that connection, I met the CEO of Fitness First and they ended up becoming silent partners in Gymbox. I had an equity investment and that was the catalyst for getting it off the ground. It was my design, my branding, my class creation, but they gave me all the technical knowledge that would have taken me years to learn – how much water you need for the showers, forecasts for the electricity bills, all of that. It was the dream scenario.
New kids on the block
The first Gymbox was in Holborn – we opened that in 2003. It did phenomenally well from the get-go. London was crying out for something different. We went from zero to 3,000 members in the first year. We only had one gym but had more press written about us in that first year than the whole of the establishment had in that time. We were the new kids on the block.
In 2004, we did a management buyout and became independent. Then we went on an expansion journey, funded by private equity, who gave us the cash to open in St Martin’s Lane Hotel and in an old cinema, the Lumiere in Covent Garden.
Sometimes people ask me, what was the biggest moment in the history of Gymbox? The turning point was the financial crisis because, from a management team perspective, we were making money so easily from 2003 to 2008 that the disciplines and procedures in the business were awful.
When the financial crisis happened, membership tanked. We had to look at how to run the business properly. The structure and top personnel brought in during the financial crisis were the making of us. It didn’t feel like a blessing at the time, it was horrendous, but it was a blessing. We have a total of 12 gyms now.