Anyone looking back on the history of gymchains in South Africa, or indeed anyone assessing the current stiff competitionin the market might have laughed at Greg Ivins and Barry Owen when they saidthey were launching a new chain of fitness centres. In fact, many people did.“People told us we were mad to open another gym chain, that we’d be bust withinthe first couple of months,” remembers Ivins. But if anyone’s laughing now,it’s these co-founders of Shapes for Women, a ladies-only chain of fitnesscentres that boasts 32 franchises around the country.
According to the partners, the reason thecompany has been so successful in such a short space of time is because theydidn’t take on big name chains like Virgin Active and Planet Fitness. “What wesaw was a need that those chains weren’t meeting – a need for an unpretentious,unpressurised environment, tailor-made to suit the workout needs of women. Whatexisted was a gym environment that was not everyone’s cup of tea,” says Owen.The women-only gym industry is booming in the United States and after somecareful research, he and Ivins decided there was no reason why the same conceptcouldn’t work in South Africa. They both left comfortable corporate jobs,scratched together funding and opened up the first two gyms, without anyprevious experience in the industry. The customised equipment, tailor-made tosuit women, was imported from the United States. “I’m sure that every person who startstheir own business experiences the same anxiety about whether they’ve done theright thing,” says Owen, “But although it was a new concept, it was somethingwe believed very strongly would work.” It still required hard work, however.One of their key challenges was educating the market which, given the historyof gym chains in South Africa, was sceptical to say the least. Ahands-on marketing approach is what worked in the end, as Ivins relates. “Wewould do very simple things like run up and down rows of cars at trafficlights, handing out flyers, and hand out leaflets at events. We even got thrownout of one or two shopping centres for distributing flyers without permission.We tried to get as much free press exposure as we could.”
Owen adds that they were always certainthat if they focused on customer satisfaction, word-of-mouth marketing wouldsoon take over, and they were right. The company tracks where new referralscome from and word-of-mouth accounts for the largest portion. “It’s become ourstrongest marketing tool,” he adds. Right from the start, the partners plannedto franchise the Shapes for Women concept but even they were surprised by howquickly the franchise system progressed. “I remember in the beginning we’d sayto each other , ‘Imagine if we can sell five franchises in the first year –that would be fantastic!’ We ended up selling 21,” recalls Ivins, continuing,“Within seven months of opening, we sold our first two gyms and startedfranchising. We thought we’d have to wait to prove the model but we had so manyrequests and competitors were moving into the market, so we just went for it.”To date, Shapes for Women has never had to close a franchise. The partners attributethis success to a great product that meets a previously unmet need and a soundfranchisee selection process.
Such rapid growth always brings challenges,and Ivins and Owen say they have had to adjust their mindset from one of gymowner to franchisor. “Our role is to become solutions providers for ourfranchisees. If we can solve their problems, we’re 90% of the way there,” saysIvins. Owen adds that cash flow is something that has to be continuallymanaged, but the business is now generating extra revenue streams from brandedShapes For Women nutritional shakes, supplements and training gear. Heconcludes: “We have a captive and very brand-loyal market in our members. Ouraim is to become the biggest gym chain in terms of outlets in the country and weare pursuing all options to achieve this goal.” They know there’s bound to becompetition on the horizon, but with a firm foothold in the market, they havegood reason to feel secure.
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