Mike Balfour, founder of one of the world's largest fitness club chains, is moving away from the sales-focused culture of most mainstream gyms. He talks to Anandhi Gopinath about going back to the basics with Jatomi, an accessible, customer-focused gym for everyone.
WHILE many people in this day and age take physical fitness very seriously, there is an equal number of people who can think of a million things they would do rather than exercise. This category of people know they need the exercise, they just aren't driven to do it for a multitude of reasons, including tiredness, lack of time, no motivation — the excuses are endless.
The easiest option would be to join a gym or hire a personal trainer, but these have their drawbacks too. Personal trainers can be effective but they can also be prohibitively expensive. Many people have had bad experiences when it comes to gyms, thanks to the unsavoury reputation it has for getting new members on board and then leaving them to fend for themselves once they've joined.
This sales-driven focus is not what gyms are about, fitness pioneer Mike Balfour says, and a few bad apples are really spoiling the whole bushel. The founder of international chain Fitness First, which he no longer owns, Balfour is turning his hand to a new generation of fitness clubs called Jatomi. The ruddy-faced Englishman is aiming to revolutionise the concept of fitness clubs by going back to one basic fact: people will come back to the gym only if they feel happy about being there in the first place.
With the first Jatomi club scheduled to open in Tropicana City Mall soon, Balfour decided it was a good time to talk about his ideas on fitness and what he and his team hope to do with this fascinating project. Jatomi is based on his many discoveries with Fitness First, which he founded based on a combination of genius, opportunity and sheer good luck.
I meet Balfour, who is executive chairman, at the Jatomi office in Bangsar Shopping Centre and joining us during the interview is Asia CEO Elaine Jobson. Together with Balfour's son James, they run Jatomi in Eastern Europe and now in Asia. Both Balfour and Jobson left England and South Africa respectively to move to Kuala Lumpur, which is where Jatomi's Asian base is.
Malaysia suits Balfour down to the ground, he admits with a smile, and I can tell. His cheeks are pink from the sunlight that streams into Jatomi's office and there's a constant
twinkle in his eyes. He's quite a good sport as well, offering to pose on the exercise balls in the office for The Edge photographer Mohd Izwan Mohd Nazam. "Those monkey bars are off limits, though," he laughs, pointing at some well-placed steel bars.
While openly admitting he's the type who needs to be pushed to exercise, Balfour still manages to make his ideas about fitness believable. In fact, he totally eschews the stereotype that only the fit and the sinewy can run fitness clubs.
Balfour cannot speak about Jatomi without going back in time to when he started Fitness First in Bournemouth, England. "In 1992, I bought an old squash club in the south of England that became Fitness First," he begins, speaking in an endearing British accent.
"The concept behind it was to offer affordable fitness for everybody — everyone could afford to work out. In those days, I thought I would get 10 or so clubs together, it would be great and I could retire on that. It didn't work out that way — eventually we built 550 clubs in 25 countries with 1.5 million members and a 25,000-strong team. It's a great story."
Balfour is also a great entrepreneur — he was the PwC Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001 and in July 2008 was awarded the OBE for his services to business. In August 2010, Balfour was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by The American Fitness Industry and it was the first time the award was given to a non-American. After leaving Fitness First, Balfour dabbled in real estate and holiday homes — he's now chairman of The Hideaways Club, Europe's largest private residence owners' club.
Looking back on Balfour's personal background, his future could have been foretold as the unconventional-entrepreneur type. A child who hated school and refused to attend university, Balfour chose to do accountancy and became a chartered accountant — the best decision he's ever made, he says. In his professional journey, a theme soon emerged — he kept getting fired.
In an interview with The Entrepreneurial Exchange, Balfour said it was because "I was never destined to be employed". Eventually, he found work in London running the business operations of a wealthy Arab businessman, which included a very prestigious spa and fitness centre in Texas. Called The Houstonian, it provided wellness and fitness services that were simply unheard of in England at the time. Balfour recognised a golden opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.
"In the UK at that time we only had squash courts, and there were some health clubs but they were very expensive so the majority of people weren't doing any exercise at all," he recalls. "The Americans were way ahead of us in this case — they had developed clubs that were affordable. That was the opportunity that I saw. In the beginning, Fitness First was renowned for the affordability factor."
Balfour was a pioneer in what was then called dry clubs, which were fitness clubs that didn't have swimming pools. He was told many times that such a model wouldn't work, but he was certain that it would — very high-quality clubs with excellent service but without the fancier facilities that tended to push membership costs up.
Needless to say, Fitness First was a success from the get-go and Balfour proved all his naysayers wrong. "Not only did we become the biggest chain of clubs in the world, we were also the most international," he says proudly. "So the other thing we proved was that fitness was a very exportable business model that could work just about anywhere."
Fitness First was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1996 and was taken private in a £415 million management buyout in 2005. Balfour stayed on until 2009, after which he left to pursue other interests. Fitness was never far from his mind, and he gradually made his way back into the industry that found him fame and fortune.
The name Jatomi is an amalgamation of the brand's three founders — Ja is from James, To is from Jobson's middle name, and Mi is from Mike. While the younger Balfour cares for and manages the Jatomi brands in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Turkey, the older Balfour has opted for the eternal sunshine of Asia.
"I definitely like the warmth around these parts, believe you me," he quips. Apart from Malaysia, the Jatomi brand will also expand to Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, even China and India at some future point.
Balfour is ready to start a revolution in fitness from a unique starting point — the actual average gym member. "If you look at any gym's membership, only 10% of the members are actual fanatics or very keen users — the rest are normal people who are in and out of exercise all the time throughout their lives. I'm one those average, normal people — I'm in and out of exercise all the time," Balfour says, smiling and adjusting his jacket.
"So from my point of view, I've approached the industry as that average member, and I empathise with the average member — not the super-fit ones. That's why we have designed our gyms very much in favour of the average member. We create classes and programmes, we help with nutrition and so on, recognising these people aren't going to be Olympic athletes, they just need to get fit," he adds.
According to Balfour, what defines Jatomi is what it doesn't want to do, which is to subscribe to old-fashioned methods of getting and retaining members. Wearily, Balfour and Jobson both admit there are plenty of bad examples to learn from.
"Over the years, health clubs have drifted away from what their purpose is and have become very sales focused. That's not been good for the customer experience. Most clubs are very driven to get someone, and once they've joined they are left alone to fend for themselves. Then they focus on getting a next person while the first person has left — it's a horrible vicious cycle," Jobson says.
Balfour nods his head in agreement, saying, "I'm pretty much ashamed of the sales process at gyms today. It's unnecessary, manipulative and negative and we want to change that completely. We've got everything to be proud about in all our gyms — we are going to price them so they are affordable, design them so they are effective and hire really good staff that can make a difference."
The idea is that when you leave Jatomi, you will feel better from when you walked in. Positive vibes, helpful staff and a layout that's not intimidating are carefully chosen unique selling points that make the average gym member feel comfortable and not threatened.
"The service and culture is a main thrust of what we are trying to change. The culture in gyms now has gone completely overboard and Jatomi will change that," Balfour adds, tapping the table for emphasis. "The Jatomi brand is going to focus on exercise, personal training, functional training and nutrition — basically everything you need to get in shape under one roof. All of our programming is to ensure all customers get what they pay for — results. And to do that, our focus is on programmes that work and staff who know what they are doing."
The revolution that Jatomi is starting begins with its DNA — it is a retention-focused club, so the No 1 focus is getting customers to come back. To do that, salespeople who double-up as knowledge experts ensure that anyone who walks in doesn't leave feeling overwhelmed or misunderstood. Additionally, Jatomi will introduce personal trainers whose services can be adjusted according to budgets, group classes for people who are time-poor and video workouts you can do at home if you can't go to the club.
For those who find personal training expensive or outside of their needs, Jatomi provides something called a one-to-one. "Someone helps you out, shows you around, gets the weights for you and so on. It's half the cost of a personal trainer, and the trainer rotates. They will also lead group exercises, which you can choose to join. If you want to be on your own, you can follow a video. This is a huge innovation. It's much less than the cost of personal training and makes it so much more accessible," Mike observes.
The layout, which Jobson personally designed, works like any other in gym in that there are cardio machines, free weight areas and classes like step and kick-boxing. What they also have that's unique is something called the Queenax for suspension and functional training and the Curve, an entirely person-powered treadmill, which gets your body to learn and experience foot interaction with the ground while providing instantaneous feedback. There is also a two-lane sprint track for anyone who feels like a proper run.
MOVEfit is a rotating sequence of exercises that is designed to get all your muscles to work, the 10-week EATfit programme helps you fix your diet and ensure your nutrition needs are met while MINDfit is designed to get you started on the right path and stay motivated so you don't drop out, but rather, drop that old body.
Jobson has even gone so far as ensuring the changing rooms and showers are much nicer than the standard. Lockers are larger and tamper-proof while bathrooms are much more spacious with quality toiletries. A wrist tag that all members get works as their member card, unlocks lockers and is cash-loaded for vending machines.
"We want to make things easy," Jobson says. "That's the only way people will come back. It's also why we've made it possible to sign up online, resign online, get information online — it's geared to make things easier and hassle-free. More power to the members, really."
|The Jatomi gyms are designed to send out positive vibes so
as to make the experience more comfortable for members.
For any brand to become a global one, expansion into Asia is a given. The fitness industry provides an additionally compelling reason to do so. "In a very fast-growing and innovative market like Malaysia, only about 2% of the population are members of health clubs," Balfour says.
"In Europe that number is more like 16%, and in the US it's probably 17%. More people exercise in Europe than they do here, but it's not because Asians don't want to exercise, it's because there aren't enough clubs that work for everyone." It's the same reason why Balfour and Jobson think Indonesia is also such a fantastic market to be in — it has an increasingly large middle class whose fitness needs will need to be catered for.
Jatomi's immediate growth plans are impressive — as Jatomi opens in Petaling Jaya, another outlet is opening in Jakarta. Another opening is expected in Kuala Lumpur in August, with a total of seven outlets scheduled to open by the end of the year. The privately funded group is set to build around 40 to 50 clubs a year, all over the world — an enviable position indeed, especially these days.
Jatomi isn't the only project it has in mind, however. According to Balfour, the industry still primarily attracts members between the ages of 18 and 40, totally ignoring the needs of people who are past that age and who still need to exercise.
"One of the things you will see, hopefully by next year, is a club we design that I can join. It will be differently branded and focused on getting older people to work out. The industry has not addressed this area, and from a financial perspective, it's stupid — these people have the money, time and need. No one is doing it, so I think we can really revolutionise the industry by going in this direction."
No one disagrees that the world needs a fitness revolution. Perhaps this cheery Englishman who doesn't like exercise has the answer we're all looking for — going the extra mile in making the process an enjoyable one.
This story appeared in The Edge on July 9, 2012.