Over the past 6 years, it has grown its boot campers from 10 to 10,000.
When UFIT Founder Darren Blakeley led his first fitness boot camp in Fort Canning for 10 clients in 2008, he was sure that he would not go the traditional run of the mill operation that was all about machines and monthly memberships. As he gathered a growing band of boot camp clients, who heard about his classes by word of mouth, Blakeley met Dean Ahmad, Jeff Halley, and James Forrester, who would soon be his partners in his venture.
Unlike any other startups in the digital age, what these men offer is something not really disruptive. Instead, they are going to the roots of fitness and nutrition coaching while at the same time employing a 360° approach in offering technical skills and experience for its boot campers.
“From day one the goal was to offer physiotherapy, nutrition and fitness as these in my mind are the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle. And we recognised our target market would want proper attention to detail, for example not having to queue for showers," Blakeley said.
Meanwhile, Ahmad recalled, "Darren and I knew that quality was lacking in Singapore’s fitness industry and we wanted to change that. So I took my chances and went with it. We didn’t spend any money on marketing, the business just grew from word of mouth, and still today that’s how we get most of our business.”
After raising capital and attracting shareholders, Blakeley, Ahmad, and Forrester, with Halley as an adviser and investor, incorporated their company and opened the first UFIT gym in Amoy Street in August 2011.
Forrester said, “I didn’t have a big vision of where it would go. I recognised there was an opportunity to improve the standard of PT in Singapore. I thought we could offer it at a higher level. It was driven by a desire to do something I enjoyed more than a grand plan to grow a business”.
That philosophy was shared by Lisa Clayton, who had grown a casual outdoor fitness program for her friends into a thriving business, OZFIT Bootcamps. “For me it was something that grew from my heart, I wanted to train people well whilst making it fun and social.” In 2014, her business merged with UFIT, bringing hundreds of new clients into the UFIT community. Her exuberant leadership led to the more recently rebranded SHEFIT classes winning Shape Magazine’s 2017 “Best Outdoor Bootcamp Class” award.
In this exclusive interview with Singapore Business Review, Forrester, one of UFIT's founders and now its current CEO, shared how their vision has played out in the past six years. There is also a slideshow at the end of the article showing UFIT's milestones in their journey to making Singaporeans fit and healthy.
SBR: Since UFIT’s foundation, what has changed in the way you operate your business?
Forrester: We started with a single boot camp in 2008, and since then over 10,000 clients have used our services, so inevitably we’ve made some key changes to facilitate that growth.
Firstly we’ve adopted a franchise-type model, where exceptional staff are promoted to develop and independently manage new business lines. These employees are our star performers who have demonstrated great vision and client focus and are offered equity in their businesses to incentivise successful leadership. That approach has paid off with the success of the one-north gym which opened in 2015 under Stephen Greenan, followed by the UFIT Clinic under Declan Halpin, CrossFit Tanjong Pagar with Dylan Goddard, and UFIT Orchard under Nathan Williams, Glenn van der Veen and Tsvety Ivanova.The UFIT Nutrition group has similarly seen huge success, led by Wendy Riddell, also Director of Bootcamps.
Over the last few years, we’ve also encouraged our staff to follow their entrepreneurial instincts which is how the specialist UFIT Education group (Frazer McArdell), UFIT Youth Academy (Joe Williams and Tom Clarke), and the UFIT Clean & Lean Challenge came about. We have so much talent and passion across UFIT and really support our employees’ creativity and lateral thinking when it comes to business development.
And to become accessible to new markets we’ve developed online nutrition and fitness services for clients overseas, and our corporate business for companies wanting to offer a healthy lifestyle element to their employees - so our business model has progressed from traditional fitness into broader but related areas - both person-to-person and online. Not only has all this innovation resulted in our business growing but enables career progression for talented staff, leading to excellent staff retention.
As our team has grown we’ve used a collaborative approach to define and uphold our corporate culture - Passion, Excellence and Work Ethic - which has infiltrated all of the UFIT.
Importantly, we've enhanced our systems and processes to sustain our growing client base and demands of running a larger business, and now have in place a support team of accountants, marketers and administrators. As our business is centred around client relationships, we’ve developed a more sophisticated communications strategy to “value add” and update our clients frequently on the latest industry thinking, training tips, success stories and promotions. In addition to that we’ve aligned ourselves with respected wellness and lifestyle partners to enhance and broaden our clients’ overall experience with UFIT.
While we have grown from being a small business to a more “corporate” one, some things remain unchanged at UFIT - the provision of the highest quality training and advice to our clients, by a carefully selected team of professionals, whilst maintaining strong personal connections with our close-knit community. Essentially, the culture, core values and principles of UFIT will always remain. No matter how big we grow we’ll ensure we always feel like UFIT.
SBR: What are the major milestones UFIT has achieved in the past years? How wide is your customer base currently?
Forrester: UFIT has experienced outstanding growth since we opened our first gym in Amoy Street in 2011. We are now Singapore’s largest boutique fitness company, with over 80 outdoor weekly boot camps, a rehab clinic, and five gyms, the most recent one opening on Orchard Road in January 2017.
In Singapore’s competitive fitness market, we had our biggest year ever in 2016 and our client base of over 10,000 keeps growing within and beyond Singapore, serviced by over 80 employees.
Over that time we’ve become a complete fitness, rehab and nutrition service across every stage of the life-cycle and for all fitness levels. We call that our 360° approach.
SBR: What makes UFIT different from other fitness organisations in Singapore?
Forrester: We offer a complete wellness service which has the highest of standards, delivered by a hand-picked team of highly-qualified professionals who listen and are accountable to their clients. Our service can’t really be matched in Singapore in terms of quality. Many clients go to our competitors for their facilities or to balance out their training, but they keep coming back to us for the quality of coaching, holistic approach and the community.
The fostering of our close-knit community is a huge part of our success. On any day of the week, you can see large numbers of UFIT clients sprinting up and dominating the hills of Fort Canning at 6.30am, planking on the grass by the lake in the Botanic Gardens as the sun rises, and grunting, straining, laughing and chatting in any of the gyms. They train and compete together in Spartan races, running events, CrossFit championships and triathlons. In small groups, they travel to Bali for fitness retreats where they sweat it out in a tropical paradise. Bonds are formed – friendships begin and social events are arranged and well attended by glowing, fabulous looking friends. “My closest friends in Singapore are those I met at UFIT” is a common sentiment across the community.
Our coaches are well known to SMS their clients after sessions to see how they found them. Our gyms and clinic have a vibrant and inclusive environment. Several parents collecting their kids from the UFIT Youth Academy classes are active PT clients or boot camp participants, so entire families are well-known right across the business. Our coaches push our clients through their third round of jump lunges by reminding them, for example, “this is when the magic’s done”, or finishing with a little ritual at the end like “thank your body for all it’s done today”.
This has been backed up by testimonials from grateful clients who have won races after personal training, recovered from injuries at the clinic, enjoyed the team building at corporate boot camps, or lost weight at the UFIT Clean & Lean Challenge - in many instances their UFIT experience has been life-changing.
Our extensive network and partnerships have also unleashed many associated lifestyle benefits to clients. It’s a combination of tangibles and intangibles that make UFIT so unique.
SBR: What are your business philosophies? How do these philosophies help in running the business?
a. Quality training and consulting
We have very high standards and don’t believe in a set formula or one-size-fits-all approach. With the depth of knowledge and variety of coaches we have, the training our clients get is geared towards them as individuals and hugely about trust and partnerships. We’re also particular about form and physical correctness. It helps make the training more effective and minimises the chance of injury. And we don’t believe in fads, we follow fundamental philosophies which are honest and effective, all based on science. Our approach to fitness and nutrition outlasts fads.
b. Team culture
We’re well known for our quality hires, and have great coaches from a huge diversity of backgrounds. But what is really important to us is staff with an amazing work ethic and good listening skills, and we educate and upskill them, as appropriate. Being a great team player is also important.
From James' perspective, “Rugby taught me a lot. It’s well documented it’s massively a team game. Unlike cricket where one man’s performance can win a game, in rugby, you are relying on all the people around you. That’s the same with this business. It’s what we have tried to make UFIT all about”.
c. Just do it approach
We’re quite a modern company and very much in touch with our clients, so when something feels right, we follow our gut, and when backed up with an analysis we just go for it and do it. We’re big enough to have the internal intelligence and experience to know when something will work, whilst small enough to not be hindered by committees. We encourage entrepreneurship and always try to look at ways to offer our clients a complete service with the latest thinking.
d. We are here for our clients
Our clients appreciate that we don’t take anything for granted, and we want every single client to feel they are special. Most are here by referral and we strive to make a positive difference in all our clients’ lives.
e. A passion for fitness and good nutrition
All our employees actively train or engage in sport very frequently, so not only look the part but understand the mindset and challenges of the clients they train. Many are winners of races and championships they’ve competed in. Right across the business, we have staff who are really dedicated. They love to come to work and love what they do. They want to do it well, it’s their passion.
This is in line with our corporate mission statement: ‘At UFIT, we exist to inspire and guide our community of members to realise levels of fitness and confidence beyond what could be possible by themselves. Fitness isn’t our job, it is our way of life’. In doing so we strive to make our clients Fitter, Leaner, Stronger by employing our cultural values of Passion, Excellence and Work Ethic.
We have very high benchmarks. We have huge aspirations and a desire to inspire our staff, retain great talent and give all our clients 100% in everything we do, from the service they receive from our staff to the quality of the expertise they are paying for.
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