With Jeff Halley
Director, Investor, Entrepreneur and one of the founders of UFIT in Singapore
The words we are writing today may surprise you. They may remind you of many of the greatest companies or quotes from their founders. But most of all, we hope it will encourage you to read this interview and reflect. UFIT has astounding growth, a new holistic approach to their business and rave reviews from customers, staff and investors. Something special is going on here! We spoke with Jeff Halley, one of the founders and in a minute will tell you what he said.
You may have seen TV interviews with successful business leaders. We recall one interview where a global name is creating companies that manufacture products that help the community from their birthplace and serve delighted customers and happy investors. These leaders seem to have a natural sense as to what is needed by customers. They instinctively know how to build a community of interest, inspiring top performance from all involved. Some names probably come to mind and maybe you are using their products. These leaders create a special workplace environment. This benefits staff and customers. The positive ambiance engenders good service, job interest and job passion. Customer care becomes tangible and consistent….this leads to customer referrals, recommendations and the company prospers, seemingly absorbing the positive vibes producing still further growth. We see positive, remarkable growth and an enviable work environment. These leaders are inspirational.
After speaking with Jeff we realised that this is happening in UFIT. If you are already a customer you will know!
Here is our interview with Jeff. This is more than a keep fit company.
Q 1: How did UFIT Start?
We started with just 5 people and now have over 50 – I am very proud of the company. It is a lifestyle business with a mission. We strive to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I get a huge buzz from what we have achieved. OK there have been bumps on the way but it is going well. I believe, we believe, this mission starts with our people. From the start we aimed to treat staff well, meet their needs. If you inject that mission into the culture of the organization & provide a great environment to support it, they will extend the same to the customer. Its counter intuitive but we believe if you do this then a lot of the rest of the business will take care of itself. Our mission is to make a positive impact on everybody’s lives both in the company and those who walk through our doors. It is that simple. We took our model from a global pharmaceutical company, whose founding principle was to help the human race. When a river blindness epidemic hit an area in West Africa they gave the people their world class drugs to cure them. When asked about this, they said our company was built with the aim of helping people. Yes, they sold the product elsewhere but here they saw a special need. We were inspired by this action and philosophy. This is for UFIT ongoing and fundamental.
Q2 What does UFIT provide?
We decided to bring into being a wide range of fitness activities and expertise to help people in their lives but with a very personal and hands on approach. UFIT was founded on its original one to one personal training gym and our outdoor boot camps. We now have many areas of activity. For example, we have nutritionists, specialised outdoor boot camps, physio, two cross-fit gyms, post injury rehab training and have opened a 2nd personal training facility. Another example is our clean and lean programme to teach people how to choose the right food, to eat properly and choose the right ingredients to complement the trainings that they are doing. We even have a cookbook written by one of our amazing people. There are many more activities plus new ideas that will be launched soon.
The idea is to create ecosystem of support to help our customers achieve their individual goals through the different activities. The other support system that we created is the community around these activities, another big driver to motivate our customers to successfully adopt the practise as part of their new lifestyle.
One of the next steps in strengthening our strategy is a branding exercise to bring it all together under the ‘UFIT’ brand. For example SheFit - training guidance that is exclusively for women. This is all part of our aim to create higher awareness on UFIT and what we are about. We want to be a branded house. This is an important change, to create more value to the brand, the company synonymous with quality – people will know what to expect when dealing with a UFIT company. That’s means potential new staff as well as clients. We want to be a place the best people aspire to work. This goes back to my comments above. This exercise will bring all the different activities under one banner. I am constantly surprised that so many SME’s do not or don’t know about the power of their brand. It can make or break you but if you are doing it right, it is a financial asset to your business on many levels.
Many customers are here due to referrals. We are not a chop shop gym, we are a community of fitness professionals doing a job we all love and we constantly reinforce this message and provide the best environment - the rest takes care of itself.
Q3 What are your future plans
This focus on branding, growing the brand, also means it becomes a magnet for external investors. This is in our plan as we are thinking of expanding to other countries such as Indonesia. People there are really into fitness, but few companies offer services. For example, Jakarta is a huge city and hosts many major companies. Manilla is the same. There are many cities with people beginning to or already earning good salaries and looking for more balance in their lives. Health and fitness are part of that balance.
As we create a community we have different solutions for their requirements. Some may not want to go to a gym so we offer training outdoors. Some may not have spare funds for a total package so we can tailor solutions to fit. People can move in and out of programmes to suit their needs. Others may need advice and rehab training following injuries, others may seek advice on nutrition and others are looking for CrossFit training.
We meet a huge number of people and find we have a lot of like minded people with us and this is all about growing a community. I cannot stress enough how we see many who are now friends, they socialise together, this positive affect grows; helping, encouraging, advising, informing, teaching, guiding. We see this as being “holistic”. We stay true to who we are.
We spend a lot of money on training and we have staff who are really dedicated. They love to come to work, they love what they do and want to do it well. It is their passion. We pay them well, we look after them and this reflects in the way customers are helped and encouraged to gain super results in a content universe of activity that can grow. We are now a multi-million dollar business and as I have said we plan to expand overseas. This concept attracts external investors - we have created a holistic community and it is growing. It is around these sustainable profitable activities that we are growing the brand.
None of us thought the company would grow so quickly. We just followed who were are and our convictions through the tough times and things have worked out with some bumps on the way I might add!
Q4 What locations do you have in Singapore, what do they do?
In Singapore we now have two personal training gyms with physios and nutritionists, two CrossFit boxes a huge range of outdoor boot camps around Singapore. We also run courses to teach people to run properly and for example, train for specific sports. We provide thematic outdoor classes with activity such as box fit, yoga fit - incorporating yoga moves with an aerobic workout. This is very popular with those looking for more flexibility. We are also providing more specialised activities such as fitness travel short breaks around the regions of Phuket and Bali.
Q5 What else makes UFIT different
We are very aware that people are paying good money for our services - we want people to be really happy with how they are treated and guided and that they feel the benefits, totally. We treat people with dignity. For example we enabled changes for mothers to be, who are on our staff list, so they can work with their new lifestyle. We can even look after their children. Ok it is not so financially attractive to change the staff contracts but it is important. This is a key part of our ethos. Why lose brilliant staff when all we need to do is be a little flexible.
Q6 What would you change if starting again?
If we were to start again I would hire a full time marketing specialist and also an accountant much earlier in the initial growth stage. We have doubled again and again our expenditure that also seems to have doubled and doubled along with income! Rents in Singapore are “emotional” as are some of the landlords. With several different business lines the accounting is complex. We have customers paying in advance for a total set of courses. All this needs to be managed correctly. We still have work to do on our points of sale. We should have completed the hires within 6 months of starting the company. Cash control is vital. None of the founders is an accountant. The marketing is another of my bug bears. Marketing is what drives sales and builds brands and gets your message out there. We are very lucky that through the community word of mouth has treated us so well. Everyone should look up the brand pyramid.
Most importantly, always assume it will cost you more to start and grow then what you “conservatively” wrote in your business plan. Possibly a lot more. Most small and medium businesses fail because of cash flow issues, not because they necessarily had a bad idea.
Q7 What are the backgrounds of the founders?
One is an ex England Rugby player, others are fitness coaches and I have a day job in the financial markets and a non exec position with an online education company. (That’s another story). I helped with the funding and the brand. I have an MBA but that’s the closest any of us were to Finance Directors at the time! It is all very well creating the holistic environment, but there are a number of things underlying it to get right and keep the company in shape. If a company is in fast growth phase you need the business admin and accounts in place, the control with an accountant onboard. It has been a steep learning curve but immensely rewarding.
Q8 Are you worried you will be copied and how do you stay ahead?
I tell my colleagues this - if you have a good idea you will be copied – that is the way it goes, just move on. But we now have considerable momentum. We have our community of amazing staff and clients. We have our brand. None is easily replicable in totality only in parts. We also now have more financial power. Rents are ridiculously high in Singapore, but we can afford to sensibly spend for a good location and to fit it out correctly. Or invest in new ideas that add value to our core purpose. We are not heavily machine based – you will see free weights in our gyms, but not machines with TV’s on them or treadmills. This conforms to our functional fitness methodology based on the human form and is a more natural way of exercising. You won’t see weights machines either. Hitting a tractor tyre with a sledge hammer is much more fun! Ditto the outdoor boot camps. You will see groups of people doing exercises with giant rubber bands. Speaking of treadmills at any UFIT location, we love making clients sprint up hills and down lanes. A lot! Who needs a treadmill? I wish the rowing machines would break though…..
We do not want to compete with the mainstream gyms. Our business model is completely different as is our philosophy. We have competitors in every line or activity but nobody has put them all together into one community. We have scale and the unique UFIT culture and community. A competitor would need to spend millions to try and replicate what we now have within the UFIT group physically. Replicating the community, the amazing people who work for us and our equally amazing customers is another matter or our brand value is another matter.
This is not to say we are complacent, far from it. We are constantly looking to innovate. The move into CrossFit for example was driven by our employees. They’re very smart people. If we see or are presented with an idea that aligns with our reason to be and we can afford it and resource it, then we will take a look at it. Further to that our people relish staying abreast of the latest research within the industry.
I mentioned the recipe book that is provided to our customers. This is another area that can be developed for the Internet space. The author is one of our nutritionists. This eBook is very popular. There is a huge potential in this area as well. People are scared they will have to give up things they like to eat. This entire subject has so many rumours that lead to doubts. We also have talks and mass group workouts. People encourage each other and inform each other.
Our boot camp instructors design courses to fit our customers’ needs. If someone comes through the door, then on day 1, it is everybody’s responsibility in our team to engage with that person to find out what they need and then help them, making sure every person feels welcome, is correctly informed and encouraged. Incidentally, our trainers can also visit clients at their location.
So we are constantly innovating and this is driven from within and without. Yes we watch the competition but I think that often too much of that goes on. It is more important to play your own game and constantly strive to improve and stay true to your core purpose/values. The rest takes care of itself in the form of happy clients, loyalty, brand value and profit.
Q9 How do you keep getting the right staff and keep them?
We are lucky to have people wanting to work for us but we do not take them all. We find the best and we have worked hard to make this the situation – to get the best so they can give the best guidance and attention to our customers. We structure our businesses providing equity stakes. For example, the new PT gym and the new CrossFit centres. We promoted existing staff to run these new business units. They were offered equity in these subsidiaries. They thus participate in the rewards and the heartaches of building parts of our business. So we offer a pathway for our staff to potential equity and or leadership. People love what they do but it they want to do more then we provide the routes. I am very proud of this. I can’t think of a better way to recognise and retain your key people. It also provides a pool of experience for future growth.
Q10 How long has UFIT been operating?
This is our fourth year. It has been a steep learning curve. We have seen at least 40 percent growth of year on year. We originally targeted the top 5 percent of gym users but as UFIT evolved we have members from a variety of demographics. Customers who want to join our community. We haven’t even touched the Internet yet. This provides an opening for online nutrition and fitness opportunities.
Anyone who starts a company is always going to work more hours and feel the stress. It’s a different kind of pressure to working than 9 to 5. It is something many are not used to seeing – suddenly we found ourselves responsible for many staff, many customers and a multimillion dollar business. It can be scary watching money going out as fast as it comes in and it all needs to be kept on the financial track. Many start a company out of passion but the accountant is needed to help manage the working capital.
As a Director of the Board I am very proud of how my fellow founders have grown into their leadership roles and negotiated the pot holes along the way. There will be more. It is immensely satisfying to help create a company and to see and help it grow into a viable business. I look at the business more strategically now with the Board but still enjoy getting my hands dirty. Hopefully I will be able to do this with other businesses in the future.
We created the environment based on the many years of experience of my fellow founders in this field, with an overriding vision to not accept the status quo and not to deviate from our core values. We have deepened our concept of providing a holistic approach. We have added financial management skills to grow further and farther with security as we now take this concept of improving people’s lives to more countries.