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Jim Durie: 'You can come from any walk of life and run an Energie gym'

Jim Durie describes how he needs ambitious franchisees to help roll out more fitness centres in Northern Ireland

You might not have heard much about Fit4less, but that is about the change. Energie is the market leading fitness franchise group in the UK and Ireland, offering franchisees the opportunity to fulfil their business dreams with one of its three proven and successful franchise products - Fit4less by Energie, Energie fitness clubs and Energie fitness for women.

A fitness revolution, it is coming to Northern Ireland to provide people with the chance to improve their health, while at the same time offering entrepreneurs and investors an exciting business opportunity working with the Fit4less brand.

It already has a presence in Northern Ireland - with its Energie Fitness Club in Coleraine and a Fit4less gym in Lisburn.

However, it has identified a gap in the market and is hoping for a substantial expansion in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The company is planning to open 10 new Fit4less gyms in Northern Ireland over the next 12 to 18 months.

It has identified Junction One in Co Antrim as a location for one of its Fit4less gyms.

Junction One is set to undergo a £30m overhaul with its owners hoping to redevelop the site with new shops, new square and new food and drinks outlets.

Jim Durie, managing direct of Fitness Club Franchising (Ireland), is confident the time is right for the company to flourish here. He is now on the look-out for potential businesspeople keen to share in the success of the brand by investing as a franchisee.

He said: "The concept behind the Fit4less clubs is that they are affordable, but unlike some of the other cheaper gyms, they aren't a warehouse type gym, and that allows us to keep the quality of the service much higher.

"The Energie gyms have more facilities, such as swimming pools, but the monthly fee for them is higher than the Fit4less gyms.

"We believe the economy in Ireland is sufficiently sluggish for Fit4less to be a success. People still notice £40 going out of their bank account every month, whereas £19.99 a month isn't a lot.

"The product was designed to respond to the economic climate."

The franchises are open to anyone - there is no limit on the kinds of people the company has attracted.

Over the years, people from all backgrounds have chosen to open an Energie Ireland club - from accountants, investors, managers, franchisees from other sectors, fitness teachers, health enthusiasts and housewives.

With the cost of a Fit4less franchise typically starting at about €35,000 (£30,000), it is important they do succeed and the company relies on a tried and tested business model to make sure this happens, according to Mr Durie.

"Our clubs are profitable before they have even opened their doors," he said.

"This is achieved through massive pre-sales where we would offer a lower registration cost for maybe the first thousand members.

"Social media marketing is the single biggest tool we use to build up a customer base long before we open the doors.

"We use CGI to show people the interior of the club before it is ready.

"It isn't a pre-requisite that we have 1,000 members before we open, but our franchisee is never left in a position where they are in a negative position."

Anyone thinking about taking on a Fit4less franchise can do so in the knowledge that they will receive expert guidance throughout the process. A business background is certainly not essential as full training will be provided.

"We start at the beginning and hold the hand all the way through," continued Mr Durie.

"The training and guidance is comprehensive, for example we have a young man in the office at the moment and he has been working with us for a while now.

"I was chatting to him last week and he told me it wouldn't matter if he didn't open a club as he has acquired such a lot of knowledge about business.

"You don't need to know about business to be a business person and being into fitness isn't necessary either.

"If someone has money they are looking to invest in a product, then we will help them get into business.

"We have instances where we have people who require a return on an investment quickly and we can have a return on an investment in 20 to 22 months.

"We have multiple franchisees, people who have invested their money, seen a return and want to reinvest, so open up another gym."

Mr Durie continued: "The whole process can take as much as 12 months or it can be as little as three months, but the ideal time is between three and 12 months, so about a six to eight-month timeline for a franchisee to get from start to finish.

"There are a number of mitigating factors. We have to apply for planning and consent for change of use and that can take up to three months.

"Obviously, we have to order the equipment and much of this is manufactured in China which can take up to three months.

"We need to get all the ducks in a row before we open and once each of the ducks are standing still we can move forward.

"We need planning consent first. After that we can think about ordering the equipment or marketing material."

Social media plays a massive role in attracting customers and the company relies on a clever marketing strategy to get attention.

One particular advertisement shows an alien and spaceship, accompanied by the slogan, 'They're coming… and when they arrive they'll take the fat ones first'.

Mr Durie continued: "It can be a bit risky, from time to time we get a lot of reaction from people who are offended, but they are soon persuaded that actually we take the business very seriously.

"They realise we are just being tongue in cheek.

"It is deliberate tactic for social media marketing to build brand awareness."

In fact, nothing happens by accident when it comes to Fit4less.

For example, the company relies heavily upon technology to map out the best possible locations to open a gym.

"We know the demographics, the population density," explained Mr Durie.

"We look for 20,000 18 to 24-year-olds in a particular area to give us the basis on which to build a successful business."

Mr Durie said the company has already identified a number of locations where it is keen to open a franchise.

However, he said they will never engage in a price war with a competitor.

"We are quite happy to camp on anyone else's doorstep as we believe our product is far superior to anything else out there at the moment," he said.

Once a gym has opened, its success is constantly scrutinised remotely.

"We employ technology to monitor what is happening in the club," continued Mr Durie.

"We look at everything, footfall, patterns of usage, we monitor sales, there is a whole range of performance indicators we look at on a month by month basis.

"The head office team can look at a club and if they are not happy about what is happening in a club, they will very quickly get on the phone and tell them what is not working.

"We understand the franchisee has a major personal investment in the business and we want it to succeed.

"We ensure that their investment is going to be sufficiently looked after.

"Franchising is like baking a cake.

"There are a set number of ingredients and a set number of processes.

"Leave one or more of the ingredients or skip over a process and the cake does not turn out the way you want it to look or taste.

"The franchisor's task is to decide on the kind of cake they want, provide the ingredients and process and the franchisee's role is to skilfully bake the same cake over and over.

"There's very little mystery on how to get it right.

"People think it is difficult to be in business whereas the message has to be that franchising removes the fear factor.

"We believe we give that level of support and encourage people to succeed.

"We have gone through a lot of things, made more mistakes than you can imagine, but we know that you get back up and try again.

"Through mistakes, you build a system that works and we now have procedures in place, we have built strong foundations on which franchises can succeed."

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