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Weigh to go Agnes, first lady of NI’s slimming industry

From nine friends at her first class in 1968 to 50,000 members today, the story of family-run Newry firm Unislim

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Agnes (left), her daughter Fiona and granddaughter Mila, three generations of Unislim

Agnes (left), her daughter Fiona and granddaughter Mila, three generations of Unislim

Fiona (front) and her new cohort of team leaders celebrate 50 years in the industry

Fiona (front) and her new cohort of team leaders celebrate 50 years in the industry

A newspaper clipping of Agnes with a young Fiona, now MD

A newspaper clipping of Agnes with a young Fiona, now MD

Agnes (right) with daughter Fiona and granddaughter Mila

Agnes (right) with daughter Fiona and granddaughter Mila

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Agnes (left), her daughter Fiona and granddaughter Mila, three generations of Unislim

With only a simple set of weighing scales and a desire to help people in their community, a pioneering young Newry couple set up what was Northern Ireland’s first ever slimming class back in the late 1960s.

The concept of coming together to lose weight was unheard of when Agnes McCourt and her late husband Brian decided to invite local mums to a weekly meeting in 1968.

The young couple, both teachers, had no idea they had stumbled on something that would go on to transform thousands of lives for the better.

As word of their class spread, Agnes and Brian were inundated with requests to set up other groups in towns across the country.

Within just a couple of years they were so busy driving round Northern Ireland taking classes that they decided to give up their pensionable teaching jobs to run their weight loss business full-time.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the company Unislim, which is still family-run, has become a household name in Northern Ireland.

Agnes (81) is still very much hands-on and is delighted that one of her three children, Fiona Gratzer (55), grew up just as passionate about the business and is now at the helm as managing director.

This year a third generation of the family is also involved as Fiona’s daughter, Mila (21), has taken a year’s placement from her university marketing degree to help bring her skills to the firm.

And Unislim marks half a century in business stronger than ever with news that 40 new classes are to be rolled out across the country this month.

The company — which takes a holistic approach to dieting and lifestyle — is still as forward-thinking today as it was back in the 60s.

The story of the slimming giant’s humble beginnings goes back to the border village of Killeen where Agnes as a young mum-of-three, realised she needed to lose weight.

“I had a bit of weight on from having my three children and I was always very figure-conscious and fashion-conscious,” she says. “I was part of a community where there were a lot of young mothers giving birth and busy with their children.

“It was Brian who suggested that I should hire the local school hall one night a week to run a weight-reducing class.

“I went round the neighbours who were young families like myself, and we started the first class on a Tuesday night in Cloughoge Primary School in Newry.

“We had nine people and I brought weighing scales and wrote down their weight and we had a chat about what we could do to lose weight and eat less.

“There were no supermarkets then with low fat foods, we just all shopped local. It was a different time altogether.

“It was also a chance to get mums out from the kitchen sink as in those days when you got married and had kids, you gave up your job to be at home full-time.

“The young mums loved having an evening out and the chance to mix with other ladies.”

That was 1968 when both Brian and Agnes still worked full-time as teachers, running their classes at night and caring for three young children.

But by 1972, the business had mushroomed to such an extent that the couple took the brave step of giving up their jobs to run it full-time.

Very early on they had recognised that exercise and healthy eating go hand-in-hand and that approach continues to form the backbone of Unislim today.

Agnes gives Brian, who she tragically lost early to cancer in 1985, most of the credit for driving the group forward as a viable business.

“We learned a lot from those early years taking the first classes. It was all very experimental, but we knew there was great demand,” she says.

“We just kept getting calls from people asking would we open a class in their area.

“We were travelling to Warrenpoint and Banbridge and finally when we were asked to open a class in Dromore in 1972, Brian said that we should think about giving up our jobs and running it as a business.

“At that time, it was known as the Agnes McCourt Weight Reducing Programme which was a bit of a mouthful and Brian realised we needed to change the name and we finally came up with Unislim.

“It was all very new and the first of its kind in the country. Everyone wanted out to do things and exercise and we got a good system going.

“We eventually realised we couldn’t do it all and so we decided to train people to run classes for us.”

Agnes was left devastated when Brian was diagnosed with cancer and lost his battle with the disease.

He had been her best friend as well as her husband and business partner and she was bereft but determined to keep the company going on her own in his memory.

“It was a terrible tragedy and a big blow. I had to pick up the pieces and go on and do the best I could to run the company without him. I wanted to keep going in Brian’s memory,” she explains. “I had to put people in senior positions and that was tough.

“My daughter Fiona had come into the company from college and started by making coffee and printing for people in the office. She worked her way up to becoming managing director.

“It is wonderful that she had the same passion for it that I do.”

Looking back Agnes feels understandably proud of what she and her family have achieved.

From what was only initially intended as a small class for her neighbours grew beyond her wildest dreams.

“I still have a smile on my face when it flashes through my head the hard work I did and the roads we drove to open classes in those early days,” she says.

“It’s really fabulous and a very great compliment for people to come to our classes and that’s very complimentary to my late husband too.

“It has kept me active. Also knowing that it has helped so many people lose weight gives me a great sense of pride. We have people who lost as much as eight and 10 stone.

“It’s quite amazing that this little seed took root years ago and has blossomed into what it is today.”

As her daughter Fiona runs the company today, she says she couldn’t do it without her mum’s continued support and expertise. Mum is retired but still very much involved. Her knowledge is invaluable. “The most important aspect for us has always been that it is a family business, and everyone involved, from members to our leaders, are part of that family.

“It’s wonderful for me to have mum around.”

Like most businesses, the spread of Covid-19 hit the company hard, with lockdown forcing classes to close across the country.

Before the pandemic, Unislim had 50,000 members in Northern Ireland. Now as things slowly get back to normal, the company has ambitious plans for 2022.

News that Weight Watchers is to pull out of Northern Ireland as a casualty of Covid has presented an opportunity which Fiona has been quick to seize. “We wanted to support the people of Weight Watchers and we entered into negotiations to take on their coaches,” she says. “As a result, we are opening 40 new classes in Northern Ireland during January which is phenomenal for us. It is a very exciting time.”

And as many of us vow to change to a healthier lifestyle in 2022, Unislim is getting ready to help ensure that this is one New Year resolution we will keep.

Fiona adds: “We have a holistic approach to weight loss which is not just about food but your mood and exercise.

“It’s about living healthier and looking at stress levels and things like your sleep patterns. We take everything into account.

“Our approach is slow and steady; it’s about helping members to make small, sustainable lifestyle changes that will ensure lasting success. There really is no better way to go into the New Year.”

To find out more about Unislim, go to www.unislim.com


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