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INTERVIEW IAN KEARNEY


The UK general manager of low-cost operator Fit for Free talks to Kate Cracknell about personal attention in a budget framework, and about gym membership that’s offered ‘for free’


I


t was a spot of luck, combined with the selection of the right online search criteria, that brought Ian Kearney to his current job


as UK general manager of low-cost operator Fit for Free. Following a career in media sales, in


2003 he opened a children’s activity centre – Cheeky Monkeys – in partnership with his wife. The success of that venture led to the opening of a second equally successful centre, with 50,000 people coming through the door every year. “But when the recession hit, we realised it couldn’t sustain both of us. A business of that size needs continuous investment – almost every year, you have to reinvent yourself with the next offering, the next ride, the next feature,” says Kearney. “So after seven or eight years of working for myself, I had to make the decision to go back into the corporate world. “But I had no idea what to do, other


than not wanting to go back into media. I knew I was interested in leisure and family entertainment, I liked the idea of launching new businesses – I also had a small consultancy business helping other people launch their own companies. Sometimes it was just an advisory role; other times I was more hands-on, in one case even fi nding the building, launching the business and recruiting all the staff. “I was thinking maybe hotels, maybe


health and fi tness, maybe Centerparcs- type venues… On the fi rst day I actually started to search the job market, I put my search criteria into a job listings website and it delivered me 10 jobs. The fi rst one I opened, at half past eight that morning, was Fit for Free.”


PROVING THE MODEL The Dutch operator (see ‘company history’, p35) was aiming to enter the


34


UK market after enjoying good growth in its native market. “It wanted to prove it wasn’t just a Dutch-specific business model,” says Kearney. “Discussing growth plans with investors and banks, the Fit for Free team was told it needed to prove the model outside Holland, so other markets were investigated: the UK first, Belgium second, Poland, and then lastly Brazil.” That might seem a peculiar


combination of markets, but as Fit for Free’s head of marketing Tina Farifteh explains: “The market has to be right, with the right operating conditions, but the most important factor for us is the


‘boots on the ground’ – the person who will oversee the launch and roll-out.” By 2011, the lease had already been


signed on the fi rst UK site, in Liverpool, and Fit for Free was looking for the


‘boots on the ground’ for the UK business. Step forward Kearney, who joined the company in July of that year. “I think they had expected to recruit


someone with fi tness sector experience, but in fact it suited them well to induct me in their mould,” says Kearney. “Also, crucially, they didn’t want to keep buying in resources to help with design, construction, project management, recruitment and launch, and I was able to do all that for them.”


UK LAUNCH So what does Fit for Free offer in the UK, and how does it compare to the Dutch model? “A typical club measures 15,000–20,000sq ft, and I’d expect capacity to be around 7,000 members; we’re currently at about 4,000 in our fi rst two clubs,” says Kearney. “We offer 220 pieces of equipment


– mostly Precor, but with one Teca Switching circuit – and a full instructor- led studio offering. Membership costs


Read Health Club Management online at healthclubmanagement.co.uk/digital


£15.95 a month for gym-only, or £9.95 off-peak, or you can opt for gym and classes at £19.95 a month. Sixty per cent of our members are on the £15.95 package, but even they have access to free classes in the morning and evening, fi ve days a week: circuits, CrossFit, abs. “The look and feel of our clubs is the


same as in the Netherlands – the same lockers, carpet, content, wall coverings, staff uniforms – and overall the offering is about 85 per cent similar. However, I was given the autonomy to question things they did in the Netherlands that I didn’t think would work in the UK. “Bikes are part of daily life in the


Netherlands, for example, but in the UK we need car parking facilities. We also have a different equipment mix in the


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