Fernwood founder Diana Williams tells Real Estate Business’ James Mitchell how a small gym in Bendigo became one of the fastest growing companies in the country
Back in 1989, Fernwood founder Diana Williams saw a gap in the market for a women-only gym.
A keen gym goer herself, Ms Williams realised the need for a place where women could go and work out without being ogled or hassled by men.
She also saw an opportunity in the evolving nature of the Australian health and fitness industry.
“Back in the early days I used to do weight training at a mixed gym and I was very impressed with how it impacted on me physically,” Ms Williams says.
“I improved my metabolism, my body shape changed, I toned up and I felt fantastic,” she says.
And yet few women did any weight training at all back in the late eighties.
The preferred activity for women’s fitness was aerobics classes, popularised by an onslaught of celebrity fitness tapes from the likes of Olivia Newton-John and Jane Fonda.
Ms Williams saw that weight training could be beneficial to women as well as men, but felt a single sex gym was necessary.
“The weight training area in gyms back then was very much a male-dominated area,” Ms Williams says.
“The purpose of starting Fernwood was to get women into weight training, because the results are quite outstanding compared to the results you get by just doing aerobics classes.”
Twenty years later and the Fernwood brand has become a household name, not to mention one of the most successful franchise businesses in Australia.
The club has won countless awards over the years and in 2007 Ms Williams became the first woman inducted into the Franchising Council of Australia’s Hall of Fame.
Two years previously, in 2005, she was named Telstra Australian Businesswoman of the Year.
But the booming business that we know today started out as a single gym in Bendigo, Victoria, where Ms Williams first conceived of the idea that revolutionised the fitness industry for Australian women.
Ms Williams opened her small gym in Bendigo in 1989.
It quickly became successful with women in the local area, but Ms Williams admits she had no allusions of grandeur or aspirations to grow a national franchise business.
“I felt that there might be a need for a women’s gym but I wasn’t sure,” she says.
“I was a single, stay-at-home-mum at the time I set up my little gym and never intended for it to be a big business.”
But the Australian fitness industry had other ideas.
After two years the Bendigo gym had become so popular it gave Ms Williams the idea to expand the business.
One of the reasons for the gym’s success in the early days had been the level of care from Ms Williams.
As the owner and founder of the company, she was diligent with her relationships with staff and members and had a clear view of how her gym should be run.
The idea of expanding was exciting, but it presented a challenge when it came to delegating authority while maintaining a quality service.
“I was so diligently caring about the members and making sure they got results as well as keeping the club in pristine condition and bringing in fresh flowers,” Ms Williams says.
“I was concerned how others were going to keep up that level of service,” she says.
After considering a number of alternatives, it was decided that a franchise model would be the most effective.
“With franchising it’s perfect because you have an owner/operator caring about the business and being diligent about making sure the members get the best service, that the club is in pristine condition – and you are also getting involved with the local community,” she says.
“I think that has been one of the main reasons that we have been so successful for so long, because we have owner/operators running our clubs.”
After some initial difficulty securing finance, the business was up and running and rapidly gathering momentum.
The first franchise opened in 1994 and by 1995, 14 clubs had been established in four states. That year, Fernwood turned over $1 million.
But while operating a franchise business enabled Ms Williams to maintain a high standard across the board, it was not without its challenges.
In an industry heavily reliant on the quality of its staff, dealing with different personalities was a constant learning process.
A PEOPLE PERSON
When asked what the most challenging aspect of her career has been, Ms Williams cuts straight to the chase.
“Managing people and understanding personalities,” she says.
“It has always been a difficult thing to understand different personalities and how to manage them.
“Obviously I’ve got a lot better at it, being in business for such a long time now, but in the early days it was tough,” she says.
Managing people is a challenge common to most businesses, but in an industry that is so weighted towards its membership numbers the task can be even more demanding.
Fernwood now boasts 68,000 members and 2,200 employees, a remarkable achievement that has only been made possible by Ms Williams’ personal approach to people management.
“It was tough because I was learning the franchise ropes I suppose,” she says.
“It’s an interesting relationship that you manage between a franchisee and a franchisor, because you are in business together and yet the franchisor is the person who sets the rules and the boundaries, and the franchisees are running their business. It is their business, so they like to contribute,” she says.
“And of course they are paying a franchise fee as well so there is that financial side to the relationship.
“It’s a very interesting relationship to manage and you have to learn how to do it well.”
Learning proved to be an on-the-job process of continual trial and error.
A woman with a strong sense of self, Ms Williams understands her abilities, and her limitations, and says it was this progressive attitude that allowed her to find a solution – most of the time.
“I tend not to be frightened,” Ms Williams says.
“I wouldn’t say I look forward to challenges, but when a challenge presents itself I say to myself ‘What are all the things I can do to change this?’
“Once I sit down and work out a plan and put it into place, I’m no longer in fear because I know that I’m doing what I need to do to make a change.”
It seems to be a natural part of Ms Williams’ make-up to remain positive and overcome challenges.
Where most people would quiver in fear at the prospect of dealing with a staff of 2,200, Ms Williams takes a logical stance.
“I take control of what I can, and what I can’t I don’t worry about,” she says.
“If it’s beyond my control then I move on to focussing on things that I can change, rather than the things I can’t.
“That’s just my personality.”