Fit talent for the health & fitness sector

The fitness industry is an active one. With pun intended, it also refers to an industry that’s actively seeking for the right talent but the hunt remains an uphill battle — much like a challenging workout.

Working in the industry is not just about being fit and having the admirable set of body aesthetics (although that is usually required), but there’s a relentless search for professionals who also have the attributes and skills needed to manage a department, facility or group of fitness clubs.

The health and fitness industry is growing at a progressive pace with an increasing number of gym memberships as well as fitness outlets. The market penetration rate of fitness centres in Malaysia is between 1% and 2% compared to 5% in Singapore, and between 10% and 17% in the US, Australia and the UK.

The market value of the health and fitness industry in the UK alone is £3.81 billion pounds (RM18.59 billion) and A$2.87 million Australian dollars (RM9.41 million) in Australia.

In the US, gym membership numbers have increased over the past 10 years from 36.3 million in 2002 to more than 42.8 million in 2011.

Hence, the aim of the fitness industry is to evolve and forge a profitable future, and in order for this to happen, it needs to identify and groom the next crop of leaders like any other industry.

For Fitness First Malaysia, their ideal end game is to find these special individuals who will be able to multitask and work in various departments in order for them to hone the leadership skills as they develop their careers towards the management level.

This means that their receptionist should also be able to show members how to use the machines correctly and safely, sales consultants will be able to demonstrate some simple exercises while the fitness instructors themselves can be manning the front desk and greeting members as they walk in.

“Ultimately, we’ll have Fitness First ambassadors and they’ll be multitasking and able to fulfil almost any function in the club. In order for us to grow, we need more of such talent,” says Fitness First Malaysia’s chief financial officer Davd Prosser.

And growth is what the global health and fitness chain has its sights on. It started as a small outlet in Bournemouth, UK, in 1992 and is now the largest health and fitness group in the world with more than 1.2 million members in their more than 430 clubs in 19 countries.

In Asia, the chain has 80 clubs with more than 200,000 members in six countries and continues to grow year-on-year in revenue of 8%, thanks to the mushrooming number of fitness enthusiasts and the health conscious.

Its first club in Malaysia opened 11 years ago in Menara Manulife in Damansara Heights and now has 14 clubs.

But even with the large number of clubs and members, the company’s mantra is one that believes that every single member counts in terms of achieving their personal goals in health and fitness, thus its success is attributed to the way they treat and serve their members.

“We are very focused on our members getting real results from their fitness programmes. Retention is the biggest challenge in this industry so we can’t afford to get a member onboard and leave them because we don’t treat our memberships as sales,” says Prosser.

One of the problems with the human race is that it is “inherently lazy” says Prosser with a capitulated chuckle.

“It’s not easy for people to leave their homes and come for workout in a gym on a frequent basis, so we need to have professional certified staff who’ll engage with and motivate our members to see results in their fitness programme. This encourages them to keep coming back,” explains Prosser.

A club can have the best facilities and fitness equipment in the world but it’s the quality of its talent that would either retain members or make them leave.

“The fitness industry is services driven, but because it’s very competitive, a club should have the right people to give exceptional service to new and existing members because if they aren’t happy at your club, they’ll leave and your reputation suffers,” says Prosser, who was employed by the company in the UK 15 years ago as its financial accountant and worked his way up the ranks to his current position.

However, while constantly improving their services to retain members, the company also finds it a challenge to retain their top performers.

“Although we do have competitive salary packages for our staff, we find that retaining our talent is a challenge because our competitors offer them better incentives, be it in remuneration or other bonuses which tends to strengthen their pull-factor. But unlike what we practise, we know that they don’t invest in training and career development in the management track.

They are often looking for short-term gains and that’s why some clubs face a high turnover rate of staff,” says Prosser.

Just like it would take time to develop one’s level of fitness through a specific programme, the company’s employees would also develop their skills through a certain length of time with its career and development programmes.

Prosser says that for a health and fitness company, its human resources application includes a unique and sophisticated career development model that emphasises on internal professional development and education.

It comes in a form of a career development programme that comprises a cluster of learning courses to train every employee as an apprentice to recognise and achieve their potential. It features a range of training opportunities that will enable the staff to learn and apply the skills that are fundamental for becoming a great manager — a great leader.

“The training programmes are designed to encourage our staff to grow their skills and expand their contribution to the company. This increases employee productivity and the level of service we provide to our members,” explains Prosser.

As a result, quality is retained and this would mean that the company may have fewer employees at a high calibre.

“We can reward them better and they’ll be in a more satisfying and meaningful position because each one of them has the potential to progress to the management level since they would have experienced working in the different service areas of the club.

“Our members are also very interested and dedicated to what we do and sometimes they too enquire about employment,” says Prosser, who himself was a Fitness First member in its Bournemouth club back in the days when he was an auditor.

In essence, there are tremendous career opportunities for people to progress and become successful in the company, says Prosser.

“For example, three of the company’s managing directors in Asia started as single club managers so their role as well as leadership responsibilities and abilities has increased manifold.”

The company also has its eyes set on promising and experienced individuals who are recruited solely for its high management positions. Prosser points out that the club’s management training programme (general manager scholarship programme) aims to identify and hire those who are already at the management level from other industries like retail, banking and hospitality.

As they would have already acquired some leadership skills, this two-week training course will further groom them as well as teach them specific elements about the fitness industry.

“It includes about 12-15 participants who’ll learn about two prominent constituents of the business — financial aspects as well as physical fitness training. After this course, they’ll work in a Fitness First club for three months, rotating their roles between receptionist, membership sales consultant, basic floor instructor and move onto the general manager position.

“Much like our general training programmes for our employees, this also aims to expose the new management trainees to the different services roles in the club,” says Prosser.

“As a result, they will be able to oversee the operations and understand each level clearly as they would have experienced it for themselves from the ground up.”

As the demand for fitness intensifies and becomes more sophisticated, the talent in the industry is key to making that particular club or company the number one choice for consumers.