Robert and Hilary Rowland, founders of Boom Cycle, have teamed up with Joe Cohen, owner of ‘fight club meets nightclub’ boxing studio, Kobox to form a new business called United Fitness Brands.
Ownership of the two founder businesses has been transferred to United Fitness Brands Ltd, which will be chaired by industry veteran, David Lloyd, who’s been a non-exec of Boom Cycle since 2018. The individual brands will continue to operate independently.
The new company has received backing from venture capital trust Pembroke VCT, Nectar Capital and a number of high net worth individuals who’ve already invested in Kobox and Boom Cycle.
United Fitness Brands will use its financial backing to take on synergistic businesses in complementary verticals to create a new ‘supergroup’ of boutique brands that will pool resources and use their collective strengths to grow their individual businesses.
A clear strategy
Speaking to HCM the trio said the new group has a clear strategy for growth: “Future plans are to merge with other operators, such as barre and yoga to create a portfolio,” says Robert. “We’re in talks with other operators and aiming to be a force in the boutique fitness market.”
“The idea is to help the operators under the United Fitness Brands umbrella to spread costs and share their expertise,” says Hilary.
“It will also result in brands being in a stronger position when it comes to finding investment and new sites, as there’ll be an opportunity to identify larger sites in which more than one brand can have a presence.”
“We want each brand to keep doing what they’re doing,” she says. “We’re looking for brands that have become successful because they’ve developed their own identity and created a loyal community of users and we don’t want them to change that.
“What we want to do is to make sure each brand has a better opportunity to grow and develop by sharing resources and operating in a more efficient way.”
Adding Kobox to the mix
Joe said: “Kobox was the first to bring boxing-based classes to the masses in a major market.
“Now, more than five years since our launch, we’re embarking on another UK first – creating an industry-defining supergroup, which I’m sure will go from strength to strength and allow more people across the country to enjoy these incredible brand offerings.”
“We met up with Joe in the middle of last year,” says Robert “The whole industry was having a hard time, but as a result of the way Boom Cycle and Kobox are located, we have a lot of shared clients and thought it would strengthen our position and make a successful merger if the two businesses joined forces.
“We’re both offering high-intensity workouts and believe we’re best in class, so there’s a great fit between the two businesses.”
“It took until March 2021 to close the deal,” says Joe “It shows how long these things take to get done.”
“Although it’s new to the UK market, this business model has been tried and tested in other sectors and other markets and proven to work,” says Robert. “It allows all companies to run more leanly and pool resources and expertise and scale more quickly than they would be able to do apart.”
Centralised wellness locations
Hilary continues: “Our plan is also to build new United Fitness Brands facilities around the UK, where consumers can come and do a yoga or barre class, have a cryopod treatment and enjoy the juice bar. We want to build centralised places for wellness and have the benefit of all the brands coming together, while allowing each to maintain its brand and customer loyalty and use shared facilities, such as changing rooms.”
The three say the core team will manage centralised services, such as F&B, in-house, rather than sub-contracting these out, so economies of scale can reduce prices or increase margins. “As a management team, we have strong skills that can build this business and take it forward – finance and growing the business will be Joe’s responsibility, operations will be Robert’s and marketing will be mine,” she says. “The team will be answerable to a board and have to perform and ‘deliver on the numbers.’”
“It’s a beautiful vision”, says Hilary, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead.”
Partners that join the United Fitness Brands portfolio will have contracts in place to define their involvement, with these outlining upsides and downsides, including the terms on which severances would take place if things don’t work out. Partners will have equity in the wider company and each company will come under the ownership of United Fitness Brands Ltd.
“We’ll do due diligence and make sure we fit together as a group,” says Robert. “We’ll need to know we have the power to elevate that brand before we take it on.
“Doing this will enable us to pivot more quickly and grow a stronger team – tackling external market forces is less of a trial in a strong group than by yourself – there’s safety in numbers.”
Decisions on capital investment will be made based on margins. “One business might need capital, another may need sprucing up,” says Joe. “The plan is to keep the brands under one roof as much as possible, to amplify the capital expenditure via shared changing rooms and so forth.”
The next milestone for United Fitness Brands will be the opening of more studios in 2021, including a Kobox studio, which will launch as a ‘club in club’ space at Boom Cycle’s existing Waterloo site. Kobox Kings Road in London will then get a Boom Cycle, taking the count to six sites for Boom Cycle and four for Kobox.
“The dream scenario is location, location, location – accessible to residential and to offices,” says Robert, “and able to support a seven day a week operation from 6.15am in the morning to 9.00pm at night.
“The second thing is the space itself – we need 12,000sq ft of good open space in this sort of location to build what we want to build. We want to keep the site comfortable and nice to be in, but not high-end or super luxe. We’re all very aligned on not overspending on sites,” he says. “It’s all about those margins,” interjects Hilary.
The plan is to remain as tenants rather than investing in real estate and the hunt will take the team outside the capital, as Robert explains: “In addition to London, we’ll be looking at the major cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow.
“At Boom Cycle, we’ve been talking about this for two years at board level, so there’s been a huge amount of excitement at the news,” says Robert.
“Our teams are excited too – it’s sending such a positive message, in spite of COVID,” says Hilary, “Our staff are saying it proves they’re on the right team.”
“People love to work in this industry,” says Robert, “But smaller operators have career ceilings much sooner, so this move will open up more opportunities for our teams.”
The UK market is the immediate priority for development, but the United Fitness Brands board is keen to fine-tune the concept and then to explore franchising, so overseas markets may beckon at that point: “We want to get it absolutely right before we hit the franchise market,” says Hilary.
Fighting back from lockdown
It’s been a tough time for businesses that rely on group exercise and Robert says the lockdown easing roadmap has been hard to accept: “It’s been pretty brutal – group exercise is having to wait another five weeks after a year of disruption and that really feels like a kick in the teeth,” he says.
“The future’s looking bright for us with the new deal, but collectively boutique operators are still struggling to understand the lack of cashflow support from government outside of grants,” says Robert. “When you see companies such as McDonald’s getting a five per cent VAT rate and the health and fitness industry being overlooked in a health crisis, it’s a confusing point of view to understand.”
“Research shows that every £1 spent by the government on health and fitness gives £4 value,” says Hilary, “So it’s incomprehensible that they would leave us without any sector-specific support.”
“We just want to get open,” says Robert “The silver lining is that we know from the first lockdowns that our customers are genuinely happy to come back and excited for the return. We’re comfortable that people are going to stay engaged.”
“We want to give brands all the support we always wanted when we were starting out,” says Joe. “We’re happy to help with the slightly boring stuff, so they can focus on doing what they love doing and build their business.
“You can get into a position when you’re growing a boutique business that you need advice, but anyone you could ask is a competitor and they’re not going to give it up,” says Hilary, “This way, all that advice is freely available and the company becomes a ‘hot pot’ of fitness.”
“Having lost a year to the pandemic, we’re keen to press on,” says Robert. “Instead of waiting for things to happen we’re making things happen and creating a new opportunity to grow and build the business.”
• Hilary Rowland first talked to HCM in 2011/12 when Boom Cycle launched Read the full interview with Hilary here