From a standing start in 2009 PureGym has built an estate of over 200 sites across the UK. Now led by Humphrey Cobbold, Be the Business found out how the company is learning from rivals and innovating along the way.
PureGym was set up by serial entrepreneur Peter Roberts around the time that retail failures were freeing up a large tranche of commercial property. As someone who had produced results in the restaurant, hotel, leisure and holiday sectors, Roberts saw an opportunity to use these spaces and build a low-cost gym offering.
As Cobbold explained when we sat down to discover more about the PureGym story, most of the incumbents, such as Virgin Active or Fitness First, poured cold water on the idea. “They said British people don’t want great value, flexibility, no contract and 24/7 access,” Cobbald said in a rather tongue in cheek way, “They want swimming pools, saunas, a reception desk and a yearly contract.”
Back then the entire industry was geared towards 12-month contracts – but who wakes up wanting to buy something like that, Cobbold asked.
“PureGym was a fundamental change. It turned what was a £400-500 commitment into a £20 decision. And lots more people will take that £20 decision,” he explained.
With popularity surging and new sites opening throughout the UK with support first from New Look founder Tom Singh and then a private equity backer, Cobbold joined the business in 2015. He’d left his role as CEO of online cycling and triathlon goods retailer Wiggle 18 months before and was in search of a new challenge. While PureGym was not a business he previously thought he’d be attracted to, it’s mission to disrupt a stagnating sector was a big draw.
“When I arrived it was what I would call a typically ‘adolescent’ business – it looked like an adult business as it was six foot tall and had long arms and legs but actually when you challenged it a bit more it had expanded beyond its ability to handle that growth.”
In his three and a half years in the job Cobbold has, alongside overseeing a rollout of new sites that saw PureGym open 51 new gyms over a 52-week period, added in the technology and business processes required to take the business from its adolescent state to a grown-up organisation. Described by him as the “boring, basic plumbing of the business”, Cobbald nonetheless believes it is vital. “If you want to scale you need to step back and pause, otherwise you’ll fall over whilst growing.”
Find out below how Cobbold leads a subscription business, manages a team across hundreds of sites, learns from his rivals through healthy paranoia and is future-proofing the company.