Fitness First Middle East CEO George Flooks has spent almost a decade trying to encourage the region’s residents to get in shape. In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’ he reflects on his life and career in sport, from promising South African footballer to Ironman and fitness industry leader.

When I was younger I wanted to be a professional footballer.

Growing up in South Africa, everyone was exposed to cricket rugby and football at school so I’ve exercised and trained all my life. That was our upbringing. I remember playing cricket against Fanie de Villiers, who went on to be a famous South African bowler. He was from our district. But my passion was football and I represented my country at junior level; I played with Mark Fish and Eric Tinkler, who went on to play in the English Premier League and senior international football for South Africa. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me.

Being in the army shaped my outlook on life and work.

I did compulsory military service in South Africa and became a physical training instructor (PTI) because exercise was in my blood. I absolutely loved it. I loved the discipline, the environment, and it’s indicative of how we run Fitness First Middle East. I want to see my facilities clean, equipment working, personal trainers looking sharp in uniform. I want to see that people stand appropriately when they conducting themselves, with no hands in pockets, not leaning against equipment. I’m that guy who doesn’t have an earring. I don’t wear jewelry. I don’t have tattoos. I shave every day, even on the weekends. I polish my shoes. High standards are important.

Ultimately, I believe it’s an extension of the character that you are – like the best football managers. Manchester United were an extension of Alex Ferguson, Liverpool is now an extension of Jurgen Klopp, Brands take on the personality of the leaders, not only me, but everyone else who feeds off of that.

Taking Fitness First Middle East into our own hands was a pivotal moment.

Landmark bought the Fitness First franchise in the Middle East in 2010 and brought me over from the UK to run the business. Obviously we were still owned by the UK parent company, which at one time was the world’s largest gym chain. When the ownership of that UK parent company changed a few years ago we decided to buy the brand outright. We were tired of being in the hands of someone else and wanted to be in control of our own destiny. It has worked out fantastically – less bureaucracy, less meetings, more creative freedom. Now Fitness First Middle East owns the brand in 13 countries in the region, but we are currently only operating in six which means there is great scope for expansion too.

The GCC is still an immature fitness market.

It was like that when I arrived nine years ago and although things have improved, it is still behind the rest of the world. For a while people have been investing heavily in clubs, with this “build it and they will come” mentality. But the fitness industry doesn’t work like that. I’ve pretty much seen every robber and his dog over the last 25, 30 years, trying to make a go of it. Some have been very successfully but many have just fallen by the wayside having wasted a lot of someone’s else’s money. I think too often the people who build these facilities and just didn’t really understand how to create a model that works, which made it easy for Fitness First Middle East to grow and dominate. It helps that my executive team has in excess of 100 years’ experience across different countries, different nationalities. We’re more connected to global trends and we have found the Gulf a good space to be in because there are so many opportunities for growth. 

The fitness industry is in a good place overall.

We know times are a little tough economically but I think customers now have unprecedented choice when it comes to fitness. Although my brand is Fitness First Middle East we are ultimately here to help people stay fitter and healthier so it’s great to see more competitors in the market and also to see government support with initiatives like the Dubai Fitness Challenge. Really the UAE is light-years ahead of everywhere else in the GCC in terms of participation. There are so many events people can enter, so many opportunities to exercise. I love operating in this environment because you have to know who you are, what you stand for and what you’re delivering. Warren Buffett said ‘when the tide goes out, you see who’s swimming naked’ and the tide is out right now – unless you have a brand presence, you’re relevant, and innovative, you’re going to get caught swimming naked.

We’ve looked at the marketplace over the last couple of years and asked how we stay relevant and disrupt the market. We want to compete in the market, but we want to contribute too. We compete for space. We compete for the top talent. We compete with landlords. We compete for awards. But how we contribute to the market is probably more important. We’ve seen the trend towards boutique facilities so we’ve now incorporated that offering into our new openings.

Our female leaders can bring success in Saudi Arabia. 

We worked out very early that the female market was the untapped market in a male-dominated GCC. It was the sleeping giant and so we built ladies-only clubs; now we’ve got over 25, 26 facilities that do exceptionally well for us. Half of our leadership team is ladies and this is really important. For example, having women running our women’s-only gyms sounds like an obvious position to take but it has not traditionally been the case in the GCC. Men were building clubs for ladies, assuming they knew what ladies want. Many still are.

The women on our team drive everything from design to functionality and it has made the Fitness First Middle East ladies-only offerings industry leaders. With Saudi Arabia taking the lid off now it should be easier to penetrate that market; we already have the infrastructure to go in and give the ladies what ladies what they want.

Our ladies clubs are designed by ladies for ladies.

A good trainer is like a rock star.

Charismatic instructors always draw footfall. It’s a rock concert – if you get a great performer, people are going to show up. For an average performer, no one’s going to show up. It’s pretty simple. I remember the first time I went to SoulCycle in the United States – the bikes aren’t amazing but the instructors and the atmosphere made it popular and it was full of maybe 40-50 people.

Fitness First Middle East
Fitness First Middle East staff compete in many of the UAE’s amateur races.

Competing in Ironman gave me new purpose.

Everyone’s body slows down but I am significantly more motivated and better in my personal space when I’m chasing a target. Around five years ago I decided to do my first 70.3 race and it grew from there. The challenge of the training was so appealing to me and now I’m on to my fourth Ironman. It’s not about the day itself, it’s about those hours and hours of preparation – getting up early to swim, finishing work and going for a long run. It’s just you vs your own mind; I’m competing to say that I’ve finished, not to beat anyone. Now our staff compete too, which is fantastic. Fitness First is out there. We’re participating, it’s our connection that we actually live the industry. We love and promote.

2020 promises to be another exciting year.

We’re going to open 10 new sites in the next 12 months including two in Bahrain and others across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Our new gym at Marina Gate will have four studios – hot yoga, spin, boxing and group exercise – and we also have Ajman, Silicon Oasis, Khalifa City.  Our membership has grown by 10,000 members over the last 12 months which considering there has not been an influx of people coming to Dubai is really positive. We believe we are taking market share from many other operators because we are giving customers something different that they’re looking for and not getting anywhere else. We’re pretty buoyant about things and there’s no question that we’re here for the long-term and will continue to expand and franchise.