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Learning the Contours of franchising

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The treadmill is the staple of gyms worldwide but for Contours, the second-largest express workout gym in Australia, there’s not one in sight. But the lack of treadmills isn’t Contours’ only point of difference. Justin Wilshaw, CEO of Contours Australia, says a commitment to customer service and an intimate knowledge of franchise systems helps keep the business in great health and an attraction to the gym-weary.

“We’ve been so successful because often members of ours have gone to a Fitness First or a full-service gym,” Wilshaw explains. “They get really intimidated because they walk in and there’s all this equipments, they have no idea how to use any of it!”

Where other gyms lump all the equipment into one large space, Contours works on a 30-minute circuit “with an instructor showing them all the way through how to use the equipment and provide feedback and advice on technique”.

“It’s a lot more personalised than just joining the gym, going onto the gym floor and then being left to your own devices,” says Wilshaw.

Entry into the market

While there are others in the express workout niche, with 140 studios across Australia, Contours has certainly taken a fat piece of market share (with results that show no fat about them).

“Our guiding philosophy … is to be the market leader in women’s fitness so we are an express workout – we’re not a full-service gym,” says Wilshaw.

Brought to Australia by parent company Exto Partners six years ago, Contours has since focused on a commitment to customer service.

“We recognised that there was a need in the marketplace for what we would call an unconditioned lady to have a place where they could workout where they’re supported and can achieve their results,” says Wilshaw.

In fact, the entire studio concept is tailored to cater to this target market.

“Our customers generally don’t like going to your Fitness First where it’s very open and the very fit, young people are working out and it’s very intimidating. They prefer to come to a place where they get one-on-one support from a trainer, to a place where there’s no mirrors and it’s a very supportive environment, as opposed to a place where there’s competition,” he explains.

And, while the company only caters to the fairer sex, Wilshaw says focusing on women’s health has boosted, not restricted, their business offering.

“Females and males have vastly different needs as well as wants when it comes to fitness,” he says. “It allows us to make sure that our franchisees are very focused on delivering just for what those traditionally time-poor women want in our studios. So we don’t think it’s restrictive – I think it allows us to be very focused on our target market.”

Maintaining a competitive edge

From their major competitor Curves to new 24-hour gyms, Wilshaw recognised increasing saturation in the industry so, 18 months ago, decided to draft a five-year strategic plan to strengthen (and tone) Contours’ competitive edge. The changes to the business, inspired by what competitors weren’t doing rather than what they were, only furthered their differentiation in the industry.

It was “less about the one-on-one interaction”, he says of the competition, “So our competitive advantage has been our service, the service that our people provide in the studios”.

The first step in this was to train and develop staff across the board.

“We also took the step 18 months ago of mandating that all of our trainers in our studios have to have Certificate III qualifications in fitness as a minimum. No other express workout chain in Australia requires that of any of their trainers, that they’re actually qualified to instruct people in fitness.

“Because we did that we were able to gain membership to Fitness Australia, which is the industry body which represents industry professionals,” says Wilshaw. “Again, we’re the only express gym in the country that has all of its clubs as Fitness Australia members.”

The business also focuses on evolving its offering suit trends at the time.

“We want to make sure that as a brand we stay at the leading edge of women’s fitness,” says Wilshaw. “We introduced into our fitness offering in the past 12 months group fitness sessions, things like Pilates, yoga and Zumba, and we want to make sure that we stay current and relevant.” 

Franchising know-how

When it comes to building the franchise’s network, Wilshaw is no stranger to franchise management, with 15 years’ experience in food franchising before being brought on as CEO of Contours in 2008. 

“I remember when I first met my franchisees, I said, ‘My past 15 years was in food franchising so I spent 15 years making people fat and now I’m doing my penance!’” he laughs.

“Contours had gone through massive growth – we’d gone from zero to 100 in the space of around three years,” says Wilshaw. “I was brought into Contours with the aim of making sure we had the support systems and the structure necessary to grow the business in the future.”

Since the expansion, Wilshaw says it has been essential to integrate certain systems into business’ franchise model.

“When you’ve got 140 franchises around the country, you want to make sure your support structures are able to communicate with your franchisees … that your support structures can get feedback on a regular basis and … make sure those same structures are able to train all those franchisees,” he says.

Measures such as consistent scorecards to review franchisee performance, monthly cluster meetings and a national marketing fund across all franchisees have helped the business maintain a consistent brand.

The structure of head office is also crucial to maintaining a healthy franchise.

“We put in place a departmentalised head office so that everybody in the office looks after their specific areas of responsibility,” he says. “When you have a growing franchise network, in the early years, everybody is sort of a jack-of-all-trades because you are so busy. After a certain period of time, you need to put in place a very clear structure with your support team so that you deliver on your training strategies or operation strategies.”

And, with plans to extend the network to 300 studios nationwide, focusing first in Queensland, Wilshaw has a lot to consider in keeping franchisees consistent across the board.

“It’s always a very hard thing to do when you’re spread so wide around the country,” he says. “We conduct regular alignment visits with franchisees to make sure they’re attaining to what we call our minimum standard.

“We also conduct with them an annual business review where we review their operations.”

Regardless of the industry in which a franchise operates, Wilshaw says there are key points of due diligence to execute to ensure the franchise is a fit and fighting business.

“The first is that your franchise should be a member of the Franchise Council of Australia … because that does let you know that they’re serious about being a franchise and a good franchisor,” he says.

“Second is to read your disclosure document. It’s a critical piece of information that the franchisor in Australia is required by law to give to your franchise and it outlines every single cost that you’re likely to incur in the business and who your franchisor is and what the state of their finances is.”

“The third thing is to get independent legal and financial advice. I’ve seen a lot in the past in franchising where people skip that step. They sort of go in there and they do their own due diligence but they don’t engage a lawyer and they don't engage an accountant and for the sake of saving two or three thousand dollars, it can really bring them unstuck.

“They’re probably the three key things if you’re coming into any franchise, regardless of whether it’s a gym or a mowing franchise or whatever franchise, it doesn’t matter.”

With the Contours’ brand a well-oiled machine, Wilshaw’s commitment to a strong business foundation ensures the franchise is ready for a long run of success.

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