The Maverick Interview Series - Meeting inspirational leaders of fast-growth organisations to discuss all things people and culture.

Today’s conversation is with Jason Tubbs, Managing Director of Another Space, an exciting new company underpinned by the Third Space Group, and making waves in the boutique fitness scene for the fitness-savvy, fashion conscious Londoners. Jason is a highly respected industry leader with over 25 years’ experience, the UK abroad.

After spending the first part of his career in senior roles for De Vere and Fitness First, Jason became the head of club operations for Click Fitness, an innovative budget fitness chain that entered the UK market in 2011. But, not long after, the Jatomi Fitness Group came calling.

Headed up by Mike Balfour, founder of Fitness First, Jason left the UK to become the Operations Director of Poland and Turkey until 2015, when he returned to his homeland to spearhead the launch of the Third Space Group into the boutique fitness market.

www.anotherspace.london

In this exclusive interview, we discuss Jason’s story, and cover a range of topics from the rise of the boutique fitness business model and its implications on the industry, to where the leaders of tomorrow are coming from and what it takes to create and maintain a high performance culture in fast-growth organisations. As always, I’ll be asking Jason his advice for you, the business leaders of tomorrow. 

EL
It’s been 25 years since you’ve joined the fitness industry, when you look back, you’ve achieved a huge amount, at home and abroad. What are you most proud of?

JT
In the early part of my career it was all about getting the right people on board and creating the right culture, and that’s never changed, so I’m most proud of building cultures of high performing people and making sure that culture cascades down to every level of a business. Whether that’s at Fitness First starting off as a Club Manager and growing to become Head of Operations for 54 clubs, to starting up a new low-cost or boutique operation, my approach has always been the same. I’m proud to be able to leave a bit of a legacy in the form of high performance cultures wherever I’ve been.

Everyone talks about how important it is to invest in your people, but most people just don’t do it. They think that if they build a beautiful facility then the people will come.

EL
I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have worked with you directly, whether that’s Fitness First, Jatomi or Click Fitness, and you have a reputation as someone who always puts people and culture at the top of the agenda. Why have you made that part of your success?

JT
Everyone talks about how important it is to invest in your people, but most people just don’t do it. They think that if they build a beautiful facility then the people will come. That’s all changed, and it continues to change. For me, it’s about making my life easier by empowering people to take ownership. I remember my early days at De Vere Hotels at 21 years old, and they just gave me the keys to a leisure club.

The General Manger came up to me, a guy called Derek Silk, and he said ‘Jason, this is your business, whatever you do is a direct reflection on you.’ I took that approach with me throughout my career, and I leave my fingerprints on everything I do. When it comes to people, I want to contribute to their success whether or not they stay in the business. That genuine desire breeds a culture of support and trust.

EL
You were at Fitness First during a hugely successful period in the company’s history. With hindsight, what were some of the ingredients that made Fitness First so successful during that time?

JT
I joined in 2000, so we were opening our 54th club, and it was seat-of-the-pants stuff. I walked in, asked for my operations manual, opening and closing procedures, and nothing was in place. I was a new manager of the head office site with little or no support, and that was instrumental in helping me to grow. In that situation there’s two options: success or failure. There was no way I was going to fail, so I found ways to succeed.

Fitness First was the first job I had where my team was selected for me. I went down to a hotel in Bournemouth, and all of a sudden I was being introduced to my team which had been recruited by the HR department. All I knew about them was their names and addresses, so I sent them Christmas cards before we met up in the January. There was one guy there who I’d actually turned down in an interview at a previous company.

So, for the first time every I’d been given a team that I hadn’t selected, and I had to mold it. That was a great challenge. As the company grew we figured out a process for opening new sites that all depended on people, and it worked. Mike Balfour [Founder of Fitness First] and Sean Phillips [then Operations Director] were very hands on and had an open door policy. That’s perhaps where the company began losing its way; when there were 500 clubs worldwide and the identity of those early days was replaced by the corporate machine rather than being people-driven.

EL
Do you think that the rapid growth of Fitness First during that period could ever be replicated in the fitness market?

JT
I think it could be. The fitness market hasn’t reached saturation, even though people think it has. Fitness First’s model in those years was aggressive land grabbing. We were so concerned with having 4 sites in Leicester, for instance, that at times the locations suffered. I wouldn’t advise that degree of aggression to a new company today because your team burns out quickly.

If you’ve got a great instructor that teaches classes of 40 people six times a week, and you piss them off, they’ll go somewhere else

EL
It’s safe to say that gym users have more options now than ever. What have been the major changes in the UK fitness market over the past 5 years?

JT
The biggest changes over the last 5 years has been the growth of the low-cost operator sector, and the growth of the boutique market. When you look at the kinds of people who go to these low-cost operators, the majority are first-time exercisers. Some people look at these operators as a bad thing, I think they’re fantastic because it gets people more fitness savvy and gives them choice.

More recently we’ve seen a growing divide between the highest and lowest ends of the market, hence why the middle market players have been squeezed out. People at the top end are willing to pay £150 a month for high-end service. Our Another Space clubs in Canary Wharf and Soho we have huge waiting lists.

The boutique industry started in the UK around four years ago with the likes of Barry’s Bootcamp, Psycle and Frame, and that’s expanded peoples’ options. Specialised group exercise has boomed, and the boutique market has been incredibly clever in the way they’ve invested in high quality freelance instructors. If you’ve got a great instructor that teaches classes of 40 people six times a week, and you piss them off, they’ll go somewhere else. Nice out of ten of their clients will follow them regardless of how good your facilities are. Customers love their instructors more than they love you as the operator.

The boutique operators, then, have placed a huge emphasis on their instructors as well as creating the feel of a night-club where you’re pampered and given the hardest workout around. These boutiques are able to build a cult-like following. If Soul Cycle launch a new limited edition t-shirt, it sells out within hours. People want to be part of the community, which generates loyalty, retention and referrals. Why do you need an aggressive sales and marketing team when people drag all their friends along?

EL
And what changes do you see over the next 5 years?

JT
More of the same as the market is continuing to grow. I took my team to New York recently to get a sense of the market, and there are Barry’s Bootcamp, Soul Cycle, Y7 Yoga and Fitting Room all on the same street. I’d like to see more engagement with the over 60s and children in the marketplace. Child obesity is becoming an epidemic and nobody is really tackling that.

If the senior management team don’t embrace the idea of investing in people, somebody else will and you’ll lose out on talent

EL
Moving onto teams, do founders and CEOs have a moral obligation to invest into their team’s development beyond that specific business, and into their wider careers?

JT
Without a doubt. If you don’t do that you’re suppressing the long-term growth of your business. We’ve got nine cycle instructors, but only one had taught a class before we got hold of them. The rest have been high-end commercial dancers or West End performers. We’ve invested heavily in those people by putting them on a 16 week training programme complete with vocal coaching, business training and fitness qualifications.

If the senior management team don’t embrace the idea of investing in people, somebody else will and you’ll lose out on talent. Anyone can create a beautiful studio. The real competitive advantage is culture, both for your clients and your talent. We’ve had many of the top operators try to poach our team, but they don’t leave because we’ve invested in the qualifications and given them the opportunities.

It’s important not to get complacent. If other operators hear that we’re investing in training qualifications, they’ll copy. We’re always looking for the next level.

EL
What are the big people and culture issues that keep you up at night as Another Space continues to grow?

JT
We’re in a situation where we keep raising the bar, and our instructors will have to keep up as our standards increase. It throws up a lot of questions around whether or not they’ll all make it, how high to set the bar and so on. We’re currently on the precipice of that step-change. It means that our people will need additional training, because it’s very important that the team have the tools to succeed as well as the platform, but implementing this progression will be a big challenge.

It’s very important to get investors to understand the connection between people and product

 EL
What advice would you give to people who are looking to sell the idea of investing in people and culture to their leaders, executives or investors?

JT
I’m very lucky that [Another Space CEO] Colin Waggett is incredibly people centric. We talk about the people before the financials. The fact is that the boutique fitness sector is all about the people. A huge part of our product is the performance of instructors, and top instructors sell out classes in minutes. It’s very important to get investors to understand the connection between people and product, and that it’s not a light switch where profit can be turned on in an instant. We do a 16 week training programme rather than blasting them over a weekend not to save money, but to invest in our long term product and sustainability.

EL
Are there any key metrics that you use to measure the performance of your people?

JT
We ask our clients to anonymously review our instructors, and we get around a 65 per cent response rate. We ask them to rate the instructor and the overall experience between 1 and 5. Last month out of 600 reviews our instructors were running at 4.82 and our facilities at 4.77. The feedback from our client base is invaluable. We also measure the occupancy of each instructors’ classes, and how quickly they get booked up.

EL
To finish off, I have a couple of ‘quick fire’ questions. In only a few words, what’s the most important leadership advice that you would pass on to others?

JT
Empower your staff to take total ownership at any level.

EL
What are the most valuable skills needed to successfully navigate today’s world?

JT
Listening to your team, acknowledging when you’re wrong, and enabling your team to take risks even if they make mistakes. You want your team to be thinkers, not just people who follow instructions.

EL
And finally, what advice would you give to your 16 year old self?

JT
Don’t be scared of failure.

EL
Thanks Jason, that’s a wrap!