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

Today’s conversation is with Rob Leboff, CEO of BOOM Cycle, an innovative boutique fitness concept launched in 2011 by founders Hilary and Robert Rowland. BOOM Cycle, along with a recent £2.1 million investment, bring together some of the best spin instructors in London for a sweaty, highly choreographed class with a world-class soundtrack.

In this exclusive interview, we discuss Rob’s incredible 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. As always, I’ll be asking Rob his advice for you, the business leaders of tomorrow. 

www.boomcycle.co.uk

EL
You’ve played an integral part in the UK fitness industry over the last 20 years, holding senior management positions in a number of the most recognised brands, and now are the CEO of BOOM Cycle. When you look back, what are you most proud of?

You can affect change in a business in the short term, but to change someone’s life and give them skills and confidence to make it on their own is something incredibly rewarding.

RL
I’ve worked in a number of different sectors within the fitness industry, starting in the public sector then moving into the private sector and working for a number of the big names. Throughout that process the thing that’s given me the most satisfaction has been developing people I’ve worked with and seeing them grow to become leaders in their own right. You can affect change in a business in the short term, but to change someone’s life and give them skills and confidence to make it on their own is something incredibly rewarding.

In my experience, successful cultures are top-down; leaders believe in the value of a positive culture, they lead by example and make the required investment to make it happen.

EL
Some of the brands you’ve worked with, including David Lloyd, Living Well and Holmes, all have reputations for putting people and culture at the top of their agendas. Has that focus been a big part of your success?

RL
Every company will say that they put people and culture first, but in reality, this isn’t always the case. Successful people development is less about process, and much more about whether the company’s leadership are inclined to deliberately make the working environment fun and rewarding. Some people do this better than others. Living Well were fantastic; they put a lot of resources into their people and culture and it genuinely resonated with the staff. For other operators, culture becomes localised and depends on the individual personalities of the General Managers of the sites. This is tough on the GMs who are often under performance and service pressures, so the culture can suffer.

Scaling a consistent culture is very difficult, and whilst the intention may well be there, the execution varies considerably between companies. In my experience, successful cultures are top-down; leaders believe in the value of a positive culture, they lead by example and make the required investment to make it happen.

EL
What would be some of the most important lessons regarding people and culture that you’ve learned over the course of your career?

RL
It’s very important to put in the time and effort to understand your people. By that I mean understand their strengths and weaknesses, and give them the opportunity and confidence to take responsibility and learn. A lot of managers and leaders try to control everything themselves and in so doing don’t allow their team to grow and develop. Bringing your people into the decision making process is by far the best long-term strategy for growing a tight-knit and effective team, and you’ll often find those people will train the people below them in the same way.

We have three core values as a business: inclusion, empowerment and fun

EL
Gym goers have more choice today than they’ve ever had. What big changes have you seen in the industry in the last 5 years?

RL
There’s been massive change in the industry. The middle-market has been completely wiped out, high-end and budget operators have taken market share, and more recently we’ve seen the rise of the boutiques. The United States are generally ten years ahead of the UK, and 35 percent of American gym goers use boutique fitness operators. The larger operators are starting to move into the space by opening their own boutique studios, and that trend is only going to develop.

Product-wise the industry hasn’t changed much in 15-20 years. There are still weights and group exercise, but ultimately the product hasn’t much changed. The model of membership contracts has had to change due to consumer concerns, and the pay-as-you-go model has helped the boutique sector.

EL
Looking ahead, what changes do you foresee for the next 5 years?

RL
There’s always been a suggestion that technology is going to takeover, particularly wearables. But I was at Holmes Place in 2005 when we launched virtual spinning, a great concept that hasn’t really moved in twelve years. Right now, we’re still largely at a place where people don’t do exercise for leisure, they do it because they feel they need to and need the motivation that a group and instructor bring.

This is where BOOM Cycle sees things differently. We’re working to tap into peoples’ desire not only to exercise the body, but to exercise the mind and enjoy the process of getting fit by building it into their lifestyle. This emphasis on a more ‘holistic kind of fitness’ is going to develop massively over the next five years.

We don’t measure anything; we don’t talk about heart rate, gates, RPM, calories, distance or even ‘pushing yourself’. It’s about having fun, being part of a community, feeling the buzz and the adrenaline rush of having a great time. The outcome of that is the endorphins and the sweat, which is all a by-product of an incredible experience.

We have three core values as a business: inclusion, empowerment and fun. They determine everything we do from how we run our sessions to how we treat our customers, our price points and how we work together as a team.

EL
How do you see the rise of the boutique business models impacting people and culture?

Investing in our people is a core component of our product strategy, without a doubt

RL
The main difference between boutique fitness operators versus larger groups is that the culture and the team are the product. At BOOM Cycle we only do one thing, and we do it incredibly well. The extension of this is that every other aspect of the experience is just as important to us: the welcome, the environment, the way we talk, the music. Having our team absolutely engaged and being ambassadors for what we do is crucial part of our product. You can’t fake enthusiasm and a warm welcome. You can put it in your brand values, but if your team don’t believe it, it simply won’t exist.

All of our staff ride regularly in classes, including me. We’re passionate about our product and we understand it on a much deeper level. In order to get to the level, we often recruit people who are customers themselves initially so we know they get and love the product first. We then look for personality, enthusiasm and communication skills beyond just how many years they’ve been in the industry. Some of our team have theatrical backgrounds; actors, dancers, musicians and so on, people who have a natural charisma and energy, and then we train them in the additional skills that they need.

To make sure we keep the enthusiasm we continually develop the team, and example would be our current studio managers who all started off as front of house. We also have a ‘BOOMERversity’ for our instructors, as many of our instructors have never taught before. Before they join they complete auditions, followed by an intensive 8 week trading programme where they learn how to put a class together, how to perform and how to communicate complete with acting and singing lessons. By doing that we have real buy-in and a sense of ownership.

Investing in our people is a core component of our product strategy, without a doubt. A huge problem in the wider fitness industry is turnover of instructors who take their customers with them. None of our instructors have left us voluntarily in two years.

EL
It clearly makes business sense to invest in your people, but if talent development is so fundamental to your product business model, do you feel today’s founders, leaders and CEOs have a moral obligation to invest into their people for the future?

RL
We live and breathe our values, and our values are genuine. Everyone in the organisation is committed to them. We give our team tremendous opportunities to grow their careers and develop as both professionals and people, and we’re very happy to do so. We don’t have a responsibility to help anyone and everyone, there has to be a value exchange between what we give and what we get, but so long as that remains in balance then we’re very happy to develop our team to the best of our abilities.

We have to nurture and develop the culture of any new site, we have to make sure that we have the right team in place that will be able to create that environment, and it takes a lot of care to do properly

EL 
What are some the biggest challenges around people and culture that keep you up at night?

RL
My biggest challenge is to grow the business, open more sites, build the procedures and systems that will allow us to operate efficiently and sustainably, and to do all of those things without damaging our culture. Our business model is not a facility-lead operation where you can build 20 or 30 new sites a year without it affecting the quality of what you do. We have to nurture and develop the culture of any new site, we have to make sure that we have the right team in place that will be able to create that environment, and it takes a lot of care to do properly.

One of the key ways that we do that is by launching new sites with a blend of existing and new people. [The founders] Rob, Hilary and I spend a lot of time in our new sites reinforcing the culture of fun and positivity, and we’ll only open a site when we know that we can get that right.

EL
What advice would you give to people who are looking to sell in the concept of people investment to their investors?

RL
As far as the the fitness market is concerned, people want an environment of fun and community – as we’ve talked about. My advice to any company that wants to replicate this, is that you invest in the experience of your customers by investing in the experience of their staff. That experience will generate your reputation, retention, marketing and will ultimately filter through to your bottom line.

We’re a commercial organisation that’s here to build a sustainable long term business, and you do that by having a strong value base, understanding your customer and having a team that can deliver. The traditional facility-lead way of doing things missed out the customer altogether, and required huge amounts of time and money on retaining customers once they want to leave.

EL
You mentioned that you don’t incorporate fitness measurements into your culture, but do you measure your staff?

RL
We do. We run internal staff surveys twice a year, which is very much about measuring how our team feel about the business, whether they feel valued, how they feel about our communication and ultimately are they satisfied and empowered in their jobs. We give a lot of feedback in turn, we take what our team says seriously and we action anything that comes to light.

We have a flat structure, so everybody in our business can contribute. If myself, Rob or Hilary walk into one of our studios you won’t see the reaction that you would get in most places. Of course, we want to know that our team are taking their jobs seriously and are delivering against our high standards, so we have procedures in place to measure this.

EL
To wrap things up Rob, 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?

RL
Give opportunities to your team, communicate clearly and let them have the opportunity to contribute to the success of your business.

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

RL
Understanding your product, understanding your market, understanding who wants your product and why, communicating with them effectively. Have strong values that permeate every part of your business and stick to them.

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

RL
Be open minded and prepared to adapt your personal style to suit changing environments. There are many different ways to be successful, so learn from those around you who inspire you.

EL
That’s great Rob, thank you for your time. All the best with Boom Cycle.