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

Today’s conversation is with Neil Tune, Group HR Director of Fitness First. Neil is highly respected for navigating Fitness First UK through a very turbulent time over his 8+ years tenure, including a company takeover, a brand transformation and ultimately an acquisition by DW Sports, GLL and The Gym Group in 2016. He has been instrumental in keeping people and culture at the center of Fitness First’s UK strategy and has managed to pick up some silverware along the way. The company was awarded a two star accreditation by Best Companies in 2015 and, in 2016, they received an award for driving customer experience through employee engagement and were the gold winners at the Employee Brand Management Awards. To top off an already amazing year, the UK team were instrumental in Fitness First group being awarded the 2016 HR Excellence Awards for Best Global HR Strategy.

In this exclusive interview, we discuss Neil’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.

www.fitnessfirst.com

EL
It’s been over eight years since you joined Fitness First. When you look back, the company has changed a huge amount. What are you most proud of?

NT
I must say it’s nice to hear about the awards again, and I actually do have a mini trophy cabinet to keep them all which I never thought would be the case. But it’s not about the awards. I used to be quite disdainful of companies that went for awards, thinking that they were missing the point. Awards are nice to have, but they should only ever be a by-product of the work you do every day rather than the end goal in themselves.

In many ways, the awards represent a tipping point in terms of the industry recognising the work that we’ve been doing for many years. Without a doubt, the thing I’m most proud of is the level of achievement that my team has been able to maintain over a sustained period of time. You mentioned in your introduction navigating through the highs and lows, but from an HR perspective it feels like we’ve been able to maintain steady progress throughout that period towards building a company with people and a culture that we’re proud of.

Awards are nice to have, but they should only ever be a by-product of the work you do every day rather than the end goal in themselves.

EL
You’ve got a reputation as somebody who can go into a company and very quickly move the subject of people and culture to the top of the agenda. Was Fitness First struggling in that department when you joined in 2008?

NT
The simple answer is yes. At the time, I thought I was coming into a company and an HR department that was a blank slate, and that I would be able to shape it from scratch. The reality is that unless a company is founded that very day, there is no such thing as a culture blank slate. Every company has its own DNA, and whilst I saw tremendous opportunity there were some parts of that DNA that, in retrospect, weren’t healthy. The company hadn’t really been exposed to the world of people development, and HR was seen as a reactionary and administrative part of the business.

EL
What were some of the opportunities that you saw in the company from a HR perspective?

NT
I was joining a company that had grown rapidly in the past decade, and a UK team that had just had its best year ever. It was seen as a very strong sales-lead business, and we were leading the market of affordable fitness. The general consensus inside the company was that the we were doing the right things, they just needed to be done faster and better.

I could sense that people who joined the company felt like they were part of something special; would have an impact, be listened to and make a contribution to its continued success. I know I certainly did. It felt like we were guiding the company through adolescence towards becoming a real adult, and at the end of the day we were helping people to become fitter, stronger and healthier.

When you look back you always feel that you could’ve gone harder and faster. You ask yourself if you could have done more from a much earlier stage.

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

NT
When you look back you always feel that you could’ve gone harder and faster. You ask yourself if you could have done more from a much earlier stage. There was perhaps a slight reservation in my early years to re-design a system that was clearly performing well financially, and nobody wanted to disrupt the momentum of the business. I liken it to a golfer who doesn’t want to modify their swing in the middle of a tournament, especially if they’re winning!

It’s important to be honest about what is and isn’t working, and to know when people are ready to listen. In the early days, we were masked by successful sales numbers, and as a result we weren’t as quick to respond to changes in the marketplace. To go back to the golf analogy, although you might be leading the pack, perhaps your spikes aren’t quite as sharp as they used to be. Maybe your clubs are wearing down or your eyesight it worsening. Any one of those in isolation might be manageable, but if they go untreated for long enough then before you know it you’re not the same golfer and it takes a lot more effort to sort everything out.

EL 
I’d like to talk about the takeover by Oak Tree Capital and Marathon in 2014. One of the many challenges with takeovers is making the case to new leadership for continued investment in people and culture. Not only did you maintain investment, it actually increased. Can you tell me about that process, and what problems you faced in navigating the change in hands?

NT
The main challenge is justifying the spend and articulating the return on investment. HR people aren’t always used to developing robust business cases, and it’s not always easy to attach hard numbers to people investment, so it largely comes down to the strength of your conviction. It’s very important that the investors understand your vision, recognise the connection between people, culture and business performance, and are confident that the HR team are the right people to take the company forward.

Oak Tree understood the value of our work, and were prepared to give the HR team time to gain traction. In sales, a promotion today can deliver tangible results tomorrow. But if you send somebody on a training course, those learnings are going to take time and continuous reinforcement to develop. Our investors understood that.

We wanted our customers to keep coming back and be ambassadors for our brand, but our people inside the business kept changing.

EL
So how did you state your case during the process?

NT 
We developed a core value proposition over the years that become more sophisticated every time we presented it, but at its core was the problem of Fitness First’s huge turnover of staff. We wanted our customers to keep coming back and be ambassadors for our brand, but our people inside the business kept changing. This means a huge amount of re-work in order to get new people up to speed, and on the other side people coming down a few gears in the months before leaving, both causing tremendous inefficiencies and ultimately causing the customer experience to suffer.

I described it as a hand break on the business. No matter how good your systems, processes and technology may be, if the team was in constant upheaval the business would never be as efficient or productive as it could be. If a business makes £1 million with 100 people running on 50 per cent productivity, then any increase in productivity is going to have a significant impact of the bottom line. You increase productivity by building a more effective workforce. I saw it as a hidden opportunity, and that’s exactly how I sold it to the global executives.

It began with small steps: employee induction days to teach new people about who we are as a business, basic training early on to get them to where they needed to be much quicker and later embedding company values as we became more sophisticated. All of this contributes to the workforce buying into the company, being attached to the cause and feeling part of the growth story which means that they’ll perform better and stay longer. That’s worth investing in.

EL
It really boils down to those two fundamental parts: having people with the right skills, tools to do the job who are connected to the business, and keeping those people for longer.

NT
I think another point that doesn’t get enough time and thought is the importance of consciously stopping to think about what kind of employer you want to be and why people would want to be part of the company. Most employees aren’t motivated by the same agenda as the founders or executives, so it’s very important to consider what’s in it for them.

If you’re even one degree off at the start and you grow into a major employer, any oversights and problems are going to cause major headaches down the line. For instance, if you’ve built a sales culture around short-termism and a ‘get in, get out’ mentality, you’re going to find it very difficult to redesign a culture of long term career prospects.

EL
I’d love to get your take on the wider UK fitness industry. What major changes do you see happening in the industry over the next five years?

NT
It sounds like a cliché, but the only certainty is change. We’ve seen the pace of change accelerate over the last few years, health and fitness technology is becoming more sophisticated and more niche markets are appearing. Nobody knows with certainty where all this is going, but it will lead to lots of opportunities for businesses to evolve.

People will be at the heart of any success of the boutique fitness industry

EL
How do you think the rise of the more niche, boutique business models will impact the investment in people and culture?

NT
The growth of boutique, or specialist businesses implies a degree of specific expertise and unique experience of a certain field. All this requires more specialised skills, knowledge and experience which relies on investment in existing people and a more focused talent acquisition strategy. People will be at the heart of any success of the boutique fitness industry.

EL 
If talent development is so fundamental to these business models, do you feel today’s founders, leaders and CEOs have a moral obligation to invest into their people for the future?

NT
Whilst I would say yes, I also recognise that your moral obligation to developing your talent probably won’t be in your top 5 list of priorities as a founder or CEO of a fast growing business. I think the stronger call to action for founders is the fact that without creating a process for talent to grow, develop and stay in your business, success will be much harder in the long term.

We looked at measuring employee longevity, performance, skill acquisition and engagement, and we gradually built these measures club by club

EL
Is there a clear business case to reprioritises people and culture to the top of the agenda?

NT
Absolutely. As a business owner or executive, if your people are aligned and engaged they’re going to deliver the experience or the product that you want and as a result your business will grow. It makes sense, then, to invest in your people from the outset. We used to have scorecards that measured member growth and retention, and they worked well. I quickly learned that if we were going to develop a people-lead approach then that too would need some form of a scorecard.

We looked at measuring employee longevity, performance, skill acquisition and engagement, and we gradually built these measures club by club. Our goal was to draw a connection between the improvement of our people scorecards, and the improvements of the business scorecards. We strongly believe that if you focus on the people first, the business results will follow.

EL 
Where do you see the next generation of fitness leaders coming from?

NT 
The talent pool is certainly widening beyond the traditional pool of people working in clubs with a sports science degree. The industry needs to position itself as a ‘destination career’, where talented people from all walks of life can build a rewarding and fulfilling career and make a positive impact on the nation’s health.

EL
To wrap things up Neil, 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?

NT
Be true to yourself. Understand your natural strengths and build on them.

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

NT
Being able to critically analyse the vast amounts of information that we have access to; the ability to understand, filter, interpret, communicate and act on information with speed and accuracy is the way forward.

EL
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

NT 
Be persistent and don’t be afraid to stick at something you believe in.

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

NT 
Be open to ideas and opportunities, and always take chances to grow.

EL
And that’s it, thanks Neil for your time.