Lawyers and accountants must stalk Peter Roberts like lovesick groupies. Almost everything he’s launched – from nightclubs to hotels to gyms – has been successful enough to keep the fees rolling in for years. But of them all, his latest big project, affordable gym chain PureGym, is arguably the 71-year-old Yorkshire-based serial entrepreneur’s most exciting triumph. Founded in 2008, it is now the UK’s leading budget gym with more than 170 sites and a turnover of £160 million. It graces both The Sunday Times’ Fast Track 100 and the same broadsheet’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list.
“PureGym is the first start-up I’ve known to beat its original business plan budget by 200%,” says Peter. “But when we launched the first four sites we didn’t know if the concept would work, so we put one in a residential area, one in an office area, one in a retail park and one on a commuter run. They all worked.”
The three big reasons for PureGym’s success according to Peter are price (£15-£20 a month), lack of contract (so you can cancel at any time and won’t lose out) and the fact most branches are open 24/7 – a trio of factors that has allowed PureGym to stand out as an agile consumer champion in a lumbering contract-led market. “The only major thing we’ve had to overcome is the idea that affordable means low quality,” says Peter, who points out those preconceptions soon disappear when people walk in and see 300 new pieces of kit inside a fresh 19,000-square-foot space.
Peter recently stood down as PureGym CEO because he says that running big organisations “does not suit his expertise,” and he recruited Humphrey Cobbold as his successor. A scan through Peter’s career indeed shows that he is the purest of entrepreneurs, thriving during the pre-launch research and start-up phase but feeling less at home as the need for traditional management and organisational process grows.
His first business, which he launched in the ‘70s after qualifying as a chartered surveyor (“I always tell young entrepreneurs to get a qualification if they can – a fallback is handy,” he says), was also in the leisure sector. “Back then, the UK leisure industry was miles behind the US and certain parts of Europe,” says Peter, who seems to have spent his career giving Brits better things to do with their free time. “This was particularly true for holiday facilities, which is why I wanted to turn a caravan park in the South Lakes into a group of Scandinavian lodges. I was pretty ‘green’ – I didn’t know much about entertaining people but I did know they wanted to upgrade from caravans.” Despite his inexperience, his project succeeded.
Next, a bigger opportunity came up at Langdale Estate in the central Lakes, where Peter built 120 holiday lodges alongside a 24-hour indoor leisure centre – only the second of its kind in the UK. “The lodges all came from the Arctic Circle,” says Peter. “We wanted to ensure that no matter what the weather did – and it does a lot in the Lakes – our guests would be snug.” Langdale sold out on a timeshare basis within six years. The business was sold to Scottish and Newcastle with the original investors getting an IRR of 60% over 8 years: another huge success.
Ever on the lookout for new projects, Peter cast his golden gaze far and wide. “Next I got into nightclubs,” he says. “I knew nothing about clubs so found guys who did. Our concept was to create a ‘feeder’ pub and restaurant and put them next to a nightclub. In those days pubs shut at 10.30pm so to carry on socialising, drinking and dancing, you had to go to a club after last orders.” It worked and with another win chalked up, Peter left the business in 1995 as it went public. “I like to bring things on from start-up, go so far, and then leave it to a different style of management and to others who are more capable!” he says.
Throughout his career up to that point, Peter had dealt with many financiers in an effort to secure capital. Now he was to become one. “After exiting the nightclub business, I helped set up a venture capital business with Lazard. I wanted to see what the City was doing and the experience proved really interesting – having been on the other side of the fence for so long I was suddenly on the City side. Everyone was coming to us asking for money for their businesses and I was sitting there making decisions as to whether it was yes or a no. It opened my eyes – I saw exactly how the other side operated.”
Recalling his stint as poacher turned gamekeeper, Peter has this advice for entrepreneurs: “Beware the financiers. Naturally, they look at everything with a purely financial hat on and, in those days at least, it was difficult for them to get their heads around the people involved, the business ethos and other more personable things. It was all done on a spreadsheet and I think a lot of it still is. And of course it’s not hard to understand why – they are quite rightly concerned with achieving the best possible return.”
Peter’s City education was soon replaced by more hands-on entrepreneurial creativity, this time in hotels. It was the late ‘90s and the budget sector was just taking off. “I wanted to create something that was a little bit better than budget but still value-oriented,” says Peter. “I got some private investors together and bought a hotel in Harrogate, my hometown, plus one in Edinburgh and another in Manchester. Harrogate was very difficult as the property had asbestos – caveat emptor! ”
That small budget hotel project was a success (of course), but more exciting times were to come. Peter explains: “I found a bare site at Old Trafford and thought it might be interesting to turn it into a hotel, so I knocked on the door of David Gill, then CEO of Manchester United. I pitched the idea of a Manchester United hotel and he said yes. We built it – around 130 rooms – and we had some very funny moments with people like Ryan Giggs, Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes opening various sections.”
By the time Whitbread bought the business in 2007, Peter and his team had built a total of 15 value-oriented hotels. And just one year later he went on to launch PureGym.
It’s hard to find an entrepreneur with such a spectacular CV, especially one with City experience. So based on everything he’s done, what’s Peter’s advice for fellow entrepreneurs? “You’ve got to have guts, it’s not for the faint hearted,” he says. “And you’ve got to be prepared to make decisions. I see a lot of big companies stagnating because of a committee-run environment, and people don’t seem prepared to get out there and make decisions.
“You’ve also got to research your business very carefully to start with. I have done that with all of mine. Of course you do a certain amount of book research but there’s nothing like going and looking, feeling and understanding.
“Finding your differentiation is crucial, too. All the businesses I’ve run have been pretty mainstream but we’ve set them apart from the competition. So ask yourself how yours will be different. It may not need to be very much – a deviation of say 10%, 20% maybe – but it needs to be there. Examples in my businesses include log cabins rather than caravans, and double beds plus nice showers in budget hotels, and, of course, low cost gyms with no restrictions!”
When it comes to raising capital and finding the right partners and financiers, Peter has the following tip: “It comes back to getting on with people. If they’re not on your wavelength and if they don’t understand what you’re doing, then you – and they – are always going to find it tough. I’ve often found it’s down to the individual you’re working with – simple as that. If you get on with them and they get on with you and trust your judgment, they will help you. If you don’t and you’re both a bit bristly and they don’t see what you’re trying to do, it’s hellish because you’re banging your head against a wall.”
Peter Roberts has been there and done it so many times he’s got a wardrobe stuffed full of T-shirts. His story shows you don’t need specialist knowledge to enjoy huge success, just entrepreneurial drive, a nose for an opportunity and the skill and charm to motivate others. What’s the next success story, we wonder? He is just starting up two new ventures, so watch this space…