How many franchisors have partied with Boy George? Stuart Broster has. Although it wasn’t his nightclub ownership that saw him made CEO of Anytime Fitness UK but decades of hospitality and leisure experience and a fierce agenda grow the franchise
When arranging an interview with Stuart Broster, CEO of Anytime Fitness UK, it was decided the meeting would be at the gym franchise’s head office in Watford’s Croxley Business Park. Meanwhile, the photo shoot was to take place at the freshly-opened – as in so fresh I could smell the decorating materials on arrival – neighbouring gym, just a couple of minutes' walk away from the HQ. So you’d be forgiven for thinking such a prime location was an exclusive company-owned site but that’s not the case. “We have no company-owned sites – I think that’s a conflict [of interest],” says Broster. “I would avoid it as much as we could ever avoid it. I wouldn’t want to have owned clubs.” You may wonder why he’s so vehemently against the idea but it all stems back to his time in hospitality, during which he ran a hotel management business and, surprise, had no hotels of his own. “I used to say to the owners ‘We’re dealing with your business, we’re not looking after ours,’” he explains. “And if we had owned hotels people would say ‘Oh well, you’re spending all the time on your own hotels’. So I try to avoid it if I can.” Indeed, although the business does have the infrastructure in place to run its own gyms, it’s now at 160 franchise-owned locations, so clearly the franchisor is doing something right.
But when Broster was just 18-years-old, it was the hospitality industry, rather than health and fitness, that he’d set out to make his name in. Having completed a Higher National Diploma on the subject at Buxton College, he set off for Scotland and started working. “Really like anything in life, you fall into something sometimes,” says Broster of hospitality’s lure. “I was working at a local restaurant and thought ‘Oh this might be good.’ Then [I started] to get some education and then went to Scotland.” Specifically, Glasgow-headquartered Stakis Hotels is where he got his break. After a tragic gas explosion struck at the Royal Darroch Hotel, one of the operator’s Aberdeen establishments, and resulted in several fatalities, the location Broster was working at in the city had sales double from £30,000 a week to £60,000 as tourists looked for somewhere else to stay. “It became a Stakis hotel,” he reveals. “So I was Stakis deputy manager, hotel manager, then I eventually ended up in Leicester and opened up a hotel, which was 160-bed and I then became a regional director.” From running one hotel to six to 12 to 60, Broster’s career had taken off.
With Stakis being no stranger to acquisitions it bought LivingWell, the health club business, which paved the way for Broster to change industries and become managing director of the new subsidiary. It was a relatively straightforward transition too, as he took to the role like a member to the swimming pool. “I think when you work in the hospitality business, it’s not just a job, it’s a way of life,” Broster says. “So it’s difficult to get it out of your DNA. And I think from a health club perspective, you can offer a lot more understanding of what people want.” He points to the difference between hospitality events such as a wedding and a wake and says you become used to meeting people’s needs and acting accordingly. “So you do have to learn how to make sure you look after people, which is what the hotel business is all about – looking after people,” he explains.
Although Broster wasn’t sure how long he’d be there and how the role would play out, he was in the post for five years and remembers it as “a great experience.” And even if it wasn’t as luxurious as hotel life in some ways, it made up for it in others. “I went from being served the tea to having to make my own tea,” he laughs. “You’d walk into one of the hotels and the first thing they’d say is ‘Would you like tea?’ and it’d come on a tray. When I went and became MD of LivingWell, I used to buy the milk.” He notes that while some people can’t trade up and down in their careers as easily, it’s an important skill to have because it allows you to appreciate change.
Additionally, the position also came complete with an enviable nightlife as the head office in Milton Keynes had an unexpected facility in the property. “We had a nightclub as part of the deal,” says Broster, who added “nightclub manager” to his CV in the process. Unfortunately, the after-hours environment eventually had to be sacrificed to make room for an extra office as the business got bigger – but not before a spot of stargazing. “I ran the nightclub for the first year to 18 months,” Broster recalls. “We had Boy George [perform and] nights where 5,000 people would come. Then eventually we thought this is probably not our core business, we’re now going to have to relocate.” The relocation was sidestepped in favour of redeveloping and converting more workspace for LivingWell. Continuing to reflect on the time in the nightlife space, he laughs: “It was very good for company socials. The problem is that at that time, we could have held the company socials in a phone box. The irony is that as soon as we lost the nightclub, we had more people.”
From LivingWell, Broster found himself gravitating towards hospitality once more and moved to Canada to work with Hilton. With LivingWell being an international company, he claims that made it easier to up sticks and join the hotelier although it still came with difficulties. “The first six months was more challenging because my wife was still in the UK so I had to get used to that for a while then eventually she moved out there in line with my daughter, who was taking her GCSEs at the time – she was 15 and a half,” he says. However, Broster’s daughter joining a Canadian school proved a short-lived experience – it lasted just four weeks as she decided Loughborough was where she would prefer to study. “That was the hardest thing, to get on a plane and bring my daughter back to this country,” Broster admits. “That was painful.”
The upheaval meant that the school she would board at for A-Levels no longer had accommodation, so they had no choice but to buy her a flat. It’s all part of working in the industry though, which is something he and his wife knowingly committed to and he says that they’re a “partnership”. “That’s made a big difference to some of the jobs I’ve had,” Broster says. “We’ve probably lived in 20 houses and, to be quite honest with you, if you don’t move then actually it’s quite difficult to get better jobs,” he says.
On the theme of better jobs, the next opportunity that presented itself was back in the UK with gym chain LA Fitness, which came about through Broster being headhunted. With a handful of years clocked up at the business topping up his already rammed resume, he decided to go solo and flex his entrepreneurial muscles. “I thought the whole profile of hotels has changed in the UK, there’s no longer brands owning hotels, they’re all interested in franchising,” he opines.
This trend was prolific in the States at the time but still on the rise in the UK, which is why Broster saw his chance to check in and run hotels on the behalf of owners, although the difference between Britain and the US was clear from the get-go. “The first six months I remember we never took any money, we never got paid,” he says. “We thought ‘This can’t go on forever’. I remember sitting down in an office in the one hotel we had at the time [thinking] ‘It’s got to change in the next month or so or it’s gonna get tough’.” That very next month Broster’s hotel management company picked up two more hotels. Then reached four, five, six, seven and kept going. “Once you get up to a certain level, as long as you keep your infrastructure under control then that’s the secret, isn’t it?” he says.
Believing business ownership eventually gets tiring though, Broster was ready to pack it all in for a life of rest and relaxation. But apparently it wasn’t meant to be as Anytime Fitness UK came a-knocking. “Being an entrepreneur has its day as well sometimes,” he remarks. “I was supposed to retire before I took this job. My wife said ‘Oh, is this retirement?' and I said ‘No-no’.” While his dalliance with entrepreneurship had come to an end, Broster’s passion and enthusiasm to achieve company growth was still dialled up to 11 – the only difference was that he’d be doing it as an employee. But to be fair at almost 60, Broster says he’s never been one feeling it’s “time for a pipe and slippers.” Indeed, while we’ll all likely have been thinking wistfully about the time to retire rather than going into work, he warns that when it happens it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. “You need that adrenaline, don’t you, working with people and I think it’s good for your mindset,” says Broster. “So many people I know retire and it gets to be a bit of a challenge for them. From being wanted all the time and being asked questions, there’s only so many times you can [then] play golf. So for me it’s about keeping stimulated and ever-changing.”
That mindset has been demonstrable throughout his career, as evidenced by decades of adapting to companies of different sizes and in different sectors and, not least of all, his ability to buy milk for the team. And with Anytime Fitness UK, as the first British CEO appointed by the company because it had reached a size where the role was necessary to scale further and relieve investors of the burden, Broster had a blank canvas with which to create a masterpiece and age wasn’t a factor. “I’m 57-years-old but I don’t run the business like a 57-year-old,” he declares. “I try and run the business as if it’s fresh and change and think about things.” Admitting he’s not as IT-savvy as some of the team, he’s still keen to challenge decisions and put ideas on the table where digital is concerned. “I want them to learn from all the things I’ve done wrong not just the things I’ve done right and I think that’s quite key,” Broster continues.
With the team in mind, one of his strategies since joining the business has been to bolster the expertise of the head office team through key hires. “The danger is, if you don’t have somebody at the top that’s had more experience, then it’s very difficult to employ people below that person who’s had a certain level of experience,” he explains. “Change to me is so important.”
Having dealt with new hotel and club launches and existing site restructures during his time in hospitality and fitness, Broster believes openings are much easier than implementing changes. “When you have a new property, all the staff are getting used to the property and aren't used to how they do it,” he reasons. “We’ve kind of got the best of both worlds here – we’ve got a business that’s been around for a while but we’ve got a business that’s grown.”
Where growth is concerned, Broster attributes it down to both the power of the brand offering and also the appeal of franchising. “We’ve achieved scale because to be quite honest with you, franchising is new to the market here [in the UK], isn’t it,” he says. “Franchising isn’t something that’s been prolific in the health club business.” But he points to the likes of Australia, where he notes that 98% of businesses overall are franchised. Thankfully, he’s pleased to see Brits following in the footsteps of Aussies to embrace the franchising opportunity. “For this country, people like to own their asset and brands like to own their asset and that’s all changed now,” he says. “They understand that, actually, running a franchise company, if you’ve got the master franchise or brand, it’s an infinitive IRR, isn’t it.”
Looking further ahead with around 30 new sites set to open in 2019, Anytime Fitness UK looks set to reach 200 clubs this year. This would see it follow in the footsteps of rival Pure Gym, which became the first UK gym operator to cross that particular threshold in 2018. But Broster doesn’t plan to just stop there. “For me it’s about how do we get to the next opportunity for growth and how do we get to 300 clubs?” he ponders, noting the likes of not just Pure but also fitness franchises like Snap and Energie out there in the market. “I could say 500 clubs but it’s just a number isn’t it? I think 300 is achievable based around the [Anytime Fitness UK] strategy of local community, coaching and other such developments. I think it helps the network to be that size, so I think 300 clubs isn’t crazy by 2023 or 2024 – that’s what we’re looking at from a development schedule.”
It isn’t just the fitness sector that Anytime Fitness UK is competing in though, according to Broster. The entire franchising sector is fair game, as Anytime’s network boasts a number of multi-franchisees that run other brands including Costa, Taco Bell, Starbucks and Domino’s. “You know, some of these businesses are reaching their peak but [their franchisees] like the franchising world,” he says. “So we don’t just compete with Snap or Energie, we compete with franchising in general.”
Technology is, of course, a development that’s entered the fitness arena. Despite Broster hearing from industry peers that they should all be fearful of virtual and technology, he disagrees. “Never be fearful of somebody that’s coming into the market, work out a way to work together,” he says. “I’m sure if Blockbuster had sat down with Netflix they probably would have had a great business because they would have had the database at Blockbuster, while Netflix had the technology. I think running away from your competition and future is the biggest mistake you’ll ever make. You shouldn’t run away, you should run together.” To that end, virtual classes and the app-based Anytime Coaching platform are moves the franchise made in keeping with Broster’s beliefs.
So where is Anytime Fitness UK heading in 2019? It’s going to be a big year according to Broster, who sounds excited by the thought of it. It’ll be a lot of additional building on the work he’s already done since arriving, while also setting out future-looking agendas to power on. “For me, any business I would ever go into would have a three-year plan,” he says. “The first year to get it sorted, second year to hopefully get it moving in the right direction and third year in theory to enjoy all of the previous years. And if you stay a fourth year, in theory it should be even better.” Laughing, he adds: “But the problem is if you stay a fourth year, it could start going the other direction again.”