Jan Spaticchia is a familiar face to all that work at énergie fitness clubs. And with him at the helm, it’s on track to become the number one fitness brand in the country
Walking into an énergie group fitness club with the company’s co-founder and CEO Jan Spaticchia, it’s evident that he has a special connection with every employee. And this was driven home when Channel 4 invited him to appear on Undercover Boss. Whilst Spaticchia aced the initial stages, he eventually received word from the show’s agents that they’d decided to take things in a different direction. After a little probing, énergie discovered that the production company hadn’t been able to find a single employee that didn’t recognise its head honcho by sight. “Most of the staff know me,” Spaticchia smiles. “And Undercover Boss relies on you actually being able to go undercover.”
Even as a child, Spaticchia wasn’t one to want to blend into the crowd. “Very early on I knew I wanted to do my own thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to work for somebody else.” This was largely thanks to the influence of his uncle, whose manufacturing business he would work at during the school holidays. Whilst Spaticchia could have easily just walked into a job with the family business once he finished, he knew he wanted to follow the example his uncle had set. “He was rags to riches; he made it on his own,” says Spaticchia. “That inspired me to want to do something myself, rather than just jump on board with what he created.”
Once he’d finished his A levels, Spaticchia went to technical college and decided to study leisure and recreation. “I’m obviously a reasonably big lad: I was spending a lot of time in the gym,” he says. “So I picked a college course that would allow me to continue doing that.” Whilst he studied, he made ends meet working as a gym supervisor, until his mother drew his attention to a job advert from Fitness for Industry, the company that ran all of the gyms for the Forte Group hotel chain. The ad said the firm was looking for a manager instructor grade six – or MI6. “I remember thinking that I was going to get a gun and end up working for the secret service,” Spaticchia laughs. “Basically, it meant I would be folding towels, cleaning showers, doing laundry and scrubbing scum lines.”
Before long, Spaticchia was living in the Milton Keynes Forte Posthouse and working his way through a six-month training programme. Whilst successful completion of the course typically saw trainees going back out as instructors, Spaticchia aced his final test and leapfrogged into a senior role. “I got offered a management position straight away,” he says. And his career continued to pick up speed: after just seven weeks as a cover manager filling in for other Posthouse managers around the country, Spaticchia was given a chance to cut his teeth setting up a club of his own in Brentwood. “I had my first opportunity to design a club, oversee the fit out and launch it,” he says.
And Spaticchia soon got his first taste of true entrepreneurialism when he was approached by a wealthy club member who wanted him to help set up an independent club. “I thought he was full of shit, if I’m honest,” Spaticchia admits. But the member returned three weeks later, having found a site for the new gym that had been listed in the Domesday Book. “He said it was a beautiful working watermill in Buckingham,” says Spaticchia. “But I went to see it and it was this derelict shack.” Fortunately, this didn’t discourage the young entrepreneur – he set up his own consultancy called Ultimate Health UK, agreed on a fee of £60,000 and, within a year, Bourton Mill was open to the public. “And I got the bug: I just loved setting things up,” he says.
However, the early 1990s recession began to bite not long after, temporarily putting the brakes on demand for new fitness clubs. Ever resourceful, Spaticchia blagged his way into a job lecturing on the health and fitness industry at places like Oxford College of Further Education and Watford College, now West Herts College. “I discovered I was quite good at it: I could really hold an audience,” he said. Before he knew it, Spaticchia had worked his way up to be head of faculty for sports science, leisure and recreation courses at Milton Keynes College. There was only one slight hitch. “Nobody had ever asked me if I’d gotten any A levels or a degree,” he says. “When Milton Keynes eventually got round to asking, they paid for me to do a teaching degree basically out of embarrassment.”
Once the economy started to recover, Spaticchia returned to the entrepreneurial game and founded HiLife, his first chain of fitness clubs. “It was a bittersweet experience but I learnt a very important lesson,” he says. Having built the chain up to nine sites, Spaticchia began to bring non-exec directors on board to prepare the business for a floatation. Unfortunately, he allowed himself to get diluted below a majority stake and began to suspect that his chairman and non-execs intended to wrest control of the company from him. So he took the nuclear option. “I committed commercial suicide,” he says. “I called a meeting, declared a vote of no confidence in the board and got myself sacked.”
However, this opened Spaticchia up for an exciting new project. Barclays Private Equity brought him together with experienced fitness club entrepreneur Steve Philpott, offering them a 10% stake in a £55m project to consolidate the many small brands that had emerged across the fitness sector. “Barclays had Steve in the frame for the silver-haired, mature chairman and I was the maverick dealmaker,” Spaticchia says. However, Philpott realised that if they packaged together the mid-performers as a single brand, they could bring in franchisees to take ownership of each club and turn a fragmented market into a thriving fitness brand. “We said to Barclays: ‘We don’t need any outside backing; we’ll do it ourselves’,” he says. “That was in 2003, which is the beginning of the énergie story.”
Initially running the business from Spaticchia’s kitchen table, the first port of call for the entrepreneurs was creating a model for the nascent fitness chain. “If I’m being completely candid, it was a bit trial and error to begin with,” Spaticchia says. “It was a case of looking back at what I’d done with the clubs I’d set up and asking: ‘What mistakes did we make? Why didn’t those things work? And how can we do it better?’” One thing that emerged from this process was that the model didn’t lend itself so well to opening large, 30,000 square-foot clubs; instead the focus needed to be on much more intimate, community-focused clubs. “Our speciality became smaller, more compact clubs that could become the focal point of the local area and be very much driven by a local owner,” he says.
But establishing a robust model was only half the battle; énergie still needed to test it in the real world. “It’s very hard early on when you’re a franchisor,” says Spaticchia. “In those days, it was impossible to get land owners to give you covenants or get banks to lend.” Because of this, énergie decided to take a less orthodox route, acquiring existing sites and offering to finance franchisees out of its own pockets; within a couple of years the franchise had lent over £700,000 to get its locations off the ground. “We created a self-propelled pilot,” he says. “That’s how it all got started.”
One of the key things that énergie learned from these early experiments was that it couldn’t expect a single brand to be all things to all people. “If you look at the different people we cater to, one size doesn’t fit all,” Spaticchia says. By way of example, he points to the énergie fitness for women brand, which attracts a clientele that might otherwise be intimidated by the traditional gym environment. “They’re not like a normal gym: they’re much more of a community club,” he says. “Women go there to chat and have a coffee.”
And for those still unsure whether its gyms will be the right fit for them, énergie has another trick up its sleeve. “Most people don’t want to buy a health-club membership up front,” says Spaticchia. “They want to give it a go first.” For this reason, énergie created the empower programme, effectively a try-before-you-buy that offers a money-back guarantee if gym-goers don’t see results within 30 days. “If you’re confident in your service, you should show them what you do,” Spaticchia says. “If they’ve not had a life-changing experience, then give them their money back.” You certainly can’t argue with the results: thus far 42,000 gym users have been through the empower programme and énergie hasn’t had to give out a single refund.
But énergie hasn’t only been making strides in improving the fitness of its customers. In 2011, the brand decided to launch National Fitness Day with an eye to getting the public off their couches and office chairs. “It was about taking one hour of one day and mobilising the British population,” Spaticchia says. By the third year, almost all of the major fitness brands were participating. However, many of them didn’t realise it had been set up by a competitor and énergie began to realise it could become the victim of its own success. “So we went to UK Active, our national trade body, and donated National Fitness Day to the industry,” he says. This act of generosity certainly paid off: National Fitness Day has only continued to grow, in 2015 reaching 25 million people in the UK alone.
Given énergie’s power to rally the public, it’s not surprising it has recently kickstarted a major crowdfunding round. But its motivations for doing so are perhaps a little unorthodox. “Paradoxically, the crowdfunding campaign is not about raising money,” says Spaticchia. In fact, énergie’s round was sparked by its board’s decision to issue share options for head-office staff. Realising that this would leave franchisees and their employees out of the loop, Spaticchia instead decided to put a percentage of the company on Crowdcube, allowing all stakeholders, including customers, a chance to buy into the company. The campaign has gone on to smash its target with a full week to spare, something Spaticchia puts down to the way crowdfunding engages stakeholders. “If I make money, they make money, so we’re all in it together,” he says. “There’s something magical about that.”
There is certainly a great sense of camaraderie between Spaticchia and his franchisees. “I still spend a lot of time speaking to my franchisees on a one-to-one basis,” he says. “In that way, I’m very hands-on.” As well as attending as many of the fitness club openings as he can get to, Spaticchia also makes a point of teaching the first session of the franchise management course himself, something he takes great pride in. “Even when I’ve handed over the reins to somebody else, I’ll still come in to teach that course,” he says. “I like meeting every single franchisee that comes through the process.”
And this dedication cuts both ways. “The network has always been like a family,” Spaticchia says. When his stepdaughter Robyn died of cancer in 2011, the network rallied around Spaticchia and his wife, helping to raise around £60,000 for the Teenage Cancer Trust in Robyn’s name. Spaticchia feels this demonstrates just how tight-knit the network has become. “When Robyn died, we didn’t quite understand how 500 people ended up at her funeral,” he says. “But when we looked around we suddenly realised that half of our franchisees had come.”
Thanks to the way the network pulls together, énergie now has over 110,000 members and turns over £26m a year. “We are the third largest fitness group in the UK and Ireland,” says Spaticchia. “Our aim is to become number one.” And this is definitely within reach: énergie is currently opening three to four sites a month, with an eye to having 225 open by 2018 and 500 by 2023. It is also aiming to reach a million members in the same timescale.
But it isn’t all about the numbers for Spaticchia. “I want to sit back when I’m old, point at énergie and say: ‘I’m proud to say I worked there once’,” he concludes. “If I can do that, I’ll be happy.”