British Military Fitness: Robin Cope
The ex-officer tells us how he used the forces to create a new kind of exercise class
On the face of it, the idea behind British Military Fitness, or BMF, seems totally ludicrous. Who, in their right mind, would pay to slog around a muddy park, which they could otherwise use for free, performing a series of exercises which look foolish and feel tortuous? Well actually quite a lot of people, as it happens. The first-ever BMF class, back in 1999, attracted just three clients – two nurses, and a wannabe commando who turned up in his own uniform. Now the business boasts more than 25,000 members, spread across more than 120 parks covering the length and breadth of the company. BMF has already expanded into South Africa, and plans are afoot to expand its frontiers still further. Turnover lies in the region of £12m, with profits in excess of £1m – not bad for a business which makes its money from sweat and soil.
Few entrepreneurs boast a career story as varied or distinguished as BMF founder Robin Cope. As an army officer, Cope earned a couple of gallantry awards and rose as far as the special forces. After leaving the forces in 1992, he fell into a peripatetic existence, travelling everywhere from Angola to Yugoslavia and taking on all manner of challenges, from humanitarian aid to film consultancy. Then came the eureka moment. Cope takes up the story: “I was sick of what was happening at gyms, and thought the group dynamic and a social element would allow us to create an outdoor fitness alternative. The idea came out of the blue in October 1998, and we got it going in April 1999.” Outsiders might assume Cope's idea – to get groups of people running around parks for an hour at a time, and paying gym rates for the privilege – would have been extremely cheap to set up. But in fact it brought manifold costs. Cope had to hire vans to transport equipment, buy numbered bibs for members to wear during classes, and build a website. Gaining permission to use London's Hyde Park cost £2,000, while an advert in the London Evening Standard demanded a further £5,000. In all, Cope says he spent around £20,000 in establishing his business. After the first class of three people in Hyde Park, new recruits began to turn up in ever greater numbers, necessitating expansion into new parks around London, and the hiring of additional instructors. Cope, who took the first-ever class himself, began to recruit other ex-servicemen, all of whom had a recognised fitness qualification. He paid them well, too – significantly more than the going rate a gym instructor could expect at the time.
With growth though came challenges. Costs were steadily mounting – each new park demanded new instructors, new vehicles, new bibs and new licence fees. Three years after it launched, BMF almost went bankrupt, owing around £300,000. In hindsight, Cope believes that “we tried to grow too big too quickly, opening too many parks and hiring too many managers. We thought BMF was such a good idea we were scared of other people taking it, but it was hard to get going on a big scale.” Mercifully, Cope managed to drag his business back from the precipice, helped by a hedge fund manager, who liked the classes so much that he was willing to invest a considerable sum of money in the business in 2002. Cope scaled back on his management team, and slowed his plans for expansion. Regional branches, which had been opened in Leeds and Manchester, were shut down, allowing Cope to focus on building his core membership base.
Then, in the mid-noughties, the concept of BMF exploded. Cope explains: “People were getting fed up with other forms of fitness, a lot of people could see us in parks, and we got a lot of publicity from all kinds of places. I remember the Evening Standard did a big article on us in the first year, they said that would be the only one – they've done 27 articles on us since then!” Today, BMF runs classes in more than 50 towns and cities across the UK; Cope says that, beyond London, the major conurbations are now “major revenue streams for us”. This regional expansion would seem to lend itself to a franchise-based structure, however Cope has thus far refused to embrace this model. Instead, he has divided the country up into operational areas, each with its own manager. In recent years the structure has been tweaked slightly, giving the area managers more autonomy to create growth. Cope says he is “not against the idea of franchising, particularly for overseas branches, but it has to be something that people want, and get something out of”.
These days, it seems you can't stroll round a park anywhere in the country without seeing a group of people running, squatting and lunge-walking to the booming orders of a combat-clad supervisor. BMF has spread to every corner of the country and now it's going international, having launched in South Africa in 2008. In addition to its core offering, BMF now runs a variety of fitness-based holidays, from the Three Peaks Challenge to treks in Borneo. The company has even launched a ‘walk-fit' initiative, to cater for an audience looking for less strenuous physical activity. The company employs 800 full-time instructors and 50 full-time staff. Cope is now one of three major shareholders. Between them, they own 70% of BMF. The other 30% of shares are available as options for staff, part of Cope's mission to convert employees into stakeholders.
Looking to the future, Cope is confident in the position his company enjoys in the fitness market. One might assume anyone could copy the BMF model, but Cope insists “it's not as easy as you think. A couple of instructors have left us and thought they could do it themselves, then they start finding out things like VAT, licence fees, bibs and paying instructors. We spend £100,000 a year on water, another £100,000 on cleaning bibs at laundries, and a seven-figure sum for all the parks we use.” Cope is currently putting together a two-year plan. Although he is reluctant to discuss specifics, as the plans have yet to be approved by his fellow shareholders, he claims he is aiming for 40,000 members and a £20m turnover within three years, and will be targeting “the 70% of adults who don't take regular exercise out and doing it” through less strenuous pursuits. He is also keen to continue BMF's expansion: “We're looking at Europe, North America, Latin America – people get bored with gyms everywhere, not just Britain. People are looking more and more for other forms of exercise. The world's our oyster.” When asked about an exit strategy, Cope is cagey: “Me personally, you never know, but certainly not for three years. Someone offered me around £15m a couple of weeks ago, but I turned it down because I'm not ready and the other directors probably aren't ready. You have to allow a certain amount of growth – and there's more growing to do.”