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  • Gymshark has come a long way since its founder Ben Francis

  • started making pieces of fitnesswear in his parents' garage nearly a decade ago.

  • But by 2020, the fast-growing fitnesswear brand

  • was valued at more than £1 billion and had been sported bynumber of Hollywood stars.

  • After spending six years gaining experience in several senior roles in the company,

  • Francis returned to the CEO role in 2021, with ambitious plans for expansion.

  • In Canada you've got Lulu, and in the States you've got great brands

  • like Nike and Under Armour, and in Germany you've Adidas and Puma.

  • I really think Gymshark can be the U.K.'s answer to those brands.

  • The Gymshark website was created in 2011 by a then-19-year-old Francis,

  • while he was a student here at Aston University in Birmingham, in the U.K.

  • I was really lucky actually. So when I was a young kid,

  • I did work experience with my grandad and my grandad ran his own business

  • and that business was basically lining furnaces with either brick or ceramic fibre.

  • Now, albeit that is a million miles away from websites,

  • it basically made me really inspired and made me think

  • 'oh, do you know you know what, I want to do my own thing,

  • I want to be in a business that I would like to run myself, if possible.'

  • And when I went to school I had a IT class

  • and this IT class completely changed my life, I just absolutely fell in love with IT

  • and tech and websites and apps and everything around like that.

  • And I was also in love with sort of the gym and fitness.

  • So then those two things just sort of came together

  • and I started making a load of fitness websites, more for fun than anything.

  • In 2012, he incorporated Gymshark with his school friend Lewis Morgan.

  • At first, they used the Gymshark website to drop ship fitness supplements,

  • effectively acting as a middleman to market and sell the products,

  • without having to take on the additional cost and risk of buying stock themselves.

  • They used all the money from this venture, as well as what Francis earned working at a Pizza Hut,

  • to buy a sewing machine and screen printer to make the first pieces of Gymshark fitnesswear.

  • What inspired you to go from drop shipping to making clothes?

  • There was no like strategic thing, it wasn't really like a well thought out decision,

  • if I'm completely honest. It was literally a case of

  • 'no one makes the gymwear that we want to wear, like let's try and do it ourselves.'

  • I remember ordering what they call a stringer vest from the States,

  • and it came and it just completely like drowned me.

  • Like I looked like I was wearing my dad's sort of tops sort of thing.

  • And it made me realise very quickly that body building clothes then were absolutely massive.

  • And we loved the style but they wouldn't really fit,

  • so we literally just wanted to make it ourselves and so we did.

  • How did you go about doing that?

  • So my nan and my mum both knew how to sew, so I would be at university in the day

  • and in the gap between uni and Pizza Hut, is I would, my mum would video herself sewing

  • and give me like a tutorial: “Right you do this here, this here, this here.

  • If this happens, this is what you do.” Then I would sort of get home at 11 o'clock,

  • put it in front of me and I would basically learn from the videos that she took how to sew.

  • There was local lad that did a lot of screen printing,

  • so he taught us how to screen print, and just sort of experimented.

  • In 2014, the business really started to take off after Francis and Morgan

  • brought Gymshark to the Bodypower Expo, a two-day fitness event in Birmingham.

  • They launched Gymshark's Luxe  fitted tracksuit at the event 

  • and brought along well-known fitness YouTubers.

  • What made you kind of realise that bringing along fitness YouTube stars

  • would help attract people to the stand?

  • We realised that about 10 minutes into the event to be honest.

  • I had no idea running up to it, because my heroes were on YouTube

  • so it was just a case of 'oh it would be so cool if our heroes

  • would come to the UK and be with Gymshark at this event.'

  • I didn't really think that much into it if I was honest.

  • Soon after Francis dropped out of college to focus on growing the business.

  • That was a massive decision for me because I was the first person in my family

  • to have gotten into university, which was massive.

  • And then as we got into the second year, Gymshark was roughly, it had been live

  • for about a year at that point, and we did actually have consistent revenue,

  • it wasn't massive revenue, but it was consistent.

  • And I'll never forget actually calling up my mum and dad,

  • because again they were so proud of me and so proud of the fact that I'd literally grafted

  • so hard to get into uni and I saidListen I'm going to quit uni.”

  • And to be fair to them, they sort of said

  • Listen, are you 100% sure that this is what you want to do?”

  • And I'm not sure if they 100% agreed, but I saidYep, this is the decision I'm going to make.”

  • And then as soon as I made the decision they were 100% supportive

  • and completely backed me  and that was, if I'm honest

  • a fairly life changing moment for me.

  • From then on, Gymshark saw rapid growth, taking on more staff and launching its women's activewear range.

  • In 2016, Morgan stepped back  from working in the business 

  • but remained a shareholder  for the next four years.

  • Fast forward to 2020 and Gymshark had gone from operating out of a garage,

  • to this campus in Solihull, just outside of Birmingham,

  • complete with its own lifting club and gym. And while many clothing retailers

  • suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, Gymshark actually saw a jump in sales.

  • Gymshark is an exclusively online business and only sells its products through its own website.

  • That worked to its advantage as many brick-and-mortar shops were forced

  • to close during the height of lockdown. The business also benefitted from people

  • using exercise to stay occupied while being asked to stay at home.

  • More people are running, cycling and lifting than ever,

  • they were doing home workouts, there was so much going on.

  • All of a sudden they had this extra bit of time.

  • There was a spike in terms of activity, albeit no one was in the gym.

  • I think it helps that we're online. I think a lot of e-commerce brands did incredibly well.

  • We trialled a store in Covent Garden which unfortunately had to be closed about two weeks early,

  • I would love to finish that trial. We'll definitely be doing more tests in the future

  • when it comes offline and retail, I think there's a great opportunity there.

  • Gymshark's sales soared by 58% in 2020 compared to the previous year, with revenues topping  half a billion dollars.

  • In August 2020,  U.S. private equity firm General Atlantic announced it had taken a 21% stake in Gymshark.

  • At the time, it valued Gymshark at more than £1 billion,

  • seeing the brand become one of just two dozen British unicorns.

  • Gymshark was only the second  British company to have reached 

  • the milestone without previous  backing from external investors.

  • The General Atlantic deal also saw Francis increase his stake in Gymshark

  • up to 70%, making him a near-billionaire.

  • Gymshark has continued to see strong performance in 2021,

  • with turnover of £400 million according to the company's latest full-year results.

  • But despite the brand's stratospheric growth, Francis has been determined to remain grounded.

  • He stepped back as CEO in 2015, handing the reins to Steve Hewitt,

  • who was managing director at the time. Francis spent the next six years

  • working in different roles in the company, including chief technology officer,

  • chief marketing officer and chief product officer.

  • CEO was not the right role for me when I was in my early twenties.

  • Just because I'd started a business that had grown very quickly

  • didn't mean I was the most competent chief exec. So that was an interesting realisation for me

  • and it took a little bit of a while for that to hit home.

  • It was a little bit heartbreaking. However, in hindsight it gave me

  • an incredible opportunity to then work in different areas of the business.

  • I could then focus on my strengths, so brand, product marketing,

  • and really double down on them and improve them,

  • but I could also work on my weaknesses without having to worry about failing.

  • Francis returned as CEO in  August 2021 with a clear vision 

  • on where he wants to take Gymshark next, as it expands into the U.S. and Asia.

  • There's so many brands around the world that I'm really inspired by, right.

  • In Canada you've got Lulu, and in the States you've got great brands like Nike and Under Armour

  • and in Germany you've Adidas and Puma. I really think Gymshark can be

  • the U.K.'s answer to those brands. But that's not saying that the U.K.

  • is where it starts and ends for us, we also want to be a truly global brand.

  • And some of the most inspiring brands to me aren't necessarily the biggest but they're,

  • you know, even like Jaguar Land Rover, for example.

  • I know that they're a British brand and they're from just over the road

  • from where I grew up but it's so cool like when you're abroad

  • that you see that you see their vehicles being driven around.

  • So I've got this absolute ambition of Gymshark being,

  • yes it is the U.K.'s brand, but it's also a truly global brand as well.

  • But in the fiercely competitive and fast-moving sportswear industry,

  • can Gymshark keep up with the incumbents which have long dominated the sector?  

  • All consumers are looking for brands that speak to them specifically,

  • and I think these sportswear giants maybe don't connect on that more

  • personal level with consumers the way that a smaller brand like Gymshark does,

  • that has partnerships with  their favorite trainerswith their favorite athletes

  • Market researcher Euromonitor estimated that the global sportswear market

  • would be worth over $345 billion in 2022, up from around $315 billion in 2018,

  • and despite shrinking in 2020. Consultancy McKinsey identified a number of trends

  • expected to shape the sporting  goods industry in 2021. 

  • This included developing digital-enabled fitness communities, as working out from home becomes a longer-term trend.

  • That's in addition to an even greater shift to influencer marketing.

  • Gymshark has been an early adopter on both these fronts.

  • The report also highlighted how the pandemic had accelerated the focus on sustainability,

  • noting that it had become more of anurgent consumer priority.”

  • Sportswear products are somewhat notorious for being made through less sustainable processes

  • or out of less sustainable materials. And for that reason, especially considering

  • the growth of the marketthere's a big opportunity there to improve those materials and processes.

  • But Francis is committed to addressing this issue

  • and is convinced Gymshark can rise to the challenge.

  • It's planning to use 100% recyclable packaging

  • and remove all hangtags on its products by the end of 2021.

  • The brand is also increasingly aiming to use recycled fibres in its clothing.

  • Sustainability is massively  important to me personally 

  • and it has been to the  business for a long, long time.

  • Obviously we've got goals, 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030,

  • 30% reduction in water usage by 2030. 

  • We want be using 100%  recyclable polyester by 2025,

  • so we do have those goals. But equally, sustainability is something that, you know,

  • is ingrained in the entire  business and it is at the 

  • forefront of our over-arching  strategy as a business as well.

Gymshark has come a long way since its founder Ben Francis