“We know how a woman thinks about her health and what drives her towards achieving her fitness goals. With almost all our key executives being female, we are very attuned to the woman of today,” says Diana Williams, the Founder and Managing Director of Fernwood Women’s Health Clubs.
This extensive comprehension of women’s health and fitness needs is what makes Fernwood Women’s Health Clubs one of the best fitness and gym franchises in the world, leading to being featured on the cover story of this edition.
“At Fernwood we are not focussed on how many clubs we open, as much as we are concerned about how financially strong each franchisee is. Fernwood’s success is due to strength of each of our franchisees.”
Fernwood was founded in 1989 when Diana recognised that women needed a place of their own – a sanctuary where they could exercise and reach their health and fitness and wellbeing goals. It is renowned for its exceptional customer service, premier facilities, and a special female touch to its amenities and ambience. From humble beginnings in Bendigo over 31 years ago, Fernwood now has over 70 clubs, situated in every state and territory of Australia.
Fernwood currently has two franchising models – the first being Fernwood Fitness, with each club providing comprehensive workout areas with strength and cardio equipment, personal training, small group personal training (FIIT30), group fitness classes, a nutrition program (Food Coaching), free breakfast and free toiletries; and the second being Fernwood Ultra which is a smaller footprint high end studio concept featuring Reformer Pilates, Yoga, Cycle, Meditation, and wellbeing which was founded in 2019.
Exhibiting true excellence
Fernwood has always maintained a culture of focussing on franchisee profitability as one of its key objectives. “Ensuring that our franchisees—some of whom have been part of the Fernwood network for more than 20 years—are successful and profitable franchisees, sets us apart from other chains which have a focus on ‘growth in outlets’ as their key driver rather than franchisee profitability,” says Diana.
Fostering empowered workplaces with a clear mission of connecting employees’ daily work to a broader social purpose and positive change also adds to the great culture within the Fernwood network.
Moreover, every Fernwood franchisee and employee must participate in a Mental Health First Aid program to ensure that mental wellness as well as physical wellness is a strong focus of the organisation.
The main competitive advantage our Franchisees receive when they join us is that we are a female-focussed business. Although the network has several male franchisees within its network or husband-and-wife teams, the core programs, marketing, and communications are all put together by women.
“Our mission is to ‘empower women to shine’ and our focus on creating a community of women within our clubs. Our members are very loyal to us and the creation of a community of women within our network is a very strong competitive advantage. We care about our franchises, their employees and in turn their members, and that is reflected in the length of tenure of our members, our employees, and our franchisees,” says the team at Fernwood.
Fernwood has always been ahead of the market in relation to new concepts, which to take on, and which to leave alone. For instance, it adopted the 24-hour concept when that came into the market, but it did not adopt other programs that did not match its member profile. “The fitness industry has been peppered with trends which come and go. At Fernwood we focus on our core offering such as group fitness, strength training, cycle, personal training, reformer Pilates, HIIT training and our mental wellbeing program ‘Empower’,” says Diana.
Beyond just numbers
Diana Williams, the Founder and Managing Director of Fernwood, has been on a remarkable journey, from simply desiring a dedicated space for women to exercise to becoming one of Australia’s most respected and successful businesswomen.
Recipient of numerous awards over the thirty plus years that Fernwood has been operating, Diana is a member of four separate Hall of Fame and rolls of honour and continues to receive accolades for her innovation and forward-thinking business management.
When asked on what one aspect about the franchising ecosystem in the health and fitness industry that she would like to change, Diana says, “It is the focus that many other brands have on ‘the number of outlets’ they open. When they refer to growth they are talking about the number of outlets, rather than the growth in franchisee profitability. At Fernwood we are not focussed on how many clubs we open, as much as we are concerned about how financially strong each franchisee is.”
“Fernwood’s success is due to strength of each of our franchisees. This is one of the main reasons we have been in business for over 30 years. We have seen many brands come into the marketplace as the bright new shiny thing, and then a decade later they are closing as the maintainable viability isn’t there for the long term,” Diana adds.
COVID-19 and the fitness industry
We asked Diana her opinion on what could possibly be the future of the fitness industry after the pandemic, to which she says, “I believe that the fitness industry is very well placed to surge forward as a dominant player in the next decade and beyond. Never have we felt a greater need to exercise and stay healthy. With people being in lockdown for the most part of 2020, the consumer is very aware of the detrimental impact that living a sedentary lifestyle can bring. Health and wellbeing are at the forefront of everyone’s mind as we have been forced to step off the busy treadmill of life and reflect on what is important to us.
“There has always been a concern that online workouts could one day replace the ‘bricks and mortar’ fitness business. The lockdown of our members, which meant that they only had access to online workouts has shown us that they will never stop attending the gym to do their workouts at home. While online workouts and communication might be good to assist them when they are not able to attend the club, their desperation to get back to our clubs once we were out of lockdown has proven that it’s not just the exercise, but also the interaction with our staff and with other members that is just as important to them.”
“Mental health is also a number one factor in the future of our business and Fernwood—being forward thinking in this regard—has a series of mental wellbeing programs for our members to take the opportunity to take time out, recharge and learn techniques to help manage stress, anxiety and burnout,” she adds.
Leveraging technology for better health
Fernwood has always been at the forefront regarding using the latest technology to enhance its business. The business is in a unique position of utilising data to understand the distinct interests and motivations of each member, to facilitate connections and create personalised experiences, which in turn supports ongoing member retention.
“Welcoming new members to the Fernwood community is always a celebrated moment, but as we well know, this moment is just the start of the member journey. Member retention is equally as important as a new sale, which is why we place great emphasis on our onboarding and welcome programs, while also concentrating efforts on supporting members who have been with us for one, two, five and 10+ years, to ensure all members know they are a valued member of the Fernwood community with access to a full-service facility that supports their goals,” says Diana.
Before the pandemic, Fernwood had a very comprehensive members platform where members could access meal plans, diets, recipes, and exercises as well as its popular women’s wellness program, which is an evidence-based program for mental wellbeing. Since the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the business has refreshed the platform to include new workout videos, wellness classes, meditations and more, while also offering a variety of virtual workout offerings and online wellness programs to ensure members could continue their health and fitness journey no matter their situation. With locations all around Australia, it also uses the latest technology to be able to support and assist its franchisees in taking their business to higher performance.
Bequeathing the keys to excellence
We asked Diana on what advice she would give to those aspiring to venture into the health and fitness industry, to which she says, “One of the challenges of being entrepreneurial is taking the time to analyse and solve new concepts. The entrepreneurial tendency is towards positivity without seriously considering the idea of failure. The fitness and wellness industry, much like most other industries, is constantly evolving and shifting to meet the ever-changing needs of the consumer and innovation is key to being successful in business, however, being a successful entrepreneur relies on knowing when to place an idea on the shelf. Some ideas take time to reach their full potential and you may run out of cash before your concept is fully established, so cash flow management is vital.”
Towards New Horizons
Fernwood is most certainly well positioned enough to take a huge leap forward regarding expanding its brand both domestically and globally. It has a sound balance sheet, excellent systems and its programs which are now trending towards mental wellness as well as physical wellness position Fernwood to grow in profit, memberships, and club expansion into the next decade.