55 YEARS after opening his first gym, the UK’s ‘Father of Fitness’, Ken Heathcote opens up in his autobiography about the personal challenges he faced forging a business out of the fitness industry.
I was fortunate enough to meet Ken on a recent trip to Bolton. My father-in-law used to attend classes with Ken, my husband’s best friend is now heading up the graphic design for Ken’s book and it was in a little back street in Bolton that he made the move from community classes to his first professional gym.
“I opened my doors on that first day from 10 ‘til 5 and no customers came,” says Ken, “then my dad walked in and put his money down on the counter. It was then I knew this was my profession and my livelihood.”
That gym would become the first multi-purpose fitness club in the UK.
Ken has published books before, The Gym Business sold in excess of ten thousand copies but this is the first time he has laid his soul bare – and he’s understandably nervous.
For fitness industry professionals, Ken laid the foundations of modern fitness qualifications and programming. He wrote, created and delivered the first National weight training course and helped for the NVQ for sport and recreation. He was co-founder and Chairman of the FIA (Fitness Industry Association) and his Lifetime Achievement Awards include: Life Fitness – Distinguished Service Award; The Oscar Heidenstam Foundation Outstanding Contribution to Physical Culture; and National Fitness Awards – Lifetime Achievement Award.
This man is a legend! We met over coffee, at the Bolton Arena, just opposite the Reebok Stadium. Fitting for our meeting since footballer Nat Lofthouse, whose statue stands proud between the two buildings, used to train in Ken’s first gym with the rest of his Bolton Wanderers team mates.
And Ken’s who’s who of contacts does not end there. He counts the ‘World’s Best Built Man of the Century’ Bill Pearl as his friend, having judged the Mr Universe Contest for 15 years, and then there’s squash champion Jonah Barrington, footballers Roger Hunt MBE and Gordon Taylor OBE, the world’s strongest man Geoff Capes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Darth Vader!
So how did he go from an empty gym to a thriving, decades spanning fitness business? What can today’s fitness professionals learn from this pioneer? “It’s all about creating a social structure,” says Ken, “create moments of magic. We always focused on customer service first.” As a fitness professional, with my own community business, this is the message that has rung through my head since meeting Ken. That the fitness industry has grown in the past 50 years but hasn’t moved on.That our customers don’t really want fitness gadgets or trends, they are transitory. If we want customers for life then we need to re-discover the social side of the fitness industry. Take our customers on holidays, don’t just train them for them. Become a part of our communities, rather than just taking from them.
Ken Heathcote’s Autobiography, The Father of Fitness was published in the UK on 27th September and is available on Amazon.
For more information visit: http://www.kenheathcote.co.uk/book/
Karen Laing is a pre and post natal exercise specialist and journalist. Karen teaches Pilates (including pregnancy specific classes) in Epping, Essex and London and blogs about fitness, women’s health and wellbeing at http://www.alittlefitter.com.
Karen co-directs Fit School with her husband Chris. They run fitness classes, ladies only training camps and Pilates classes in Epping and Essex.