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Female Leader, Di Williams, Founder and Chair Fernwood Fitness

Diana (Di) Williams Founder and Chair Fernwood Fitness started her business 30 years ago with $7,000 and one gym in a vacant schoolroom. In 2018 the franchise business is nationwide with 70 clubs across Australia and a multi-million dollar turnover. Di achieved this level of success step by step, through actively listening to and co-creating the experience with her customers. Sticking to the formula of female only clubs is Fernwood’s key differentiator in the highly competitive fitness industry.

In 1998, and numerous years thereafter, Fernwood was named one of Australia’s fastest growing companies by Business Review Weekly (BRW). By 2007 the company had achieved $100 million annual turnover. Di was inducted in to the Australian Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999, in 2005 was awarded Telstra Businesswoman of the Year and in 2007 was the first woman to be inducted into Franchising Council of Australia’s Hall of Fame.

You founded the first Fernwood Fitness gym in a vacant schoolroom in Bendigo in 1989 with $7,000 of your own savings and grew it into an award winning multi-million dollar business. What motivated you to keep growing the business?

What motivated me to keep growing the business was really the fact that it was so popular. We were only in the schoolroom for six months, more and more women were joining up so we had to find a new location with bigger premises and more equipment. It was a real hit, a lot of members would come from out of town during those first few years and say, “Is this a franchise? I wish there was one of these where I come from,” so that gave me the idea that we could expand.

The second one was in Ballarat, which was not too far away. The whole idea was to try and clone what we had without going over to the other side of Australia, so we opened in Ballarat and then we moved to Melbourne after that. It took nearly three years of being a single operation before we franchised it, but during that period of time we made a lot of improvements – we got our logo redesigned and our colours all smartened up and more of a professional image.

What are the key ingredients that have differentiated the Fernwood Fitness brand within the women’s health industry in Australia?

I think the main thing is that we are totally female only. A lot of organisations might have a women’s only section, but because we’re exclusively for women, the members create their own community and they’re the ones who decide what they want in a club. We’ve taken a lot of direction over the years from what the members want and what the members enjoy, rather than relying on what we think they want.

So the key has been listening to our members, and sticking to our core business of providing a safe and fun place for women to come and work out. We’ve never really tried to copy the competition or follow the latest fads, we’ve just stuck with what we do and continually tried to do it better.

Tell us about how you have navigated the major growth points in your business, moving from a regionally based small business into a national franchise operation.

It’s probably just been by taking one bite at a time really. If somebody said to me back in 1989 when I opened up one Fernwood in Bendigo that it was going to be a national chain around Australia, I would have freaked out and got under the bed! It would have been very daunting and overwhelming. But you just do one bite at a time, you open up another one and another one and it just grows. We started off in Bendigo, and then moved to Ballarat and then Werribee [in outer Melbourne].

At the time, there was another chain of women’s only gyms that came over from New Zealand and they went to Sydney, so I thought, “OK, let’s go to Queensland, and get Victoria, Queensland and South Australia going, and let them have Sydney until we get strong enough.” We started franchising in 1994, and in 1995 we opened 14 clubs in one year because we were the shiny new thing and everybody wanted a piece of it. We then went into the Sydney market a couple of years later. Now, we have 70 clubs right around Australia.

How have technology advances influenced Fernwood Fitness’ business over the past 3 decades?

A lot! I mean, when Fernwood first started there was no technology. There might have been a fax machine, and the phone was stuck to the wall – a calculator was about as good as we’d get! The first big change was when we introduced direct debit memberships, we were one of the first gyms in Australia to implement them and that made a big difference. Direct debit instalments made gym memberships more affordable, and enabled women to join who previously wouldn’t have been able to pay the full amount upfront.

The next technology boom was when the internet came in – we developed our intranet, built a website and all of that. The internet brought a whole lot of advancements, not only a different way of marketing to people but it also enabled online communication with our members via emails, online workouts and our social timeline, where members can come in and connect with each other. We then created online programs to provide our members with recipes, meal plans, exercises and mindset programs so they can take Fernwood back into their homes, and we’re still working on that today.

You’ve also got wearable technology now, so all these systems are integrated and talking to each other – you can track performance and count your calories and it’s all linked together online. So from an exercise and wellness point of view, the online component is a major part of things now.

What has been your greatest challenge?

I would say the greatest challenge is trying to manage compliance within our system while also maintaining good relationships with our franchisees. That’s probably always been the greatest challenge and always will be.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the fact that we’re still here 30 years after we started. We’re the only gym chain that’s been around for 30 years and still striving, still growing and still doing well, despite of all of the competition that’s come in. I’m also very proud of the fact that I’ve started something that’s changed the lives of so many women around the country, and continues to do so. A lot of women wouldn’t be as healthy and as happy as they are today if Fernwood wasn’t around.

What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?

Believe in yourself. It’s not about what university degree you’ve got or what formal training you’ve done, you learn from being in business. There will be naysayers who tell you that you can’t do it, but don’t listen to them – just believe in yourself.

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Founder

Mother, wife, daughter, determined dreamer. Lover of books. Background in Human Resources leadership in global organisations.