HR & Management

There’s no point in having a Ferrari if your staff are catching the bus

12 min read

09 July 2015

Former deputy editor

From basketball star to gym owner-cum-celebrity PT to nightclub entrepreneur, Joe Fournier is busy taking his lifestyle organisation global. He shares with Real Business how he got started and why it's so crucial for him to make his 100 members of staff feel like they’re a part of the culture it sells – even if it means reducing his personal income to make them better off.

Basketball and ice hockey are two sports with a loyal following in the UK – though they’re less publicised than the leagues in the US – and it was the former that set Fournier on his way. Having played from a young age, he went professional and progressed to captain the England team, but a career-ending injury stopped him from reaching his true sporting potential.

“When you’re playing professional sport, you think you’re going to play for 20 years, so you don’t budget. I got injured and I had to stop playing. I’d saved a little bit of money, but I didn’t have much left to be honest, and invested it in a gym in Richmond to open a personal training studio,” he recalled.

“I managed to get a lease above a clothes shop on Richmond high street, bought my equipment off eBay, stayed on my mate’s sofa and just blagged it. Unfortunately, the English Basketball Association doesn’t have a lot of funding, so you don’t get educated in anything besides play sport, and try and get to the European Championships and the Olympics – it was very streamlined. Whereas now, especially in the States, they teach the development of business skills and have people that help you and say listen, don’t spend all your money in St Tropez this summer – save a little.”

Regardless of not possessing any formal business knowledge, Fournier had a hunger to be the best, which is something he carried across from his dribbling days. Indeed, after finding out a PR would cost him in the region of £4,000 a month when his rent was only £1,500, he set out to do his own promotion under the guise of Steve.

“When Wayne Rooney was 16 and started playing, he had that killer instinct because they didn’t know anything else. When I started in business I didn’t know anything else, so I thought why can’t I pick up the phone and pretend I’m a PR, so that’s what I started doing. ‘Hi it’s Steve, I represent Joe Fournier’s Fitness Studios, would you like to come in for a session and see if you like it?’ I did that by cold calling a database from the local spa and from there it just snowballed.”

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Soon enough Fournier had acquired 12 clients a day, then 15, and soon worked seven days a week, at which time it became clear he needed to hire. As luck would have it, one client turned out to be a former investment banker turned PR who offered free PR in exchange for discounted training sessions, thus he took her up on the deal and swiftly learnt all he could from her.

Interestingly, it was sheer luck that really made Fournier’s gym business make serious gains, however.

“When I was in college in the States, one of my roommates was a real film buff and he was getting bullied. I grew up in Hounslow and whether you were black, white, Indian, Italian or tanned, it was pretty racist 25 years ago, so I was always against bullying,” Fournier explained.

“This guy used to get picked on by my teammates and one day I said guys you’ve got to leave him alone, he’s different but get on with it. Because I commanded a bit of respect they left him alone and we stayed friends on email after we left and we went on our merry way.”

Five years later and his good turn was about to be repaid when his roommate emailed to say he was in London and it would be great to catch-up, revealing he may have a work opportunity to throw Fournier’s way.

“Remember, I was starting this business from scratch and I didn’t have any money –he suggested going to Nobu, which was somewhere I aspired to go to at the time. I went and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and a water. He said I want you to meet someone and in walks a really famous global A-lister,” he said.

It turns out the nerdy film buff from college is now one of Hollywood’s biggest multi-millionaire movie producers and the actress was working on his movie. Enlisting Fournier to train her for the course of a month resulted in the former basketball star being paid £50,000 for just four weeks’ work – an amount he didn’t even have when he opened the gym.

“That was the only thing that was serendipitous, it just came out of nowhere. We’re still friends and he’s the one I stay with when I go to LA – he’s done two blockbusters this year alone,” Fournier revealed, while keeping the name of the producer a secret, one he claims to have kept from even his closest friends.

After that, Fournier was sought after in celebrity circles and trained stars ahead of appearances for the Oscars and the Grammys, which resulted in him introducing the book Red Carpet Workout. The high-profile exposure resulted in the gym business being acquired and from there he made his way into nightlife when a friend who had opened the Whisky Mist club in Mayfair needed backing.

“I realised my skillset was just being really good at marketing. It’s difficult to promote a gym; nobody wants to do lunges when they could have a beer,” Fournier said.

“When I looked at how sophisticated my gyms became from a marketing standpoint, I thought if I applied that to nightclubs, where everybody wants to go and get laid, it’ll be a lot easier to convince them to do that then work out. So I implemented the same infrastructure into the club business and it just evolved.

“I have a full support team and they’re the reason the club is full on a Friday night, rather than relying on people to just text their mates and show up. We’re a leisure organisation that does restaurants, events, pop-ups in Cannes, stuff in Miami for Art Basel, and that’s how it was when I had my gyms.”

The celebrity network he’d built up over his basketball and personal training days served as a great foundation to build a recognisable brand on top of.

“The spots became hot quickly and that attracted the high rollers and big spenders. Then I was doing deals on venues that were supposed to do X but doing Y and that’s why growth happened so quickly, which allowed us to expand,” Fournier detailed.

Said expansion has seen Whisky Mist taken to Beirut this year. His other venture Bonbonniere has also gone beyond London to New York and most recently Mykonos, which came about after being approached by a wealthy Greek family for the brand, with another to follow in Istanbul later in the year. As if that weren’t enough, bar/restaurant Streaky Gin is also up and running in the UK’s capital.

Just like the PR who helped him get on his way and the producer friend who repaid his kindness, Fournier, whose lifestyle is very much a champagne and yacht-filled affair, is very mindful to pay it forward, which he does with the way he encourages productivity and commitment in his team of 100.

“I have a methodology I make everyone on my team follow. I’d rather take young kids that are like junior bankers in their early 20s, who don’t want to dress up in a suit everyday, and take them in, teach and train them. My operations manager is on £150,000 a year and he was an assistant manager on £22,000 four years ago,” the 32-year-old said.

“I always build from within. I think that’s a testament to the scalability and rollout speed. Everyone in the organisation is loyal and I really take care of people.”

Fournier’s numerous ventures are kept under the JP VIP holding company, which he owns 75 per cent of. Turnover in 2014 reached £20m and there are further growth plans ahead.

“I’d rather make ten or 15 per cent less a year personally, so that everyone else is less stressed, can pay their rent, go on a nice holiday or have the funds to buy Gucci jacket for £2,000. It’s a lifestyle brand and you want everyone to feel a part of it. There’s no point in me rolling around in a Ferrari while everyone else is on a bus. I’d rather we all got a BMW and were equal.”

Keep up with Fournier’s exploits on Instagram.