Robin Cope: bringing military fitness to Civvie Street

While out jogging, ex-army major Robin Cope hit on the idea of taking fitness classes out of the gym and its associations with lycra, and into the open air. Now his company is on course for an annual profit of £1m.

Like any other British Army officer, Robin Cope, 53, could have gone into the City after retiring. But then Cope, the son of a US Air Force general, has never quite fit in with the stereotypical image of a major in the Royal Anglians.

Now openly gay, the founder of £5m-a-year British Military Fitness (BMF) says that, in his army days, "I was so afraid of anyone getting an inkling, that I made sure that I ran further than everyone else and that my platoon was better than everyone else's." Over a decade later, he's brought that same precision and hard work to Civvie Street, where he runs one of the UK's most successful fitness companies.

After retirement in 1991, Cope spent several years as "a travelling nomad", first organising security in Africa for British American Tobacco, and later working as a military adviser on the set of films such as Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator. But it wasn't until 1999, while jogging through Hyde Park, that he hit on the idea for BMF.

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"It just kind of came to me." Dismissive of existing fitness regimes on the market, Cope wanted to bring some of the motivational and group dynamic of military training to civilian life. "People work a lot harder when they are with others. And if you make people feel like they've achieved something and make sure they have fun doing it, they'll keep it up." What's more, he would do it in public parks with ex-soldiers as instructors, a novel change from the fitness regimes of the day, which "were mainly in gyms, and meant doing aerobics and wearing lycra."

So with £10,000, he built a website and put a half page ad in the London Evening Standard. "That generated a huge amount of interest." On the first night, just three people turned up ("two overweight nurses from Australia and a bit of a psycho in a smart uniform"), but in the days that followed more and more people appeared. Other than the annual £100 licence fee payable to Hyde Park, there were very few overheads, and within the next year he opened similar classes in Battersea Park, Greenwich and Guildford. "Not having any business experience, it was all a bit 'suck it and see'", but it seemed to be working BMF made £10,000 in revenue in the first year.

"We then made a big mistake. We tried to get too big too quickly." He spent a lot of money on marketing and opened venues across Britain, from Southampton to Newcastle. "We brought in managers to look after them, so our payroll ended up being higher than our income." By 2001, the group was on the verge of bankruptcy.

So Cope pulled back, consolidated the business and took things more slowly. By 2004, BMF was making a profit, and in 2006 it hit £1m in turnover. This year, it did £5m in sales and £600,000 in profit, and it's heading for the £1m profit mark next year. It now has 82 venues across the UK, which should hit 100 in 2010. So what's the secret of his success? "I really believe we're providing an excellent service because we're not out to con or trick anyone. It changes people's lives and is great value for money. I don't have any sleepless nights, unlike a banker or an estate agent. We have a good product which people enjoy."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.