London investment club Pi Capital counts Sir Stuart Rose and Irish tycoon Dermot Smurfit among its members. So it's hard to believe that 30 years ago, its head, David Giampaolo, was a 16-year-old high-school drop-out, mowing lawns in his home state of Florida.
But as the son of a Sicilian immigrant, who worked days as a racetrack announcer and nights playing sax and clarinet in nightclubs, ditching school for a job seemed the natural thing to do. "It was going to take me a few more years to finish and get on with my life and I thought, why not just get on with it?"
A weightlifting fanatic, at 17 he decided to open his own gym. With $2,000, he found a small place with no air-conditioning, fitted it out with less than ten pieces of machinery, and sold memberships to pay his rent. "I would be fibbing if I said I had this great vision." In fact, it only became a serious business by accident. One member, a doctor, said to him: "This place is a dump, it's so hot. Why don't you move to bigger premises?' And I said, flippantly, give me the money and I'll do it. And he said you're on'."
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With $50,000, Giampaolo opened a fitness centre five times the size of his original one. A second in Fort Lauderdale followed and then a third. He sold them all in 1978 for a six-figure sum, "huge at that time of my life". The US fitness industry was booming, so he moved into selling equipment to gyms.
In 1984 the then market leader, Bally, offered him a senior position. This took him to the UK, where in 1987 he opened the first US-style health club for the group in London's Barbican. It had a "25 metre pool, indoor running track, neon lights it blew people's minds". This success gave him the confidence to go out and raise money for his own club. He raised £3m to launch his Espree' club chain, which opened in 1991 in the City slap bang in the middle of a recession.
But Giamapaolo managed to ride out the downturn, although it took him longer to hit his membership targets than he'd hoped, and he sold up in 1994. Further ventures followed, including selling fitness equipment to continental gyms and co-founding another chain, Fitness Holdings Europe, in 1998. This was to be by far his biggest deal. "What I had as my calling card was not my money, it was significant fitness experience." Through acquisition, he grew the chain to more than 100 clubs, before selling up just 18 months later for £100m. He found he enjoyed the process of raising funds and deal-making, which "was a big reason for joining Pi". He now owns 80% of the club, whose 300 members are said to have a net worth of more than £10bn.
Yet despite his acumen, Giampaolo remains humble. "I've no doubt I am a rare, lucky individual who managed to be moderately successful. I wouldn't want to see my children in today's world which is hugely competitive and has changed dramatically through globalisation be ill-equipped," he says. He plans to ensure they both get a good education. "What they do with it, I don't mind. But I sure as hell want them to have it."
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.
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