At the age of 19, Ben Francis, an Aston University student who made ends meet working as a Pizza Hut delivery driver, started to sell bodybuilding supplements online. He changed tack when he realised “no one really made clothes for the bodybuilding scene”. So he spent his £1,000 in savings on a sewing machine and screen printer, and learnt how to make garments from his mum, says Liam Kelly in The Times. The business ticked along until, in 2013, Francis (pictured) secured a stand at a trade show at the NEC. Then things really took off: in the first half hour after the show, the Gymshark website took £30,000 in sales.
Gymshark only sells directly to customers online, a strategy that has helped it cope with the coronavirus crisis pretty well. Gyms are closed, but people exercising at home have shopped online to get the clobber to look the part. Gymshark has benefited from that trend. Francis once dashed off designs from his West Midlands home then queued at the Post Office to get them out. Now he operates from a gleaming £5m, 42,000 sq ft premises near Solihull.
Gymshark was one of the first brands to make extensive use of “social-media influencers”. Today, Gymshark has 1.7 million followers on Facebook and 4.2 million on Instagram, and Francis’s girlfriend, Robin Gallant, runs a YouTube channel that advertises his products too, inducting another 400,000 subscribers into the brand’s online culture. “We’ve led the direct-to-consumer revolution and built a truly community-first brand,” writes Francis on his blog. The company made £18.4m in pre-tax profits in the last year, and maintained 193% compound sales growth from 2013 to 2016. Francis himself is not done yet – he has ambitions of rivalling the likes of Nike and Adidas in the coming years.
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Francis met Paul Richardson, the firm’s head of strategy, at his gym, and through him was introduced to the former Reebok boss Steve Hewitt, who is now chief executive. Francis still controls design and marketing. His stake in the firm has seen him amass a £138m fortune before he turns 30, but he insists he is not flash. His only extravagance is a pair of Triumph motorbikes.
Nic studied for a BA in journalism at Cardiff University, and has an MA in magazine journalism from City University. She joined MoneyWeek in 2019.
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