Gyms reopened this week, which is good news for Ben Francis, the founder of Gymshark and Gymshark and sixth on The Sunday Times Young Rich List 2021, out this weekend. In nine years he’s earned a fortune selling exercise gear in more than 150 countries.
How young is he?
Still only 28. Last year The Times described him as 13st and 6ft tall, with a body “contoured by valleys and ridges of firm, lean muscle” that he spends an hour honing five times a week. His company was valued at £1bn last year, with Francis owning 70% of the business. He celebrated by ordering a pizza.
Wait, he’s worth £700m? From selling Lycra?
He saw a big gap in the market. To understand how, we need to rewind. Francis was born in June 1992 and grew up in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. On his tightly edited Wikipedia page, there is a curious lack of detail about his family – there’s no mention of his father, or his brother, Joe, or his mum, who has apparently worked for the NHS since she was 16. As a teenager Francis was into technology and pumping iron with his friends. It was in the gym that he discovered “you get out what you put in”. Naturally driven, he put a lot into developing his body. The problem was, he couldn’t find gym kit tight enough to show it off.
Don’t tell me – he began making his own.
Yes, in his parent’s basement – and on a sewing machine bought from Hobbycraft with wages from his £5-an-hour Pizza Hut delivery job. Between studying international business and management at Aston University and pizza deliveries, he set up Gymshark in 2012. At first the website sold fitness supplements, but he was unable to afford stock or get distribution deals, so pivoted to designing gym gear that was suitably tight and bright.
How did that go?
Slowly at first – his mum and grandmother had to teach him to sew. “Then a local lad showed me how to do screen-printing. And that was it, really,” he told The Times. Gymshark was making about £300 a day in sales when Francis paid for a stall at the 2013 BodyPower fitness trade show in Birmingham. A tracksuit went viral on Facebook and within 30 minutes they had £30,000 in sales. He quit university and his delivery job – Gymshark was about to hit the big time.
What was his USP?
His genius lay in realising the huge marketing value of social media influencers before most other businesses. Rejecting PRs, shops and advertising spend, he gave his kit to people who had hundreds of thousands of engaged followers on Instagram and, later, TikTok. As Forbes said six months ago: “Francis has built the Nike of Gen Z –without spending billions on Jordan-style endorsements or glitzy storefronts.” Instead he pays “ripped” fitness influencers between $6,000 and $100,000 a year to live – and soft-sell – the Gymshark lifestyle on social media. Turnover to July last year was £260.6m and pre-tax profits increased from £18.4m to £30.5m.
Clever. Hasn’t he just got engaged to an influencer?
Indeed. Two weeks ago his Canadian girlfriend, biochemical engineer and fitness model Robin Gallant, told her 823,000 Instagram followers: “We’re engaged!!!” The diamond looked suitably huge. Her feed is full of her callipygous, Gymshark-clad derrière. (Francis has only 298,000 followers.) The couple live a short drive from the company’s £5m, 42,000 sq ft headquarters in Solihull and share a cocker spaniel named Bilbo. They’ve also bought a farm in the Cotswolds that’s being renovated. Gallant recently posted a YouTube video revealing a cavernous wood-clad room just for their “free weights”.
But their customers can’t all be weightlifters?
True. Although they initially went for those who can deadlift 100kg, they now target Gen Z in the lucrative sweats, spandex and sneakers market – one that topped $176bn globally in 2019. Gymshark has more followers on TikTok than Nike or Adidas: 2.8m compared to Nike’s 1.5m and Adidas’s tiny 86,000. Francis told the FT: “I firmly believe Gymshark has the potential to be to the UK what Nike is to the US and Adidas is to Germany.”
A huge ambition. What does he do for lols?
He eats Nando’s chicken, one of his “biggest expenses”. On the walls of his HQ are the words: “GYMSHARK WAS BUILT ON BIG RISKS”, followed in smaller letters by “& PERI-PERI CHICKEN”. Cars and motorbikes are also a distraction – he drives a Maserati 100. And when running a company of 500 employees around the world gets too much for this 28-year-old, he relaxes by doing bench presses in his private gym.