Fitness First

Fitness First

While clinical exercise may take a while to catch on, the marketing team at TBVF has come up with new avenues to communicate its current offering. “We have entered into an agreement with Café Coffee Day (CCD) wherein a person who has one coffee at CCD gets seven days free trial at our health club as well as one free nutrition counseling session,” says Talwalkar, the man who first changed the way the family business was run in the 90s by daring to import advanced fitness equipment to India.

Stepping it up

TBVF prides itself for being one of the players responsible for the transition of gymming in India in the early 90s. In addition to importing equipment, it pioneered the concept of a gym for the family, introduced personal training, spruced up interiors to add an aspirational value amongst other measures to catch the attention of prospective members. “The concept of making a gym look good, right from the landscaping outside, helped us, as people decided to sign up at the doorstep,” explains Talwalkar.

While his family was not convinced with his strategy (in the early 90s) to import fitness equipment when import duty was at a whopping 300 per cent, they trusted his business acumen. Over the next five years (1995-2000), their belief paid off as the first gym managed by Talwalkar saw an increase in income to Rs. 2.5 crore from Rs. 30 lakh. Today, importing machinery is less complicated as the duty levied on fitness equipment is closer to 30 per cent.

People’s business

In the current context, the challenge for Talwalkar is finding the right people to support him in his endeavor. “Even in 2004, people were hesitant to disclose that they were working in the healthcare industry, especially, a gym,” he says while adding that a bulk of fitness trainers came from the less affluent classes of society. Talwalkar believes in looking the part and he shares, “In India, fitness is still not a priority for women; so, finding women trainers who are fit to pose as examples is difficult.” This trend, however, is changing gradually and now the numbers are almost even between the sexes.

Teaching his staff to be hospitable to clients continues to be a priority. And imparting training in all aspects of the business has helped TBVF sustain nearly the same environment between its branches in the metropolitan cities and the Tier II and III counterparts, accounting for standardisation.

While staffing challenges persist, Talwalkar also states that recruiting senior management has been anything but easy. “In this business, attendance is the highest, a manager has to look after clients 365 days a year and this is something that few people are willing to do,” says Talwalkar while adding that close to 90 per cent of his staff is under-qualified. However, his belief in the ability of his people gave him the confidence to branch out and establish more gyms.

Multiplication through the franchise route was an option once TBVF decided to move out of Maharashtra. The first step to ensure that it maintained its quality was to establish an in-house training academy at Thane. This move helped train manpower to handle operations across the length and breadth of India. Today, TBVF has over 80 gyms across 42 cities in the country. Ask Talwalkar about the mushrooming of several ‘me too’ gyms and he breaks into a smile. “One of my competitors paid me the best compliment, he said, when TBVF opens in a city, it has to be a good place for business,” he shares. “We are always setting the trail for others to follow, but I have to be careful not to wipe off my footmarks.” As for international competition with an eye on India, Talwalkar states, “They see only the numbers, I understand the people’s psyche. If they want to tap into two per cent of the population, I say that only 0.4 per cent exercise and I know what they want.”

The numbers continue to add up, but not without operational challenges. Perhaps, the most significant of these is the lack of government support towards the segment as a whole. Talwalkar calls for a change in attitude as he says, “This business is looked at as a luxury and less as a preventive method to stop illnesses. It is duty free to bring in medicines, but gym equipment is taxed heavily. Also, there are no subsidies for amenities or infrastructure and this is a burden on us.”

Public demand

With plans for expansion, there was an obvious need for capital. And this came by way of an initial public offering in April 2010 that was oversubscribed by 28.4 times. Of the money generated, close to Rs. 50 crore is allocated towards opening gyms in Tier-II and III cities where Talwalkar believes its growth story in India, lies. “Previously, we would not consider opening a gym at a place with a population of less than six lakh. But, today, we are open to considering a place with a population of three to five lakh,” he says. Expansion plans are underway not just in India as Talwalkar is eyeing newer geographies. “But, my manpower will be from here because nobody understands hospitality and its importance in business, better than Indians,” promises Talwalkar.

Talwalkars Better Value Fitness Ltd.

Man at the helm: Prashant Talwalkar

Growth strategy:

* Expand into tier-1 and tier-2 cities

* Serving the customer better through newer packages, clinical exercise

* Sales through partnerships like the one with CCD

Talwalkar’s vision:

Understand the psyche of the Indian consumer to create value for his brand

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