Founders of Franchising: An Interview with Rosemary Conley

This edition's Founder of Franchising is Rosemary Conley, whose diet and fitness club network has provided 165 franchisees with the opportunity to own their own businesses. Stuart Anderson interviews

A bestselling author of health, fitness and dieting books with sales of over 5 million, Rosemary Conley has built a business empire with an estimated worth of £13 million. With the recent release of her new book Rosemary Conley's Gi Jeans Diet she has made a string of television appearances, all of which has helped to build the Rosemary Conley brand.

This makes her one of the most high profile individuals in the franchise industry, serving as the figurehead and founder of a national network of 165 franchisees - Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs. Founded in 1993, the network runs almost 2,000 classes a week offering fitness regimes and dietary advice, and selling Rosemary Conley books, videos and DVDs.

'I'm a very hands-on type of person, and am very much involved in the development of the diets and principles of what is taught at our classes,' reflects Rosemary. 'I meet all the franchisees through a series of annual regional meetings, and I go out on roadshows six times a year around the country so that franchisees can bring their members along.'

Rosemary has an extensive background in the diet industry, having previously run a health club chain which she sold to IPC Media. 'I first began learning about calories and weight loss after gaining weight myself,' she reveals. 'I lost the weight and in 1968 I began running some weight-loss classes for my friends. They became so popular I quit my job as a secretary and opened more.'

In 1986 Rosemary wrote her first book: Rosemary Conley's Hip and Thigh Diet and Cookbook. Its success made her a household name and in 1993 she started a new diet and fitness club business, this time taking the franchise approach.

'Having experienced the difficulties of trying to operate a network of clubs nationally with my previous business, I took the decision to develop a franchise - giving the franchisees the responsibility to run their own businesses, but using my name and training regimes,' explains Rosemary. 'Franchising would provide a higher standard of service for the club members, and a greater incentive for the people running the clubs to do a good job, while also providing my organisation with a fair return and some control.

'The great thing about franchising is you minimise the risk of failure and maximise the chances of success. You are in effect selling a proven method of operation to the franchisee, in a proven market where my books and videos are hugely popular.'

After one year of operation Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs had 60 franchisees up and running, each one required to become a qualified exercise to music instructor. 'It was an instant success and has continued to grow,' comments Rosemary. 'We've now got 165 franchisees, which presents its own challenges. When you have as many franchisees as we do you have to have a very good support team in place. We have a staff of 35 working solely on supporting our franchisees, which takes a lot of investment and management, but we feel franchisees deserve our full support. We've had to be very selective in appointing franchisees - we turn away as many as we accept - because the integrity of my name is vital to everybody's success.'

With 27 books and 27 videos available under the Rosemary Conley brand, Rosemary emphasises the importance of the additional income streams these generate for franchisees.

'There is a real synergy between the businesses,' she reflects. 'My publishers love the fact that there is a network of 80,000 members who are 'Rosemary converts'. The franchisees love the margins they make on the products they sell to their members. We have just launched a catalogue, and each franchisee has their own code to ensure they earn a 10 per cent commission on their members' orders.

'We also publish Rosemary Conley Diet & Fitness magazine which is there to support the clubs and serve the general public. All our activities tie in with and support each other. For example, we have produced a starter pack including an explanatory Gi Jeans Diet DVD for our club members, which will accompany the main book and drive sales for franchisees.'

At the most recent British Franchise Association (bfa) Franchise Awards Rosemary Conley Diet & Fitness Clubs was named 'Franchisor of the year', an award the company also picked up in 2002, as well as the bfa 'Midland Bank' award in 1998 and the 'Newcomer of the year' award in 1995. 'We were really thrilled to win 'Franchisor of the year' a second time,' says Rosemary. 'We were bowled over the first time because we're a relatively small company. Our integrity is so obvious through everything that we do, and I think the bfa sees us as a flagship franchise committed to supporting its franchisees. This extends to our franchisee training, which is accredited by The University of Chester and actually earns credits toward a BSc degree. We really do go the extra mile for our franchisees.'

Awarded a CBE in last year's honours list, Rosemary reflects on a satisfying contribution to franchising, but you sense there is more to come. 'Having been my own boss I would never want to work for anybody ever again,' she asserts. 'There is nothing more fulfilling than turning up at your own office, dealing with your own customers and being in the company of your own staff that are supporting you.

'We all want happiness in this world. I think to achieve that you need three things: to have some goals to look forward to, to have somebody to share them with, and to feel that the job you do makes a difference. This is the perfect formula I have achieved with Rosemary Conley Diet & Fitness Clubs.'

Rosemary's Advice for Franchising Fitness

'In our business, the franchisee needs to have a passion for dieting and fitness - we're not looking for people who are only interested in making money. This is because we feel that if you enjoy the work, the chances are you will make a huge success of your business. Therefore, think very carefully about the subject of the franchise, and only go ahead if you are attracted by the work.

'Be realistic about your financial capability - don't get yourself so much in debt that you can't survive. In business there is always a time where you need that extra £500 to take out one more advert - if your back is against the wall the chances are you'll be unable to make a success of the business.

'Ask for advice from industry specialists and make sure your franchise is a member of the bfa. Also, speak to a number of its franchisees. But beware of any franchisor that tries to select which franchisees you can talk to - we tell prospective franchisees to pick up our magazine and call any of the 175 franchisees listed in the back.

'Finally, consult your bank manager, who should be aware of most franchises on the market. He may even be willing to contact the franchisor himself to get his own impression of the opportunity.'

Interview by Stuart Anderson