For a lady who inhabits the executive chair of one of Australia’s most successful franchise businesses, Diana Williams is surprisingly approachable and candid when speaking to the media. Talking with Diana you get the sense she is a woman who remains unaffected by her success and that she appreciates the accolades more than most.
The story of Diana Williams and the development of one of Australia’s most successful franchise business models, began in the late 1980’s. It was a time in the nation’s history when the bubble had burst on the decade of excess and the once booming fitness industry had lost a lot of ground with financial institutions. So it would seem ironic that a future queen of the fitness industry would choose this particular time to start-up a women’s gym.
Diana Williams was in her early forties when she discovered the benefits of working out at her local gym in Bendigo, Victoria. “I got very excited about working out with weights and the impact that had on me physically,” Williams said in a recent telephone interview.
The year was 1989 and although aerobics was a popular past-time, Williams noted there weren’t many women working up a sweat along side the men who populated the weight equipment area.
“I could see the need for women to exercise with weights and not just go to the aerobics. But to do what a lot of the men were doing in gyms–work out with the weights equipment and use all the facilities.”
It was perhaps out of a desire to give women the same life changing benefits she had experienced herself through weight training, Williams approached local gym owner John Clow, with the idea of opening a women’s gym.
Williams and Clow knew they had a potentially profitable business idea, but couldn’t obtain financing for the project. In an interview with Small Business on ninemsn (2005), Williams said:
“Banks and financial advisers, everybody said stay clear of the fitness industry, so we had a lot of trouble at the start getting any finance. That was not an option for us, that was because of the legacy left by the chains that went broke a few years earlier.”
But so strong was their belief in what was a new concept in the fitness industry at the time, Williams and Clow decided to push ahead with the project anyway. With Clow providing the equipment, Williams sank $7000 of her own money into realising the concept. The first Fernwood Women’s Health Club opened in Bendigo in 1989 and it must have come as a great relief to Williams and Clow when their concept of a gym catering exclusively to women, proved so popular that within four months of opening it’s doors, Fernwood made the move to larger premises in Bendigo. But despite this early success, Williams would be the first to admit Fernwood struggled to stay afloat initially after the decision was made to franchise the business in 1993.
Williams explains, “When we had just one gym it was very cash positive. But when I went into franchising, of course I needed more money to grow than the one gym could provide.”
“It was overwhelming at times. You’d spend all of your time trying to figure out how you were going to keep going. How you were going to find the money to pay the wages? Where you were going to find the money to pay the creditors?”
Williams and Fernwood weathered the financial pressures inherent in building any franchise system and in 2005, Diana Williams received national recognition for her efforts when she was named the Telstra Business Woman of the Year. However, the experience of those early years of the franchise has left it’s mark on Williams who says she now has a great respect for every dollar they make at Fernwood. Which in 2007 topped one hundred million dollars, placing Fernwood in the enviable position of one of Australia’s fastest growing companies.
The Fernwood franchise model has sprouted 77 clubs across Australia, with 3 more scheduled to open by the end of January 2008. The company owns 9 of these popular sanctuary’s for women, with the remaining clubs owned by 55 franchisees. With more than 80,000 members across Australia, the franchisees are doing very well financially and all share Diana’s passion for the business.
When asked about the company’s plans to expand the franchise overseas, Williams admits they haven’t opened any clubs just yet. But they hope to hang out the Fernwood shingle in both India and the Gulf Region by the close of 2008.
In keeping with the company’s mantra, “We exist to empower women to shine!” Diana Williams established the Fernwood Foundation in 2005. The pride of the Fernwood Foundation is the Venus Program, which is described on the website as a “ten week journey of learning and self-discovery” for women. Learning modules include: managing home finances; returning to work or study; self esteem; diet and exercise; and stress management. The foundation has partnered with Adidas to provide free gym gear to participants in the program.
It is clearly evident from the tone of her voice, Diana Williams is both a true believer in corporate social responsibility and a passionate spokesperson for the Venus Program.
“These women are generally suffering from depression and are in a really bad place in their life. They’re just in a hole and can’t get themselves out of it. It’s a wonderful program and makes such a huge difference to these women’s lives.”
The Venus Program isn’t mandatory for Fernwood franchisees. But Williams told me they do encourage all Fernwood clubs to run the program at least once a year, with some clubs opting to run the program more often.
In addition to her work with Fernwood Women‘s Health Clubs and the Fernwood Foundation, Diana Williams also sits on the board of the Franchise Council of Australia and is a much sought after public speaker and consultant to the fitness industry.
When asked about how she spends her time away from the office, you get the feeling no matter where Diana Williams goes, her thoughts are never far from the company she helped to build from scratch all those years ago. A short time later this is confirmed by Diana herself when she said, “My business is my hobby. I really enjoy the business and there is still a lot to do with regard to international expansion, the Venus Program and the services that we offer at our clubs.”
Photo credit: © Gary Medlicott – TheAge.com.au