The Gym Group’s operations boss on people, pricing and sustainable expansion

Ann-Marie Murphy believes her background in HR and focus on people are crucial to her role overseeing the operations and expansion of the fitness firm
The Gym Groupcoo Interview Web

Increasingly, leaders with people skills are being elevated to the C-suite. Last year, a survey of business executives by PwC identified hiring and retaining talent as “the most critical growth driver” for any organisation. In a highly competitive labour market, an insight into what makes a workplace and its people tick is crucial.

Ann-Marie Murphy, chief operations and people officer at The Gym Group, should, therefore, have the right skills. She has a background in human resources, joining the company as HR director, having previously held senior people management roles at companies including TUI and New Look. 

Ann-Marie Murphy’s CV

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Her HR skills and training, she believes, give her a better idea and understanding of how people, both staff and customers, will react to or feel about different areas of the business, whether it’s choosing a new office location, introducing a new policy or even changing the company logo. “Every decision is made with people in mind,” she says. 

Given this, the addition of operational management “really wasn’t much of a switch at all,” she suggests. “People are the operation. People are the product.”

Creating a consistent product

The Gym Group initially launched as one gym in Hounslow in 2008. It is now a nationwide chain with 230 sites across the country in locations as far north as Dundee and as far south as Plymouth. Murphy’s role is to ensure that expansion happens sustainably and that the company’s core values are upheld at each of its locations. 

“A lot of research goes into deciding where to open a new gym, in terms of costs and [consumer] habits,” Murphy says. “And while every building may be different, we strive to ensure that the same levels of cleanliness, high-quality equipment and customer service are maintained at every one.” 

The Gym Group’s strategy is focused on being the “closest and easiest option” for gym goers. Currently, more than half (52.5%) of the UK population is within a 15-minute drive of one of its locations, which are all open 24 hours a day. “Our strategy is to make sure we’re the first gym people think about and we are working towards a goal of eventually being the closest and easiest option for everyone,” she says. “The gyms are 24/7, because we know that everyone has different needs and lifestyles. We’re happy to be able to cater to that.” 

Murphy might be a people person, but she is also “obsessed with numbers”. Any good business introspection, she says, will involve data, with businesses able to learn a lot about their customers if they’re “willing to do the hard work”. 

“We pore over feedback and surveys. We see which classes are popular and what times people are coming to the gym. We can then change our strategy according to what people want,” she explains.

Delivering value for money

The Gym Group has also thought carefully, Murphy says, about its branding and colour scheme. The bright, distinctive colours aim to convey a “welcoming and inclusive” message, with accessibility its USP. “We’re affordable and open to anyone, whether they’re a bodybuilder or just someone who is looking to lose a few pounds,” she adds. 

Membership prices do vary from location to location. The cheapest monthly membership is available in Blackpool for £14.99, while the most expensive is on London’s Oxford Street, where it costs £35.99, while day passes are available for £6.99. It does not insist that members sign up for a minimum period, believing that flexibility is key.

Costing less doesn’t mean you have to do things less well

“There should be no barrier to entry,” Murphy says. “We acknowledge that people move around, or that their circumstances could change from month to month. You can pick us up and put us down, as it suits you. I think people respect being given that choice.”

Being affordable, Murphy insists, is not the same thing as being cheap. “We are cheaper than [some] competitors, but we use reliable equipment, we employ great people, and we make sure our safety and hygiene is always on point. Costing less doesn’t mean you have to do things less well.”

This affordability and value for money is even more important during a cost-of-living crisis in which many people are reviewing their spending, including on subscriptions. “Yes, it’s a monthly expense, but if people feel like they’re getting a good and reliable product and service, and they’re enjoying the social aspect of going to the gym, or the classes, then they want to keep finding a way to afford it. Then, the pressure is on us to keep people happy.”

Building a career in the fitness industry

The Gym Group employs around 2,000 staff nationwide, including many of its own personal trainers. The chain also works with many independent fitness professionals or coaches who may use one or more of its sites as a base and pay a rental fee for doing so. “We’re very proud to be the launchpad for so many different people’s businesses,” Murphy reflects. “And again, it’s about offering them flexibility to run their business their way.”

As for The Gym Group’s directly employed staff, Murphy says internal promotion is a guiding principle in its approach to HR. Around half its general managers started as trainers, with the company keen to promote fitness as a long-term career choice.

For those who want to stay with us long term, our aim is to make sure they see a proper career – if they want it

“We work with some casual staff or independent trainers, but for those who do want to stay with us long term, our aim is to make sure they see a proper career – if they want it,” she says.

The Gym Group also strives, says Murphy, to create a culture that is supportive and encourages continuous improvement. To this aim, the company operates a range of performance-related bonus schemes for its full-time employees. These are, in part, informed by staff feedback, with general and regional managers’ bonuses linked to their team engagement scores.

“We know that if staff are happy, then the service is likely to be better for customers, which is why we put such a big focus on it,” she explains.

While Murphy believes it is important to pay people “fairly”, she also suggests that having this element of variable pay can help to motivate staff. “People like to feel like they’re getting better at something and they’re in control. [Bonus schemes like this] give clear things for staff to work on, which is helpful.” 

The future for The Gym Group

The strategy going forward, Murphy says, is for The Gym Group to continue its focus on “democratising fitness” and offering value for money. This year, she sees clear consumer priorities around cost, convenience and customisation. “That means we’ve got to make sure we’re delivering the kind of classes they want and that they can get to one of our gyms as easily and as affordably as possible.” 

Murphy is also thinking with her HR hat on. As perks and benefits become a common battleground for attracting and retaining talent in the world of work, she confirms that The Gym Group is exploring more corporate partnership opportunities. People, Murphy points out, can appreciate the “autopilot” nature of a gym membership either paid for or discounted by their employer. “If we can find an arrangement that suits us and them [the employer], then it’s definitely something we’d look into.”