How did you get started in the industry?
M: I’ve always been into fitness and sport; I did gymnastics when I was younger and I coached while I was going through the sport, so it was a natural progression to coaching people in fitness. But I began by working in a gym in Melbourne, on reception.
L: And I bought the club where she used to work!
M: Leon was in hotels and hospitality and he had the business background. When I was working at my first fitness club and Leon was my boyfriend, he spent so much time there that one of the members asked, ‘Is he one of the owners?’. Fast forward four years and he was the owner! For Leon, it was stepping into his passion.
So Leon, Michelle is the reason you discovered your passion for the industry?
L: Yes. I’d always been training in gyms and my business partner was already working at another health club. We had the opportunity to buy the club that Michelle had been working at, so we took it.
It was very run down – the previous owner had gone bankrupt, as people did in gyms back then. Everyone advised us not to do it and said we were crazy.
From that first club, you went on to build Goodlife Health Clubs, one of the biggest chains in Australia. How did that happen?
M: Leon’s strategy was basically to go into a club and turn it into the kind of club that he would like to train in. That always meant updated equipment, whatever it was at the time, and of course, once we’d bought gyms in Brisbane, Queensland and moved up here, the big thing that was needed here was air conditioning.
L: We were one of the first clubs to put proper air conditioning in. A few clubs had evaporative cooling, but in the humid Queensland climate that doesn’t work too well, and being from Melbourne, I think we were more used to a full AC experience.
We just believed in all the basics, which about twenty-odd years ago a lot of people weren’t doing – for instance many facilities weren’t very clean back then.
M: And we also put all our money back into the business. We were constantly making it better as new technology, new pieces of equipment and new ways of training came along.
Were there any hiccups?
M: A deal with Healthland – a South African group – fell apart when they went broke, and we pulled out of the fitness industry for about eighteen months. We went back to hotels for a while. But Leon was like a caged lion.
L: Yeah, I missed the gyms a lot. So, we started back in the fitness industry in the early 2000s and that was the start of the Goodlife Health Club chain. We started by buying one club, and then a second and a third. They all had different names, and we realised we had to have a common name to join them all together and create a brand. And from there it just grew and grew. It’s now the largest big box fitness club chain in Australia.
When did you sell it?
L: In 2006 we sold 53 per cent to private equity firm Colonial First State, and we thought we were going to have a fair run with those guys; we expanded quite rapidly over the course of the year. But then the bad news came that Colonial was closing its private equity division, and selling all assets.
So, through a little lack of experience we had sold just over the majority share at that point, so we got dragged along. We were forced to sell, and we sold to what is now Ardent Leisure, retaining a 5 per cent stake. We did quite well out of it.
I was the CEO, and I stayed on for another three years, but it’s unlike me to work for somebody else, so it was a very tough three years. I still loved the brand but after three years we were itching to do something of our own.
That’s when I left Goodlife and bought the rights for Snap Fitness in Australia and New Zealand and began developing that. By the time we sold Snap Fitness last year there were 250 clubs across Australia and New Zealand, and about a dozen nine-round boxing studios as well, and we sold them back to the US parent company.
When did the idea for Total Fusion start forming?
L: A few years ago, we knew we were probably looking to sell Snap and get back into our own brand. Through our own interest in training and our research from around the world, we realised that group fitness classes and functional training, movement and mindfulness was where we wanted to be – it’s the way we love to train. And that was the conception of Total Fusion.
M: It’s very much representative of how our training has evolved over the years, from back when it was just all high intensity, hard core – over-training essentially. Fitness has evolved so much over the last thirty years; people realised that we shouldn’t really do resistance training every day, because our bodies need to recover. Mindfulness and mind-body exercise was becoming more prevalent, such as yoga and Pilates.
I’d been training like this for many years. Meanwhile, Leon’s always been a very heavy lifter in the gym, and really lacked mobility and flexibility. Total Fusion really came to fruition when Leon finally started doing yoga and realised the differences that it made to his body. Yoga probably took his body to the best it had been in ten or twenty years.
Can you explain the concept of Total Fusion?
L: We could see the explosion of boutique fitness around the world, and saw that it becomes very expensive if you want to do different types – say if you want to do cycle, Pilates classes and yoga classes, and then you want a gym membership as well. Besides cost, it’s the inconvenience of having to travel from site to site.
Also, we didn’t particularly want to just do one modality ourselves, and we really felt that putting all those studios under one roof at an affordable price was where the market was going. We felt it was the best combination of membership facilities that you can provide for people, and for us to train in ourselves.
M: If you train in all the different rooms, every room supports the next. So, the kind of work that you’re doing in Pilates is helping you in the functional room and the fusion room, and also helping your yoga. They’re all very complementary to each other.
So members are encouraged to do all the classes?
L: Absolutely. We want people to know that doing high intensity classes every day is not optimal, so we definitely want them to break it up and do a yoga class, then another day do a Pilates class or a Barefoot Bootcamp.
M: You see, we have the wisdom of age! We’ve done what you shouldn’t do and we’re very passionate about longevity now and keeping your health and wellness for as long as you possibly can. And to do that, you can’t afford to be injuring yourself, which comes from over-training. No matter how resilient you think you are, it’s best for your body to mix it up.
Not only is your fitness going to improve more but you’re going to maintain that fitness for many more years. You’re going to enjoy what you’re doing, and you’re not going to burn out mentally or physically.
Tell me about your Fusion classes?
M: We came across Fusion classes in the US, and we fell in love with them. We thought the only way we can have these classes back home is if we create them ourselves. These classes use the science of hyperthermic (heated) conditioning, which in the last few years has been the focus of a lot of research. This heated conditioning is used for reducing anxiety and depression, as well as a host of other physiological benefits. It’s incredible how great it makes you feel, and how quickly your fitness improves. Hyperthermic training has even been touted as more effective than altitude training.
Our fusion classes are a combination of yoga, Pilates, functional fitness and high intensity interval training (HIIT). You address all of your fitness needs in the one class – strength, mobility, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness.
You also offer barefoot training classes. Why is this important?
M: Wearing shoes acts like a crutch, leading to foot and ankle dysfunction. This leads to dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the whole body. For most movement, neural signaling begins at the feet, so it makes sense to allow our feet access to the earth and give them freedom of movement. Training barefoot improves strength, flexibility, mobility, balance, proprioception and overall movement mechanics.
At Total Fusion you incorporate mindfulness at the start and end of every class. Why?
M: That’s very important. In this day and age anxiety and depression are incredibly prevalent. Most people rush through their days with so much to do, so taking the time to stop and reflect is a real luxury.
Acknowledging your intention and feeling gratitude are important aspects of our classes. We aspire to help our members to release stress, anxiety and tension, and we know that exercise, mindfulness, meditation and community are all important tools to achieve this.
Do you put a big emphasis on community?
L: If you go to a normal gym now, very rarely do you see people without headphones on. Even the gym environment has become a real social disconnect. So, here you don’t have the opportunity to wear headphones, you come in and the atmosphere is so unlike any other gym or training environment that we’ve ever created before.
It’s probably the thing that we enjoy the most about coming into Total Fusion. It’s those relationships and the way people connect with each other and communicate. It’s just a really nice environment to come into, very non-threatening.
M: Community is a very big part of it. We encourage the instructors to welcome any new people to the class and get everyone to introduce themselves to each other at the start of the class. A big part of the appeal of classes is the impact that group energy has on the way you feel. Yes, you’re exercising, but you’re actually connecting, and disconnect is a big part of why people are so anxious, stressed and lonely.
Did you design the in-club cafe with this in mind?
L: Yes, it’s a real meeting place; people will sit down, have a drink, have one of our healthy takeaway meals.
I think it’s common to have the healthy smoothies, etc. But I think we go a little bit further with our tonics.
M: We use tonic herbs and some medicinal mushrooms. For example, we have one that’s called a Reishi Cappuccino. There’s no coffee in it but it will do far more for you than coffee.
We also use Gynostemma tea, which I’ve never found anywhere else in Australia. It’s an adaptogenic herb that has a long list of benefits. Adaptogenic herbs adapt to what your body needs, so if you’re a bit flat, it’s going to lift your energy up, or if you’re a bit hyper it’s going to calm you down.
On all levels, adaptogenic herbs really help you to find that balance, and that’s pretty much what we’re trying to find – a balance in our lifestyle, a balance in the exercise and the movement that we do, a balance in how busy we are and how restful we are at other times.
Do you have a special interest in nutrition and where did that come from?
M: Yes, I’m super passionate about all things wellness. And nutrition is probably the aspect of lifestyle that has the strongest impact on your health.
Sleep is a close second, and exercise. So, as much as we’re incredibly passionate about exercise, we realise it’s not the be all and end all. Exercise is important to heart health, brain health, improved sleep, stress, our physical fitness – essentially it aids most bodily functions. But what you put in your body creates who you are. Every cell in your body is made up of what you ingest.
How many Total Fusion clubs do you have?
L: We have three clubs, each with completely different demographics, and all running very well. Two are in Westfield shopping centres. We had a fair bit of success in shopping centres when we had Goodlife – a lot of their best performing clubs are located in Westfield, so it was natural for us to do the same with Total Fusion, especially because we’re not a direct competitor to Goodlife. We’re a completely different concept and a different model, so Westfield didn’t have any issues putting us in the same centres as Goodlife.
What kind of demographics do you appeal to?
L: It’s probably a long way outside your typical gym user – our biggest portion is the 18-45-year-old age group, but we also have a lot of mothers and daughters who come in together, and there are also a couples that train together.
M: When we first opened, we weren’t expecting to get so many people who previously didn’t like group exercise, who had no desire to go to a gym, had no desire to go and do group fitness classes. But not only were they coming along, they quickly became obsessed.
What attracted these gym newbies?
M: I think the overall feel. People come in and it looks beautiful and incredibly clean, our staff are welcoming and genuinely friendly, and it’s very affordable.
L: Yes, I think initially it’s our affordability – many people are wanting to try all those different modalities, however, the cost of paying for memberships to several studios is unachievable. Once they come and experience our myriad of classes, the quality and volume, and classes they are unable to find anywhere else, they are blown away by the value, and also how much fun fitness and movement can be.
What are the rates like now?
L: Our rates are incredibly affordable. We work on a large scale model to try to keep the prices down, in order to make this concept, and movement in general, available to as many people as possible. Our classes have more energy and vibe the more people are in them!
Our prices start at AU$20 up to AU$55 (£29.50) a week for full Platinum membership. Our Platinum Club is incredibly high-end, with magnificent marble bathrooms, Aesop soap, cold scented towels and a truly beautiful fit-out.
What’s your take on the fitness industry in Australia? How does it compare to the rest of the world?
L: We think Australia is super competitive. In terms of clubs per head of population, I think we’re as competitive as anywhere in the world, and our facilities are pretty good as well.
We certainly don’t feel like we’re a long way behind in any sort of fitness trend. Globalisation has really bridged a gap – when we first started there was definitely a bit of a lag here in Australia, but I just don’t think there really is any more.
We’re probably a little bit behind in the boutique fitness space, even though F45 and some other ones have done a great job. But big boutiques from the US, UK and Europe, where people need to be willing to pay $35 for one class, there hasn’t been a big influx of those clubs opening up here. It probably will happen, maybe it’s a cultural thing, but Australians just haven’t quite adopted that mentality yet.
Are you planning to open more clubs?
L: We’re opening one in Morningside, Brisbane next year, and we’ve also been looking at Sydney – we have a partner there who’s interested in a joint venture with us. We’ve looked at a couple of sites in Melbourne, but we haven’t found the right one yet.
There are definitely plans, but we’re concentrating on making sure we get the model right, that we roll it out successfully and have all our systems and procedures in place.
We’re not in a rush, we’ve had good growth so far, we’ve got three facilities up and running in just over twelve months and we’re now taking a bit of a breath.
We have resource for growth, but we want to make sure we do it in a nice controlled manner. Because it is such a people-driven business, it’s not just like opening a little Snap 24/7 where it’s really low service and quite a simple model to run. This is a complex model to run, there is a lot of up-training involved, so we need to make sure we’ve got things right, make sure we’ve got the right partners to do it. We just want the best for the business in the long-term.