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Following A Management-Led Buyout Of All Equity Held By Its Previous Investor, UAE-Born Fitness Brand GymNation Is All Set For A New Phase Of Growth GymNation co-founder and CEO Loren Holland shares his vision for the UAE-born business to play a lead role as the GCC region's movement partner.

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GymNation co-founders Frank Afeaki, Loren Holland, and Anthony Martland.

Since GymNation burst onto the UAE fitness scene in 2018, its founders have been committed to one mission- to democratize health and fitness by making going to the gym more affordable and more accessible to the UAE public. "We identified a gap in the market where the incumbents had been overcharging the public, so much so that Dubai was ranked as the second most expensive city anywhere in the world to own a gym membership," says Loren Holland, who co-founded GymNation with Frank Afeaki and Anthony Martland. "We quickly became recognized as the most affordable gym in the country, by offering an unmatched value proposition that still stands unparalleled in any sector across the UAE."

Today, GymNation has grown to 11 locations with 65,000 members. With six more UAE locations in fit-out, it is expected that the company will reach 17 gyms -and 100,000 members in the UAE- once all locations are at full maturity in 2025. "Our ambition extends beyond the borders of the UAE, with the aim to become the largest gym chain across the GCC," Holland adds. "Later this year, we will open our first six gyms in Saudi Arabia, and we have started company formation and the search for real estate in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, which are all strong markets where we believe the GymNation proposition will be very well received."

While the business has been experiencing a healthy and rapid growth, Holland explains that GymNation's purpose extends beyond that- and that is to play a leading role as the region's movement partner, enhancing the wellbeing of nations here by championing healthy and active lifestyles, promoting the importance of mental health, and nurturing the power of positive thinking. And Holland and his fellow co-founders have undoubtedly placed this purpose at the heart of their work following their recent decision to pursue a management buy-out of GymNation from JD Sports Gyms- an arm of the British sports-fashion retail company and FTSE 100 giant, JD Sports- which had acquired the company in 2022.

According to Holland, this decision was made following a desire for greater alignment between the company's investors and its dynamic, founder-led spirit. "Our previous majority investor, UK-based JD Sports PLC, didn't share the same entrepreneurial management spirit as us, and didn't appreciate some of the unique nuances of the Middle East market," Holland says, candidly. The management buy-out deal has seen GymNation bring on board new equity and private credit investors from within the region, which include Washington-headquartered diversified principal investment group Tricap Investments and Abu Dhabi-based independent private credit firm Ruya Partners.

The GymNation team. Image courtesy GymNation

Holland and his team believe that this will be critical for the company's ambitious expansion plans across the GCC. "The deal also transitioned us as a management team from being minority to significant majority shareholders, which importantly aligns our ownership with operational and strategic control," he adds. "This shift in equity is not just about financial stakes- it has also enabled us to better incentivize our wider team with equity, and create a more invested management team. Equally important, it grants us board control and greater autonomy to swiftly and effectively deliver on our ambitious and bold strategic plans, in our own unique way."

The three co-founders have also allocated 12% of the company's equity to the wider management team and value-add non-executive directors who they have started to recruit. "This approach reflects the conviction of myself and my co-founders, Frank and Ant, that those people who are in the heart of our of day-to-day operations can share in the ownership, and in doing so, further enhance a common alignment with the long-term goals of GymNation," Holland explains. "We are passionate believers in the power of equity to drive the right behaviors and culture. This equity participation ensures that our management team is not only rewarded for present successes, but is also motivated to sustain performance, innovation, and growth over the long term."

According to Holland, such a structure also gives GymNation a rock solid foundation to harness the team's collective efforts to support the company's ambitious plans to double its size of the business within a year. "It is no small feat, and it requires a well-orchestrated strategy, underpinned by a technology and data science-led approach," Holland says. "We're making significant investments in artificial intelligence (AI), which has already started to transform how we handle customer service, sales, retention, and member onboarding."

Related: The Legal Viewpoint: How To Structure Your Options Pool

A GymNation space. Image courtesy GymNation.

Holland believes that the company's AI systems will not only give it a unique competitive edge, but that it will also help GymNation double down on its position as pioneers by doing things that simply have never been done before in the fitness industry, which competitors have been either unwilling or unable to do. "Our focus is not just on expansion, but on setting new standards in the industry, ensuring GymNation remains at the forefront of innovation and service excellence, and concerns about overtrading are mitigated by our strategic investments in technology, which ensure we can scale efficiently and sustainably," he adds.

With regards to the ongoing debate on whether AI will replace the human workforce, Holland is firm that the GymNation's shift towards technology will not diminish its commitment to his team. "On the contrary, we are doubling down on our investment in our staff, recognizing their invaluable contribution to our success," Holland adds. "We're proud to have been recognized as one of the 'Top 25 Best Places to Work in the UAE,' an accolade that reflects our dedication to creating a supportive and dynamic work environment. Our ambition is to climb even higher in these rankings, spurred by the feedback and insights we've gained through this year's survey."

Now, one can tell Holland is putting his money where his mouth is given that GymNation is offering its employees perks like the opportunity to undertake an online MBA in 2024 for senior managers, as well as an option of an unlimited, self-managed holiday policy for the whole team. "These are just a few examples of how we're investing in our team's development and well-being and providing even more flexibility and autonomy," Holland says. "These initiatives are designed not only to enhance our team's skills and job satisfaction, but also to ensure GymNation remains a leading employer in the region."

Related: Disruptive Change: How Entrepreneurship Is Shaking Up The UAE's Fitness Sector

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