Ben Francis: Gymshark’s Owner Is Britain’s Youngest Billionaire
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The Ben Francis Gymshark origin story sounds apocryphal. But it happens to be true. After Francis went to the gym in his hometown Solihull in the U.K’s West Midlands, his intimidation at the macho etiquette eventually led him to become Britain’s youngest billionaire.

Gymshark has been quick to paint a positive picture of its latest results, hailing its “biggest revenue number ever” in 2023 “underpinned by the relevance and quality of our product.”

From those early gym trips an idea was born as he ventured out as a 19-year-old. He started with supplements, then made hoodies he sewed, all sold from his parent’s garage while working shifts at Pizza Hut and creating the first Gymshark website. On trend as an entrepreneurial millennial, the brand deploys plenty of social media influencers to keep Gymshark on the radar. Now at the ripe age of 32, Francis is a billionaire; his company is valued at around $1.5 billion following years of stellar sales, highly successful trading, and clever brand enhancement during the pandemic.

Gymshark is designed for serious fitness customers. It self-describes, “Our legacy was built in the weight room. Gymshark was founded with a love for training and that passion continues into all our gym clothes today. You’ll find the latest innovation in gym clothing and accessories to help you perform at your best and recover in style.” One glance at buff Francis and his apparel ambassadors says it all.

So, when American investor General Atlantic paid $300 million for a 21 per cent stake in Gymshark in 2020, the deal confirmed Gymshark’s unicorn status and catapulted Francis to billionaire status — $1.3 billion to be exact in 2023.

Gymshark Commits to Stores

Francis opened a gym and innovation hub in 2019. Then the previously online-only Gymshark made its first store debut, landing a prominent flagship on London’s Regent Street in fall 2022. That store is spread over two large floors with an 18,000 square foot footprint, formerly home to J. Crew.

But it is not retail as usual. Francis is quick to point out that Gymshark is determined to do things its own way: “What I will say is that we are not opening this store to do the same things as everyone else,” he said. “In the middle of the pandemic, when everyone predicted that everything would move online, we saw a different future and signed a ten-year deal in Central London. We want this store to be unique and special.”

It’s a move that appears to have paid off. In its latest results, announced 22 February, its first store brought in around $12.7 million in revenues and was responsible for just under half of the annual growth in U.K. earnings, despite not being open for the full financial year.

Gymshark is also set to open its second physical store this summer at the giant Westfield Stratford City mall to the east of London, next to the old Olympic Stadium. The sportswear giant will move into a 7,000 square foot unit.

The brand is on a meteoric trajectory. Gymshark has over 900 employees, a total social media following of over 18 million, and customers in over 230 countries across 14 online stores.

Market Conditions

In 2022 the company also launched a U.S. office in Denver as part of a readily admitted desire to go big in America. Gymshark generates around 80 per cent of its income overseas, with the United States contributing nearly $317 million. But facing headwinds, the business has reduced its administrative headcount by 170 people, including 80 as part of a major retrenchment from a North American market challenged by the ongoing impact of rising inflation, raw materials and labor costs, as well as consumers’ discretionary spending power.

Those market conditions led Gymshark to change tack at the start of 2023 when it cut two-thirds of its North American workforce and began to close its regional sourcing offices in Hong Kong and Mauritius. It also revealed it would open a 12-month pop-up store in New York.

Gymshark’s directors said they “anticipate that the previous growth trajectory that the group experienced in different times will not continue in the same way,” but the retailer also stressed it is “confident that it can continue to grow its business meaningfully whilst improving profitability and has clear plans in place to deliver this.” Of course they would say that.

Not surprisingly, Gymshark has been quick to paint a positive picture of its latest results, hailing its 15 percent growth over 2022 as “biggest revenue number ever underpinned by the relevance and quality of our product.”

Despite those surging sales, the activewear giant’s pre-tax profits fell by more than half to $16.5 million for the 12 months to July 31 2023, down from $35.2 million the prior year, while the company’s EBITDA, excluding exceptional costs, rose from $50.6 million to $57.4 million.

Speaking on video, Francis revealed that the business was launching its first wholesale partnership with department store group Selfridges, which would see it launch its “highest quality athleisure range yet” in the in-store Everywear. “From a product perspective, 2024 also sees us launch our highest-quality athleisure range yet, focusing on the premium nature of the product,” said Francis. “Our community has told us for a long time that they want to see us bring a more premium product to the market, so we listened.”

The Beat of His Own Drum

What has always been clear is that Gymshark is not simply a way of muscling Francis into the super-rich category, even though it has. Rather, the brand is the embodiment of Francis’s own experiences and epiphany in what exercise and training can bring to individuals. What Nike did for runners, Francis wanted to do for training/workout fanatics.

In expanding to physical retail, Francis insists that the store has a community focus with a desire to make gym-based exercise accessible, whether as a starter or an experienced athlete. And this is the formula for a great organic, retail customer experience.

“It changed my life and it’s something I am passionate about,” Francis said. “We want this to be a place where people come not just for the product but to join classes, to learn about nutrition, and also technical stuff like lifting techniques and recovery.”

Speaking of his own journey, Francis said, “I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world. I absolutely love what I do. And in many respects, money can’t buy that. So, in terms of any IPO, we’re not looking at that anytime soon.”

Follow the Money

What obsesses Francis is his desire to see the brand make it big in the U.S. (in 2021 he bolstered the board by bringing in serial U.S. entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk to advise on marketing and brand development). Nonetheless, his focus has had to shift to the Middle East. Francis is going to Dubai as Gymshark realigns its growth path with market entry into the United Arab Emirates this spring.

Gymshark has carved out a clear niche, has an authentic back story and Francis is a likeable boss at the helm. For any entrepreneur, the challenge is scaling the innovation and dream without losing the startup spirit. This is when it’s not as much fun. Now it’s time for this rapid-growth company to exceed expectations and fulfill its promise. We’re watching the journey… from the locker room.

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