Each month, we interview tech leaders across the UK about the technologies, skills and people that are shaping their organisations' digital futures. This month, Ed Halliday, La Fosse Academy Operations Director, speaks to Andy Caddy, CIO at PureGym
Yes, it's an interesting time at PureGym. Three years ago, we were the UK's number one gym operator and now we find ourselves as a global operator due to investment, acquisition and the launch of our franchise network. We now have 315 gyms in the UK today, and we’re adding on average one gym a week in the UK. Next year we'll add a gym every three or four days, which is an amazing trajectory.
We also increasingly now talk about our European presence. So, we bought an operator in Denmark which has 150 gyms, and they also own 40 gyms in Switzerland. We are also franchising our brand with a franchise partner in the Middle East, including 5 clubs in Saudi Arabia, and we are trialling and testing out three clubs in the USA as well. It’s a big transition and super exciting to be part of that.
We're a brilliant British brand in my opinion. We see ourselves as the top of the value gym providers. We want to be the default choice – so, when people talk about joining a gym, they'll talk about joining PureGym, just like they might go and stay at Premier Inn or fly EasyJet.
My challenges are about growth more than anything else. At a lean low-cost business like ours, we are dependent on technology. We want to do things once, do things centrally and execute locally in country.
We aim to build great fitness products that deliver a brilliant experience for our members, and these rely on technology to enable that. My challenge here is growing our technology functions capabilities so that it can serve our newly global business. We insourced our website, we in-house our app. We have our own development function here, which is unusual for a gym chain – and we think there's advantage in that.
We've done lots of work in building an engineering function; what we are working on now is putting business-facing people within that function to get the best out of that capability.
My other priorities are around standardisation of products and design, so making sure that we've really thought about what we can do with technology in a world that has changed. There is no doubt about it: the world has moved on, as we all know from the pandemic, and that affects my industry is just as it does other peoples. Expectations of gyms and fitness are very different now.
The interesting stuff is how you affect change in people and process and businesses. And that's really what technology is all about – how you manage change. I see myself as a digital anthropologist. My job is to understand how digital technologies change the way people behave. When planning, I think first from the from the impact perspective of how does it affect the people using it or the customers?
One of my superpowers is putting change first. I think you can make pretty much any system work properly if you've got the right change people around it. The inverse is not true; a very good system can be implemented incredibly badly.
Change management is a very under-utilised skill set within technology and general digital transformation. It’s about customer centricity: whatever it is you do, does it matter for the customer? In our case, what is our member’s experience of being in a gym.
The gym on its own is not what matters. What’s important here is what is that person’s experience about their fitness, their wellness, their nutrition, and where does your product fit within it? How can we use digital content, what you can do outside of the gym, and what experience do they have within it, supported by all our two and a half thousand personnel.
I think the gym is here to stay, but there are other things we’re going to need to offer to be a relevant provider of fitness and wellness.
I think there's a widespread problem in that STEM subjects have a skew in terms of the demographic of people who study them that eventually shows up as a lack of diversity in the technology workforce.
Competition for talent means that people coming back with £30,000 counter offers, where in the past it might have £5,000. It can be £60,000 to £70,000 base salary for a grad developer now.
Post pandemic, everyone is investing in digital and it’s a land grab for talent. With wage inflation and with the cost-of-living crisis and everything else it I'm still in shock at some of the salaries on the market. It makes me think a lot about what the alternative models are. And I know your own model of rapidly developing new techies. There are other ways to look wider and challenge your own views about where talent comes from, whether that’s graduates or people returning to work or cross training from other fields or coming out of military or, you know, whatever it is.
With business-facing roles like project management and business analysis, the importance of having people there who are customer-centric change agents is super important – that attitude and way of thinking.
It's a tough market. I think as a leader you have to do more than just line up a recruitment company. You have to work your networks, be on LinkedIn, work on your own brand and help build your company brand. And people have to think about what it means to join your company, because people have choice and the salaries are high, so they can move any moment.
We have an engineering function, a largeish one for our size, and I think we've done well to build such a great team. One way we achieve that is to make the team fully remote. That's a change and to be honest we're still just getting to grips with what that means – for on-boarding people, making them feel part of the business, and keeping the business aligned, and focused on how to solve that properly. We have our own business insight and analytics team, it’s a small data science team that's been tricky to recruit for.
We’ve had good success in bringing people in, but holding on to them for any length of time is difficult because inevitably they get bigger offers. Likewise, building product and project management teams, is the other area with we're looking at. In our highly consumer-focused business, it is about having those people have but have both the technical skill set and the commercial savvy to be able to operate. In a low-cost business like ours that is as commercially focused as we are, you can't just come in and do your job and go home. You need to be really integrated with the business. We aim to change the mindset with what might previously have been purely an engineering or optimization problem, to consider the user and take responsibility for the product from requirements through to tickets, to connect the two ends of the business through technology more effectively
I was lucky to do some of my formative years in leadership at easyJet where I sat at a desk and watched a plane take off every two minutes. It was very easy to know what you were there to do. You looked out of the window and thought, “wow, I helped make that happen.” I've always taken that forward in all my roles to think, “how can you bring the product to life at people?”
At PureGym it's pretty easy if we do our jobs right along with all our colleagues in the business then people get healthier - there are not many better outcomes really than that. If you want a business reason to get behind, then there's not many better ones. PureGym can change people's lives.
There's a there's a bunch of interesting stuff going on at the moment. I've got older kids who are just making the journey into adulthood. I see some of the world through their eyes, and I'm fascinated by how society is changing. And I work in a world where everything from how you behave to how you find your partner or how you buy things is enabled by technology.
We've had 15 years of trying this out and adapting to it - it's been a bit of a kind of Wild West of technology and my kids are going to spend the rest their lives doing this. With so much happening, people getting their heads around data and security, you think: “We should probably get a handle on this, you know?”
I still don't think we've quite solved it all yet. But I find it fascinating – not because it's good or bad, I just find it interesting how the world has changed.
I'll tell you a story about AI. By the way, I hate the word, just like I hate word digital; let’s talk instead about what it as, neural networks or machine learning. But there’s no doubt that its capability has moved forward rapidly in the last four or five years, and there has been a few things driving that - whether it’s image recognition or driverless cars. The more it becomes software you can pick up and use and adapt for your own use, the more fascinating things happen.
Recently, I was sitting on a train that was delayed, in the middle of the countryside, and I was mindlessly reading Reddit. Someone had posted a thing up there saying, “hey guys, I've put together this AI driven app that will recolour a black and white photo”. Sitting in the middle of Hertfordshire on the West Coast Line, I downloaded the app and tried it out on a photo of me and my sister as kids.
And it worked amazingly: it recoloured this black and white photo, which I sent to my sister, and she cried. I was still stuck on the train when I replied to the guy on Reddit and explained, “I've been on a train using your app, and it’s so good that my sister was emotionally moved by it.”
What a world we live in. It's just amazing. Despite the fact I'm sitting on a train on a phone in the middle of the countryside, all that happened in 10 minutes – so quickly and so easily.
Almost every time, change and innovation happen in the strangest, most fringe corners and then enters the mainstream in unexpected ways. Maybe it was my pandemic enthusiasm for growing vegetables, but I'm really enchanted by advances in agriculture and the ability to grow things under LED lights. Now we have the process, we can scale it using IoT devices that monitor every single aspect of it - to control the light, control levels of nutrition –and apply that process to normal food. Suddenly, we can say, “hey, this is how you produce cabbages perfectly every time”.
I went to a talk on that by a guy from Carnegie Mellon and he had his students using these techniques. They've never tasted fresh tomatoes off the vine; but through his publications, they can recreate the process in their own homes. It’s amazing really – we live in a very cool world.