Home Retail Interview: How Gymshark boss Ben Francis is building an ‘iconic global brand’

Interview: How Gymshark boss Ben Francis is building an ‘iconic global brand’

by Ozva Admin
Gymshark CEO Ben Francis
Gymshark CEO Ben Francis

The bar (bell) has been set high for Gymshark’s highly anticipated first flagship store on Regent Street, which will finally open its doors on Saturday after being in the works for over a year.

Gymshark, which was valued at £1bn in 2020, has gone from disruptor to retail force to be reckoned with, and expectations are sky high that its flagship store will be similarly disruptive.

Before the opening, the Retail Gazette took a look at the former J Crew store and spoke with founder and CEO Ben Francis, who says his goal was to get as close to “the perfect store” as possible.

“The ambition is to be an iconic global brand”, Ben Francis, CEO of Gymshark

“I want people who visit here to give us feedback that they love it,” he says.

Francis believes that many retailers have failed to offer true “experiences” to shoppers in the store.

“How many years have people been writing articles about retail that needs to be more experiential? Then what people do is stick a selfie camera in the corner and say ‘this is experiential’.”

Instead, Gymshark vowed to “really go above and beyond” and “create a truly experiential store.”

“I think we did a great job, well I would say that,” he laughs.

Inside Gymshark's 18,000-square-foot store at 165 Regent Street, opening Saturday, October 29

The Gymshark store completely encapsulates exactly what the brand and its customers are all about: fitness for the Instagram generation.

From clothes rails made with fully functional squat racks to mobile billboards and state-of-the-art locker rooms equipped with customizable lighting for those looking for the perfect selfie, this is every gym bunny’s dream.

Upon entering, the first thing that strikes you are the chiseled mannequins squatting, stretching, and lunging through the store.

Gymshark Global IRL Director Mitch Healey explains that the muscles in the model are so realistic because they are 3D printed scans of Gymshark athletes.

“Our mannequins are real people from our community or ambassador list,” adds brand director Noel Mack.

“Representation is everything, so we went through a long process of casting, scanning and eventually 3D printing to ensure that everyone can be seen at Gymshark London.”

Community, conditioning and retail

There are three key pillars this store is built on, according to Francis: community, fit-out and retail.

Sure, the 18,000-square-foot store is a place where gym-goers can shop for new gear, but it’s also a place for its vast customer base to congregate and get in shape.

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Visitors can book personal training sessions and studio classes in the store’s ‘Sweat Room’. They can also freshen up after training in a state-of-the-art, gender-neutral locker room and showers.

Importantly, all classes and trainings are free, as the brand wants to be accessible to everyone, especially as consumers feel the impact of the cost of living crisis.

In a nod to the importance of social media to Gymshark, it has also included a personal shopping room, which doubles as a green room for events and influencer activations.

The store feels much larger than similar flagship establishments in the famous shopping area, housing a Joe & The Juice with specialty Gymshark drinks, as well as ‘The Hub’ section of the store that can be shaped, changed and evolved by your community. to host podcasts, panels, workshops, screenings, live streaming, Sunday Brunch Clubs and more.

More Gymshark Stores

Regent Street is a firm flag in the sand for Gymshark, but could it be the start of a larger retail property?

Gymshark Regent Street
Gymshark Regent Street

“That would be the dream,” says Francis. “We need this to go well first.”

He admits that after opening the doors on Saturday, it will take six to 12 months to establish his success.

“Inevitably, there will be areas here where we will go wrong. We need to listen to the consumer for feedback and basically build a perfect store. Once we get comfortable, I’d love to do more in the future,” she says.

The future of Gymshark

Apart from the new stores, where does Francis see the brand in the next five years?

Gymshark’s CEO is bold: “The ambition is to be an iconic global brand.”

Although as a “proud Brit”, Francis wanted to open his first store in the UK, three-quarters of Gymshark’s sales now come from overseas, with the US being its largest market globally.

The business is on track to hit almost £250m in the country in its year to July. That’s about half of their total sales.

“We just have to keep innovating,” Ben Francis, CEO of Gymshark

the sports giant opened an office in Denver, Colorado in 2021, to which Francis has been traveling regularly.

“We’re really trying to understand the American consumer because it’s different,” he says.

“It’s a different world. They focus a lot on sport: people tend to train for sport, whether it’s football, basketball or baseball.”

Francis and his team are trying to gain a true understanding of the American consumer in order to really conquer the US.

In addition to a good understanding of his global buyers, Francis believes his product is his greatest strength in building the iconic brand he covets.

“I think to be a truly iconic brand, you have to create great products,” he says.

And while he says Gymshark does a “good job” at the moment, there’s still room for improvement.

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“I want Gymshark to build the best lifting products in the world, the best conditioning product in the world,” he says.

“And if you love the gym in any way, shape, or form, whether as a powerlifter or someone who just wants to hit the gym once in a while, I want Gymshark to be the brand of choice for you.”

Gymshark faces stiff competition. In fact, their meteoric rise has spurred many copycat brands who are covering Instagram with their lycra-clad models.

Francis says, “I think it’s a natural challenge and it’s definitely something we’re looking at now more than ever.”

However, he sees it as a positive. “This is a necessary pressure for companies like ours to continue innovating. That’s why we take risks.”

“We could have dumped your standard swamp retail store here, and basically try to squeeze every penny out of every square foot here. In many respects, that would have been the logical thing to do.”

Instead, he explains, Gymshark invests in your business, from your products to your store, to help you stay ahead of the competition.

“I think we have a differentiated brand and I think our product really stands out. I am very proud of the product that we have created, particularly for the price that we have. We just have to keep innovating.”

Gymshark brand director Noel Mack adds that the retailer isn’t afraid to “zigzag when others zag.”

He notes that during the height of the pandemic, when all retailers were going e-commerce and retailers were “bailing out their leases,” Gymshark signed on for their Regent Street site.

“Many eCommerce retailers are now struggling and have openly said they made the wrong bet at the start of Covid. Thank God we zigzagged when others zigzagged.”

Avoid collapse online

As Mack says, many of the UK’s online pandemic winners have been missing out on gains made as shoppers return to stores and supply problems and rising costs hit trade.

However, Francis remains confident in his largely exclusive business.

“We’re doing well so far, we’re a growing brand,” he says.

“We’re so early in the year it’s hard to know where we are, but we’re happy so far,” he says, adding that website visits are above budget six months ago.

the sweat room

As the share price of online counterparts like Asos and Boohoo plummets, Francis must be pleased that Gymshark has not opted for the IPO, which has long been speculated for the brand.

But Francis, which sold a 21% stake to private equity firm General Atlantic in 2020review this outlook when the market returns?

It is very clear to the Retail Gazette: “I am not going to sell this business.”

Inside Gymshark Regent Street

“In terms of an IPO, we’re not thinking about that anytime soon. We have a lot on our plate – we need to launch this store, we need to crush the US market, and frankly we just need to manage for the next 12-18 months.”

There is certainly plenty to keep Francis and his team busy. But first on his list, making Regent Street a success, it looks like he’ll soon have a big mark against him.

It is a store that makes a statement and makes Gymshark visible not only to Londoners but also to visitors from all over the world.

It should make not only shoppers but also other retailers sit up and take note of one of the most apt retail brands.

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