4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Ali Mahmoud:Fitness is much like a mobile phone
The business of health
Several years ago the Egyptian-born, American- based journalist-turned-accountant-turned- businessman, visited Egypt with an American friend. It was easy for them to find good restaurants, clubs, sports shops. It was impossible, however, for them to find a decent gym.
"It clicked," Mahmoud begins. "I knew, immediately, that it would be a good project."
Mahmoud -- who thrives on setting up, or else revamping and transforming businesses -- flew in a team of marketing people from the US to survey the local market. His business instincts turned out to be spot on.
"They spent a week here and came back with a report saying it was a gold mine," he says. "So I decided to create a team. I had a vision, I had an idea. It was a dream."
And the dream was to spread fitness across Egypt.
"When I visited Egypt several years ago, MobiNil's advertising campaign slogan was 'A mobile in the hand of every Egyptian'. I wanted to do the same with fitness -- I want it to become a part of every Egyptian person's life. And I mean everyone -- from the man on the street to your big businessman."
"Taking care of your body and health has become a priority around the world," Mahmoud says. "And it should be here too. People shouldn't be looking at it in terms of a luxury. Health is not a give or take issue. It's a critical element of life."
"The goal of spreading fitness to the masses is a passion, but the actual process," he explains, "is business."
Not that it is as simple as setting up a gym, or two, or three.
"You can't just put a bunch of exercise equipment in a location and call it a gym."
Before Mahmoud established his first gym in Cairo -- a franchise, the rights to which he bought in the US -- he spent weeks touring the States, looking into gym interiors, space, layout, pro-shops, client needs, attitudes and behaviour.
"I wanted to bring the best to Egypt," he says. "And I wanted to come in as the leader in the field." And he did, bringing the biggest and best of international fitness franchises to Egypt.
"When we first came in, on 1 March, 1998," he says. "There wasn't an industry."
Prior to opening his Maadi venture Mahmoud and his associates placed an advert in the Al-Ahram daily newspaper calling for personal trainers and fitness professionals.
"We got 600 applicants," he recalls. "Our fitness manager, Kevin, looked through them all," he says, laughing. "Of the 600 applications, he found zero suitable!"
None of them had credentials, none of them were informed enough, and for the most part, they were not fit.
"The irony of it is amusing now but then it was a problem."
Not an insurmountable one, though. Mahmoud and his partners knew their task would be arduous, and they may not have been quite aware of how barren the local health and fitness scene was.
"There was nothing to work with," he says. "We had to plant the first seed."
The seed came in the form of ten promising trainers, who were taught, trained, and certified from one of the most respected sports bodies in the US -- the International Sports Science Association (ISSA).
"Whether or not we had found ten trainers to start-up with education was always a part of our plan," he says. "It goes hand-in-hand with raising awareness and making people realise that exercise should be as routine as sleeping and drinking and eating -- healthy eating."
Mahmoud works out every morning. His so- called three "slow hours", which start more often than not at 6 am -- consists of coffee, the newspaper, a healthy breakfast and exercise.
"I wasn't always that way. But business is my first love. The lights go on when someone comes to me and says they need help opening their own company. I've spent the past 20 years or so getting rundown companies and fixing them up," he says. "Now, I can't work unless I've got in my daily dose of exercise."
Mahmoud's first two franchises -- in Maadi and Giza -- drew in about 2,500 in their first 12 months.
"I was a bit uptight at the beginning," he says of his first opening. "I knew there was a big market for the gym, but I was worried that given our location we would draw in a foreign majority."
He was relieved, he says, when the clientele base turned out to be 50 per cent Egyptian. And he was even more satisfied to find that women were a sizable part of that 50 per cent.
"That was my aim. To do something for the country -- for my people, and the numbers showed that people were thirsty for it."
He wanted to give them what people elsewhere in the world are already indulging in -- health and well-being. And while Mahmoud knew his first two locations would target a small circle of society, he also knew that it was best to start small.
"It was stage one," he explains. "Now we've come to stage two -- branching out across the country."
The plan is to franchise his franchise.
"This way businessmen all over Egypt will have the opportunity to take to their area a top notch gym. Franchises must meet certain regulations and standards. That's a must. A must that ensures quality control and top-notch service. They have to work with a certain system, certain manuals and procedures. And their trainers need to be of a certain calibre -- they need to be certified."
That, to Mahmoud, is a part of the process of turning Egypt into the fitness centre of the Middle East.
"The problem in this part of the world is the lack of education, lack of awareness, and the lack of opportunity for those interested in the industry," he says. "Our future in the business pivots around education. If I can get you to think in terms of fitness, it will reflect in all areas of life. That's what Egypt needs."
"I want to educate and create awareness. I want to be at the centre of the fitness boom in Egypt. I want people from across the region, and world, to come to Egypt to learn."
He wants, he says, people to 'want' to come here for the industry.
"It's happening in three parts," he says of his plan. "The first part is the franchising, the second is education, and the third is a clinic we are setting up." The root of this will be the International Fitness and Nutrition Academy, out of which Mahmoud's plans are stemming.
The franchising will take fitness to places such as Alexandria and Sharm El-Sheikh, to Assiut, Minya, and 6th of October City.
"We have different franchising options," he says. "According to the type of clientele we'll be catering to in each specific area. Not everyone can afford to pay LE2,000 a year for a membership. We have to take these things into account and prepare franchising packages accordingly. In Sharm El-Sheikh, for example, we can't depend on yearly memberships, so we need to come up with short term deals for holiday makers and seasonal employees. And if someone buys the franchise in Minya, chances are people won't want to put down a bulk sum for yearly membership."
Their packages are very user-friendly, even to the fitness investor dummy.
"The investor needs to provide the space, staff, specific equipment, and put down a given bulk figure," Mahmoud explains, "and we help with the rest."
"If I open a franchise in Alexandria, for example, we will send a set-up team to help get the facility off the ground and running. We'll provide administrative support, manuals for each department, training for the staff, and we'll also consult on design, equipment and layout prior to that. We've already done the groundwork."
And they will also educate.
"The centre of the regional fitness hub we're creating is the International Fitness and Nutrition Academy, based in our Maadi headquarters. It has an education department," he says, "which houses the ISSA school, to which we recently bought the Egyptian franchise."
While the company has bought the right to educate its staff, and franchisee's, to the highest of global fitness standards, Mahmoud firmly believes in educating the masses.
"I want to do something for the country as a whole, which means opening the doors to everyone, even competitors. Our objective is to help develop and enhance fitness practices in the area, not just in our own facilities."
In line with his open-door policy Mahmoud is hoping to bring fitness conventions to the country, something which has never happened in the region before.
"We are shooting for excellence. Nothing less. If it means bringing in outsiders specialised in club management to train our people then we will. If it means sending our staff abroad then we will. It is not enough to put clients on machines and tell them that it will help them reach their goal. The theory behind it needs to be explained, how it worked and what it does."
They need to know, for example, that if you have lower back problems you need to strengthen your abdomen, that weight training does not mean you have turned your fat into muscle, and that pasta and bread do not make you fat. Mahmoud has hope, at the very least, of educating the average man on the street on principles that should be basic.
"Through our education department we are creating a new generation of fitness professionals. And through them, in turn, we will help raise a new generation of health- and fitness-aware people." And of course, he adds, it is never too late to learn. Not even if you are 70, 80, or 90.
"We'll be serving the Middle East as a whole this way. We plan, long-term, to set-up teams to send to fitness centres and gyms across the region. Even if they don't want to buy the franchise rights as such we will be able to send in management teams, or fly people in to consult on the establishment of new centres. The aim isn't to sell the franchise rights to Gold's Gym, it is to educate the region and make it a part of the culture."
And a part, of course, of every person's life.
"A lot of people are scared of gyms -- intimidated by them. And many people who are overweight are shy of setting foot in a gym. They generally vow to lose weight, then join a gym," he says, shaking his head at a common mind-set that defies the purpose and drags down the weight-loss process. "We are trying to take the edginess out, by making people enjoy and believe in exercising. That way they'll want to come to the gym."
It is a weight-loss clinic that stipulates a three- month commitment, and three training sessions a week.
"We will give them nutrition programmes, and training programmes. Three times a week they'll meet with one of our personal trainers at one of our gyms. Yes we will help them lose their extra body weight [i.e. drop their percentage body fat], but we aim to educate them at the same time. It would be easy to put them on a nutrition programme to help them lose weight, but we want to get them into the habit of exercising, and once they see the results of combining the two, and begin to feel the physical and psychological benefits of exercise, they will want more. The idea is that after three months their individually tailored programme will have changed their mind-sets."
After three months, he hopes -- in accordance to research on lifestyle changes -- clients will actually believe in fitness and want to incorporate it, full- time, into their lifestyles.
"They'll have their hands held," he says, "so they won't feel they're stepping into a gym alone. They won't feel self-conscious in the way that newcomers usually do."
It is essential, he says, to show people how serious it is, that it impacts on their health and longevity.
"That is why I have introduced education and certification. That's why I chose the number one gym in the world to franchise. People need to realise how seriously it is taken, as a profession, around the world. I want them to enjoy it, but I don't want them to think of fitness as a pastime."
There are, however, obstacles.
"Language", he says. "Our educational material is brought in from the US. It's in English." In the future, however, Mahmoud hopes to be able to offer all the courses -- such as the personal trainer and nutritionist certification -- in Arabic.
His plan may pivot around a desire to educate Egyptians, but at the core of the privately created national plan lies an unquestionably businessman's heart.
"I believe in what I call the three 'F's," he says of his business philosophy. "Firm, friendly, and fair. If you apply the three 'F's, then you are successful. I can go out for dinner with my employees and joke with them one night, but I can also go in the next day and fire them. Business is business, and the so- called secret of success is fair treatment. If you are fair, your employees will respect you, and work."
It sounds simple enough.
"But you also need to know how to listen, listen to what's going on in the work area and listen to each and every employee. I make a point of talking to everyone -- from the housekeeping staff to the top managers. I need to hear about their work conditions, but I also need to hear about their personal lives," he says. "The problem here is that there isn't value placed on the human being as an individual. And we deal with classes. To be successful, you have to look beyond that. You need to understand every one of your employees and know what's going on in their lives. It's critical to recognise them as individuals with backgrounds and problems and families."
Mahmoud's own family, he says, is a crucial factor in generating the energy he expends.
"I have two kids," he says. "Susan and Amir. Susan lives in Chicago, but she calls me every morning [in New Jersey, or Cairo], to say good morning."
"I've raised them to believe that health is integral to their lives," he says, "The most common excuse is that there is not enough time -- 'too busy'. We are all too busy, it's about organising yourself. You always have time to eat, why not exercise, or why not eat healthily?" he asks. "I made a point of opening a gym that works from 5am to midnight; you are telling me that seven days a week, 365 days a year you don't have a single free hour between 5am and midnight?"
He has no time for those who make the same excuse, and he has no time for employees who do not perform.
"I believe, as a businessman, that you need to help people take the first steps. You need to educate them, give them incentives, and give them time to play. But then I need results. I don't care if it takes them one hour or ten. I manage by objectives, not by 9-5."
And that, too, is how he looks at fitness.
"I'm not telling the country to spend three hours a day in the gym," he says. "Three hours a week is enough, as long as it's quality."
Mahmoud's goal may seem like a far-fetched dream, certainly in the eyes of individuals wanting, but never managing, to incorporate fitness into their lives. So too, perhaps, his dream of bringing fitness to the masses.
"But several years ago," Mahmoud says seriously, "the average kiosk owner, greengrocer or mechanic never imagined he would own a mobile phone. In a few years, people will look back and say 'Oh my, I can't believe I didn't use to exercise.' I'm telling you, I'm going to make this into a national movement. This is going to become a regional fitness hub. The country may be coming into it a bit later than the rest of the world, but the fitness bug is going to spread. I'm going to make sure it does."
And he is going to make sure, he says, that it spreads not just to every corner of the country, but to every country, city, and suburb in the region.
Letter from the Editor
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