Modern Woman Interviews Les Mills CEO: ‘resilience is key to scaling the business heights’

Wendy Coulson is CEO of Les Mills for the UK and Ireland. She tells Rosie Coxshaw why she swapped banking for keeping the nation fit, and how resilience is key to scaling the business heights

 ‘I do believe you can be anything you want to be. Did I ever think I’d become CEO of Les Mills UK? No. But did I aspire to making a difference and dig in, work hard? Yes. I’ve failed many times, but I think you fail fast and then move on, which is what you need to do.’

‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’, goes the old adage. For Wendy Coulson, CEO of Les Mills, which delivers researched-based fitness programmes, updated every quarter, and coaches personal trainers the world over, it could scarcely be more apt. As she says, ‘I don’t ever have the Sunday night blues and even when I have a challenging day, because it’s my passion and I believe in it, it doesn’t feel like work.’ For Coulson, the process started at grass roots on the gym floor. ‘I actually started in banking back in the 1980s,’ she explains. ‘I worked there for 10 years as a bank manager but in my spare time I loved fitness, so I started teaching classes and decided to follow my passion and make a career change.’ There are, she says, three things in life that truly excite her: people, fitness and business. Happily, over the past 20 years at Les Mills, founded 50 years ago in New Zealand, she has been able to satisfy all three of the elements of working life that make her tick. ‘I feel like I have a perfect job here at Les Mills,’ she eulogises. ‘It goes back to your why – why you do things. What makes me get up in the morning is to make a difference, whether that’s to my team, to our business or to someone else’s business. It’s about having a real sense of purpose.’

It’s a long road from teaching fitness classes to the top of the corporate tree. Today, she is CEO for Les Mills UK and Ireland, though the company is actually in 100 countries globally, with an instructor base, globally of approximately 140,000 people and 20,000 clubs. She heads up a team of around 75 comprising of those working on the field with club partners, trainer teams and marketing/finance specialists. The brand’s founding ethos is to measure the trends in the industry and then deliver what is most relevant into health and fitness clubs to optimise members’ experience.

‘Gosh, I’m resilient,’ she laughs. ‘I do believe you can be anything you want to be. Did I ever think I’d become CEO of Les Mills UK? No. But did I aspire to making a difference and dig in, work hard? Yes. I’ve failed many times, but I think you fail fast and then move on, which is what you need to do. When I was younger, I used to aspire to a better role, but in retrospect I’ve enjoyed all the roles I’ve had regardless of the job title. I’ve always concentrated on wanting to make a difference and as long as I’ve felt that in my work, then I’ve been totally fulfilled.’

Resilience is indeed crucial in business, and for Coulson it has been imperative. Winningly, she is as happy to share past failures and she is to trumpet successes. She recalls, ‘When my husband and I set up our business, my daughter was 18 months old. After a Sunday afternoon walk, we decided we could do this. Along the way, there have been massive learning curves. When it’s your own business you get up every day and if you don’t make it happen, it doesn’t happen and as it grows, you’ve got to let go and trust in others to push the brand forward. This was one of my biggest challenges personally and professionally.
There were times when we didn’t pay ourselves because we had a team to pay, other bills or we had to reinvest back in. They were tough times, we’d pay our mortgage, food bill and that was it!’

What, then, are the biggest challenges in the fitness industry? ‘The challenge is always getting people into the habit of fitness and enjoying it. If you can crack that then you can crack retention and this has always been an industry challenge. Only 14 per cent of the population belongs to a health club, so there is plenty of opportunity but it is competitive and always has been. It’s fast growing and people adopt quite quickly.’

It is vital, too, that she stays ahead of the fitness curve, as well as keeping personally active (she exercises six times a week, so as not to feel as though she’s missing out). ‘Digital innovation and immersive fitness are the next big things to look out for. We have a 3D immersive experience, but I think the industry still needs to help beginners and encourage more people to get into fitness. Millennials want an experience but they want results too so this means lots of tracking – whether that’s how many steps you’ve done or how many calories you’ve burnt.’

Whilst being on top of trends translates to a more informed and lucrative business, Coulson never loses sight of why she moved from banking to fitness in the first place. ‘If we go back to the purpose of what we do, which is to create a fitter planet, it’s more around how we can align that to club customers and make a difference to peoples lives than the bottom line. Whether that means bringing live classes to members, or at-home solutions or for those that don’t want a live environment, it comes back to the members’ needs.’ As they say, the customer is king, and amen to that.

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