Making a success of HIT
Mentored by co-author of Body By Science John Little, Blair Wilson, owner of MedX Precision Fitness, probably couldn’t have had a better introduction to HIT. We spoke to Blair to find out what it takes to succeed in the niche world of High Intensity Training.
When Blair was 16 years old, he had to have shoulder surgery due to accumulated strain from rugby, hockey, water-skiing and other athletic endeavours he was involved with. It was a case of “over use” rather than a momentous injury; and in retrospect it was a lucky situation that led Blair to start working out with John Little.
The surgery was scheduled for the end of the summer and Blair went for prehabilitation training with John, so as to strengthen the shoulder area and enable a quicker recovery post-op.
Indeed, he checked into the hospital pain-free and soon enough he was ready to train again. It was partly the successful operation, partly the training pre and post, and partly his body being at its hormonal peak that allowed Blair to quickly get on with his life without the burden of a damaged shoulder.
Wilson went off to university, but that didn’t last long. That’s a rather common and courageous behaviour entrepreneurs share; accept that “formal education” is not for you and get on with what you really want to do, which in Blair’s case was to work for and with John Little.
He spent a couple of years at Nautilus North, soaking it all up- practicing, listening to Arthur Jones cassettes, asking questions, discussing non-stop the finest details and even trying to argue with John. “I went from not really knowing anything to learning as much as I possibly could and him making me learn more; I was never allowed to relax or think that I had known enough,” he says.
He was working 6am-6pm and seeing roughly 2.5 people per hour, 5 days per week and half days on Saturday, for two years flat. Little pushed a lot of responsibilities towards Blair and even guided him in organising a handful of the informal studies Nautilus North was running at that time. This experience was a steep learning curve and a massive component of Blair’s success today. “I was the luckiest little brat,” he jokes.
And then, in what might seem to be an unlikely move, Blair decided to move to Australia and water-ski professionally! That’s not to say that he left behind high intensity training or his mentor, on the contrary. He trained his co-athletes in the HIT protocol and conversed frequently with John Little trying to extract as much information as he could about the forthcoming Body By Science that was being written at that time.
Three years later, coming back to Canada, Wilson had one goal: setup his own gym. It was a logical step but it was “absolutely terrifying”.
Toronto was selected as the prime location for MedX Precision Fitness for a couple of reasons.
Even though he relocated, the city’s distance to Bracebridge, Muskoka, Blair’s hometown, was a deciding factor. Opening a gym in Toronto meant that he could easily drive to and from the gym within a couple of hours.
Most importantly though, several million people live in the most populous city of Canada and in the financial district especially, people are “overworked, certainly not underpaid, overstressed and time poor”, says Blair while explaining his rationale.
Funding the new business
Without having saved any money, Blair, in this early twenties went to the bank with a business plan showing positive turnover, and asked for a loan to fund a new business he had no evidence would succeed. Despite being turned down and even laughed at, he didn’t give up. He tweaked his plan and went back a couple of times, until the loan managers got creative with his application and granted him a thin budget to get started.
Getting a space was tougher than he anticipated. Six years ago, planned developments in the city centre meant that a lot of buildings were going to be demolished in the not too distant future and the weight of the exercise machines restricted him from getting a facility on high floor levels.
Luck struck once again. He found a space that was previously a gym with washrooms and changing rooms already setup, accessible through an underground walkway from the main office towers in the city, which meant that people could go to his gym without being exposed to the Canadian cold. What a bonus; no excuse to miss a workout!
When it comes to equipment, Blair was set on getting at minimum the machines needed for the big five (compound row, shoulder press, pulldown, chest press, leg press), plus lumbar. John Little helped him get three refurbished and three new MedX pieces that are still in good working condition today. He later added an old Nautilus Multi Exerciser for chin-ups and dips to the gym’s line.
“It is more of a toy for me and it looks so out of place, it’s a big, ugly, blue, paint-chipped, tapped-up monster in the middle of a room with all this pristine MedX equipment, but people love it.”
Marketing and PR
MedX Precision Fitness was ready to welcome clients in April 2010 and Wilson relied solely on his network, friends and family to get the word out, until December, when he started doing PR. Yet again, “we lucked out massively”, he says.
A local media outlet did a feature on the newly opened gym, inspired by Blair’s story, which could be, more or less, summed up as follows: a young kid starting from nothing and having this completely innovative approach to exercise; a workout that works in 20 minutes per week. That’s a wicked story to sell.
The story was published in January, at a time when people tend to flock to gyms. What timing! Blair says that after the media coverage, MedX PF was averaging 10-12 new clients per week with a retention rate of roughly 85%.
“Getting clients was tough, but it wasn’t a nightmare by any means of the word. You just had to keep getting your face out there and relying on friends and asking them to bring more friends in”. Word of mouth is still the most effective marketing method and 90% of their current work is referral based.
The gym’s unique selling proposition attracts people across the board, “athletes, executives and… normal people”, a phrase that has stuck with Blair since the early days of doing PR.
Wilson and his staff train squash players, business executives who train during their lunch break, people that drive from out of town to go to him, even a 93 year old man, and a 63 year old woman who wanted to do a chin-up.
People go to MedX PF specifically to do high intensity training. “If you are looking for a gym in Toronto with the same postcode as me, you will find 100 options, within 1km of where we are”, he says. Competing as another traditional gym just wouldn’t work on so many levels.
The odd person that doesn’t already know about HIT does occasionally come through the door, drawn by the gym’s prime location and Blair knows how to tell from the first session whether they are thinking long-term. He has a strategy on how to convert them. He sells a “starter pack”, a bundle of 5 sessions, out of which 2-3 will be spent on learning the techniques. If they complete this, they’ll likely stay.
Growth and recruiting staff
As the gym’s popularity grew, Blair wanted to bring more people in to cater for demand; people that would challenge him and help him take his offering further. He didn’t need to advertise, as luck was on his side.
Sheldon, his first staff member, approached him out of the blue, with a neat resume and a lovely email. After an informal interview and a bit of clientele shuffling, he was in. With backgrounds in massage therapy and rugby respectively, Aaron and Alistair recently joined the now diverse team, looking to specialize in High Intensity Training.
Blair is very cautious about who joins the team and he takes his time to make a decision. The new trainer will take on some of the gym’s current clients, people that he and his staff have been nurturing, so he wants to be sure he hires the right people.
Wilson starts on the assumption that candidates know about high intensity training and want to train people following this protocol. Then, personality is very important and while it’s “difficult to meet someone and know how they will be two years down the line”, Blair is looking for glimpses of goodness.
“There is no template for the perfect person, but there is a template of how the business will run and whether the person will fit that template”, he says. Blair and his partners ask new candidates lots of questions and get the candidates to ask questions too.
And once they are in, they are in. Blair will make sure they stick around and grow, and will give them stepping-stones for their careers. As a matter of fact, we currently have three MedX PF trainers taking courses with HITuni.
Looking back at his entrepreneurial journey, Blair says he was lucky and grateful to have massive support from his family and especially his dad, who even took time off his job to work hands on renovating the gym during its early days.
No one challenge stands out. The stress of paying the rent and bills, learning to read commercial leases, having to fill forms after forms, getting licenses you didn’t know you need, meeting the tax submission deadline, getting insured, and so on, was all worth it.
Blair’s relentlessness nourished the ground from which his luck could happen. “I get lucky, I get really really lucky a lot. If you don’t ever stop trying, you are bound to get lucky. Even a blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while.”
So, what’s next for MedX Precision Fitness? Get a bigger facility with more one-to-one rooms, more sets of machines, and more staff, helping more people and having more fun.
Blair strives for “world domination”, but in case that doesn’t work out, he’ll be happy to get the government and people to start thinking preventively and start working out before they develop health issues.
To learn more about MedX Precision Fitness, visit:
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