“My mum taught me to sew. Let me show you.” The multi-millionaire founder of Gymshark whips out his iPhone and brings up a video of his mother demonstrating how to use a Brother sewing machine to make the prototype fitness clothing for which his company is now famous.
Little more than 10 years ago, Ben Francis was making and selling muscle vests online from his parents’ garage. Today, at 30, he is CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company with state-of-the-art, sprawling headquarters in the West Midlands, offices in Denver, Hong Kong, Mauritius and London and a presence in nearly every gym in the country. He has 926 employees worldwide and a turnover last year of £480 million. His personal wealth is estimated to be £700 million.
The brand’s body-flattering garments are sold in 180 countries – 28 million of them in the 12 months to the end of July. Its digital force-field is immense: more than 81 million views on YouTube, 5.8 followers on Instagram and 3.8 million on TikTok. Across all social platforms, it reaches 18.9 million.
Though exclusively an online operation until now, Gymshark will soon open a flagship store in Regents Street, London [reported to be 1 October], employing more than 100 people. In a business environment which appears to be moving away from actual, physical shops, it seems surprising to open an 18,000-square-foot retail space in one of Europe’s most expensive shopping areas. “It may seem strange but, when everyone else zigs, Gymshark zags,” he says. “We just love hanging out with our community. We’re actually pretty bullish about the future of the high street. Bricks and mortar retail isn’t dead and we’re going to prove it.”
I first meet Francis when he’s walking briskly between Gymshark’s two expansive headquarters in Solihull. He is a tall, toned young man with a sharp haircut, dressed in black Gymshark gear and gilet, with startling white socks and shoes. It’s 10am and he’s already been up for more than four hours. “I’m massively into my fitness goals,” he says. “If I don’t go to the gym enough, I’m not as good at my job. I’m miserable at home. I’m not as good a human being if I’m not regularly in the gym, on a structure, making progress.”
Francis is a creature of habit. Same waking hour (5.45am), same meals, same time, same gym. If he has those predictables, he says he can cope with creative chaos. If he’s working away from home and can’t have breakfast at precisely 6.30am he gets “a bit panicky”. “At the moment, for breakfast I’ll have four pieces of streaky bacon and a coffee and that’s it.”
You can see why the gym is his holy-of-holies. It not only transformed him from a skinny boy to a muscle-bound teenager, but the discipline he learned there changed his life. “For the first time,” he says, “I knew that I would get out what I put in. The structure, consistency and work ethic I found in the gym could be applied to other areas of my life and it would work.”