Although some people consider a job in the fitness industry as just a stepping stone, Corne Van Zyl, managing director at Fitness First Hong Kong, feels otherwise and has been dedicated to ensuring others enjoy similarly successful careers improving peoples' fitness.
South African-born Mr Van Zyl studied business at university, and upon graduating worked in retail sales. "By 1998, I was a regional manager but couldn't see the future," he says. Seeking brighter prospects, he became a membership consultant for Health and Racquets Club, which was a strong brand in South Africa.
"I liked the health industry, which was booming in South Africa then," says Mr Van Zyl. "It was easy for me to talk to people, and I never had a problem selling health club memberships."
Mr Van Zyl consistently exceeded his targets and, helped by his retail experience, subsequently took on the position of sales manager of a fitness club which was a member of a 85-club network. Under his leadership, the club quickly climbed up the group's club rankings from the 76th to the 29th in just one year. "People are not normally health conscious; you have to go out, educate the market and hit people emotionally," he says.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr Van Zyl made a bold move into life insurance. With his aptitude for sales, he again succeeded. It was then he was presented with an opportunity to get back into the fitness industry, this time in Hong Kong. "I grabbed this with both hands," says Mr Van Zyl. "I've always wanted to come to Hong Kong."
In April 2003, he became general manager of Fitness First Hong Kong's outlet in Sheung Wan. Realising that the management style in Hong Kong would require a different approach from that of South Africa, he shifted from a more direct style to an emphasis on team building and motivation.
"If you can communicate, you can do any job"
Two years later, Mr Van Zyl moved to Singapore to become Fitness First's national sales manager. There he was responsible for four clubs in Singapore and another one in Indonesia. Another two years would see Fitness First expand to operate eight clubs in Singapore and four in Indonesia. With business growing, Mr Van Zyl headed to Jakarta to continue the expansion under his new posting as Fitness First's country manager for Indonesia.
Earlier this year, Mr Van Zyl returned to Hong Kong, initially as a country manager. "The fitness market is quite tough — there are great challenges and exciting opportunities," says Mr Van Zyl whose main goal is to build Fitness First into a prestigious brand.
He has found that a club's success is directly determined by the quality of the staff. "I am looking for people who are passionate about sales and customer service; the rest I can teach them," says Mr Van Zyl. "The most important attribute we look for in our candidates is the ability to communicate effectively with people. If you can communicate, you can do any job, be it front of house, sales manager or fitness trainer."
Mr Van Zyl observes that many people in Hong Kong lead hectic lifestyles and prioritise work, leaving little time for exercise. This is an issue he considers particularly important, especially for children: "We have to do something here — I want to start a movement in Hong Kong."
Each year, Fitness First organises Asia Momentum, a meeting during which country managers discuss what the clubs can do to get more involved with communities. Hong Kong clubs operate an "Adopt a school" scheme, under which children visit a Fitness First club in the afternoon for basic group exercise classes.
Assessing his career, Mr Van Zyl says, "I won't exchange this for anything else in my life." To him, the most rewarding aspect in his working life is being able to help people change their lifestyles, and become healthier.
"You can also help the young people who work for you," says Mr Van Zyl. "They might start as a junior, and grow to manager. It makes me feel proud."