Paul Alexander, founder of elite fitness.
What started off as a dream with three clients in a village hall has turned into a rapidly-growing business. Paul Robertson meets Paul Alexander, founder of elite fitness.
Paul Alexander is in the business of transforming peoples’ lives – something the 40 year old has done for himself and his family, turning a passion into a successful business through drive, ambition and plenty of blood sweat and tears.
In just four years, Alexander has taken his concept of group personal training sessions – creating programmes for health, fitness and wellbeing accessible for everyone – from a village hall in Tyneside to six studios in Newcastle, Cramlington, Manchester, Leeds, Stockton and Durham, with a further four planned in 2018, and revenues of £1.8m.
There is not a treadmill in sight, but the walls are adorned with before and after success stories from those undertaking elite programmes, with his director wife Jan among the 50 employees and their two “superhero” sons Ollie and Henry, both of whom have cerebral palsy, driving his ambition.
“I never worked in a gym in my life,” he says. “I started with a rucksack, a skipping rope, boxing gloves and two dumbbells – it was all I could afford.
“But it is not about the equipment or the place you train – it is about the person. I have noticed in the fitness industry that all they sell is an environment and some equipment, but clients want to have energy and lose weight.
“My philosophy is, if I can prove to people that I can change them, make them look different, make them feel better then they would tell their pals and word will spread. If someone could invest in a diet pill to make them lose weight then they would be a billionaire overnight, but it is hard work.
“I admire the clients who do it – I have total respect for them as it is tough. If you want to get a result you have to believe.”
Belief, if not confidence, is something Alexander has had from an early age. Brought up in the village of Staindrop in Teesdale, County Durham, the eldest of three boys, he describes himself as always being a grafter. Dad John was a self-employed builder and Alexander would labour for him in school holidays as well as doing a paper round, milk round, working in a petrol station and a do-it-yourself store, while mum Barbara was at home with his brothers, Martin and Simon.
“We were always outside and had a strict but happy upbringing – dad kept us in line,” says Alexander. “I was a bright lad but academically it never shone through in my exam results.
“I felt a bit different, I was not interested in university. I wanted to work with my dad in the business and be in control of what I did but dad put me off and I ended up working in pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline as a trainee on £30 a week.
“I hated it all 14 years I was there. It paid well but on my breaks I was writing down what I would do in the future – I was looking to start any business.”
By now he was married to Jan and, while out on a run together, she suggested he would be great at personal training, motivating others to achieve their goals. “I was always good at talking to people and training them at work – helping them follow procedure, pay attention to detail and so on,” says Alexander. “On our run Jan said: ‘You would be quite good at this – you’re good at explaining things and people would look up to you doing it.’ I am a man of action rather than words, so I researched career paths, how to be a manager at a gym, how to start a business.”
And so the long, difficult journey to starting elite began. Weekends were spent travelling to Manchester, having invested £6,000 to gain qualifications in fitness instruction, including nutrition and psychology.
During the week, his long shifts at GlaxoSmithKline ended with him climbing into his Nissan Micra and driving more than an hour to Newcastle to deliver free training to people in his own time and at his own expense to get experience.
“People thought I was a bit crazy,” he recalls. “Friends would go drinking at the weekend whereas I would be at my old schoolyard training my pal – even if it was pouring with rain I didn’t care because I knew it was the step I had to take.”
Jan was then working as a nanny in Newcastle and they had moved north to be closer to her job, even though it meant a 4am start for Alexander to get to GlaxoSmithKline. Then came the opportunity he was looking for. He managed to get redundancy and threw himself into fitness. He had already dreamed up the brand elite but still wasn’t quite in a position to launch the business.
“I started in a church hall in Newcastle,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone.
“I bought 10,000 flyers and delivered them myself. A mate and my brother spent weeks going around with me, but I just got three responses.
“It was costing me more to hire the village hall, but I was determined not to lose these three people and to make it the best boxercise session I could. Word got around and it grew to a class of 35.
“From there, I upsold personal training sessions to some of them and ended up with some really good clients.”
Jan was now pregnant with Ollie and lost her job, which gave Alexander no option but to turn elite into a proper business. He opened his first studio in Newcastle in 2014, crowdfunding from existing clients, persuading them to pay a year’s subscription up front so he could train them in a better environment and give them a better experience.
“I never had any loans,” he says. “I’d heard about this tactic through an audiobook in my car. If you have a lot of passionate fans out there, use them to help and it worked really well.”
Things began to take off and it was the launch of his “elite:transform” programme, which in turn transformed Alexander’s life and business. The six-week programme is designed to help people lose 20lbs or more in a healthy, controlled way but also set them up to carry through its ethos for the rest of their life, using social media to encourage them.
He took a huge gamble by charging £228 but offering a no strings full refund if they achieved their goal. Some do – £189,000 was refunded last year – but then they can’t use elite for three months. Most clients stay on.
“Nobody was really doing what I was doing then – posting before and after pictures – I created a process of social proof to build clients and something special,” he says. “I messaged personal friends and started with nine people and it was great. It was a risk because it could have bankrupted me, but I had faith and people loved it – if they lost a stone great, 20lbs brilliant. They told their pals and I thought they would be crazy to leave and it grew from that.
“You’ve got to deliver – gimmicks like diet shakes make me laugh. It is about mindset, nutrition, exercise – getting into someone’s head. I could sit for an hour a day and convince them – that is what it’s all about for me and the team.”
In Cramlington, 1,136 clients went through the programme last year with an average of 900 clients signing up every seven months across the studios. Once “transform” is complete, clients can move on to “elite:fusion”, more intensive training focused on the way people look and feel rather than the number on the scales and there is “elite:challenge”, which – in conjunction with travel company Rare Adventures – takes people up mountains and into various fitness challenges across the world.
And he is planning to set up an elite foundation to support charities, with clients getting a say on where the cash goes.
Alexander lights up as he talks about his successes – saying 85% of clients achieve their goal – with the record loss a staggering 215lbs. “One lady lost 100lbs through the programme and has just climbed Kilimanjaro with her husband,” he says. “She was at the top of the world. It changed her life.
“I have big dreams. I want people to be the best versions of themselves. I am so passionate about being the best you can be. Not everyone can be an Olympian – it doesn’t matter what you do in fitness, work, family or health, you can still be the best version of you that you can be.
“I want elite to become a national brand – people to associate elite as the place to go to change their lives. No gimmicks, it is a mindset and lifestyle change. We don’t believe in pills and potions – people need to have a beer or pizza at the weekend to enjoy themselves.”
For the first time he is considering outside investment to get the business to grow more quickly – “I believe we could and possibly should be opening 50 studios a year” – while elite has developed its own nutrition brand and clothing range, though Alexander is more concerned with focusing on the business core strengths for now.
“You go to a typical gym and most have the same ethos, all muscles and six-packs,” he says. “But elite is accessible for people who maybe don’t have the confidence for that sort of thing.
“We’re changing the way people think about themselves. We make the impossible possible for ordinary people.”
Alexander has his hands full with Ollie, eight, and Henry, five. Both are lively young lads – doing well despite their cerebral palsy – and their dad bursts with pride as he talks about the impact they have had on his life. “What they have been through is ruthless,” he says. “It is difficult having two children with special needs – if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have pushed myself so hard.
“Both were born premature. I used to drive into the hospital car park every day for 117 days when Ollie was born and 80 days with Henry and being terrified of what I might find when walking into the special care unit – it gave me the drive, created something different in me.
“I have been in such a scary position so many times with the boys that I am not scared of anything else. Jan is a fantastic wife and mum – the boys are doing well. They are fighters, our superheroes, and we have to fight for them.”
Alexander often does the school run and makes sure weekends are family time.
“I make time work for me. If I don’t have time to exercise I will bike to work or run in with a rucksack on my back.”
Ah, the rucksack, where it all began. Now filled with memories and a business going places with an entrepreneur in Alexander passionate to take it as far as he can.
“What we do is the opposite of a gym,” he says. “We don’t simply train your body, we train your mind. It is about a new way to see health, fitness and well-being, designed for everyone.”