Virgin Active – The Beginning

Back in the summer of 2007 I had just graduated with an Honours Degree from Queen Mary, University of London. Despite having spent the prior four years accruing tertiary level education, and gaining fluency in an additional foreign language, I knew where my heart laid: in the Health & Fitness Industry!

See, at the age of just 17, I had told my family of my desire to become a Personal Trainer… and it went down like a lead balloon! I was left with an ultimatum: go off to university and have the support of my family… or pursue my dream, but be left to fend for myself. Kind of a raw deal, but I tried to look at the silver-lining; in honouring their wishes, I could venture off on a four year adventure that would inevitably be a lot of fun, and just put my dreams on the backburner temporarily (of course, my family didn’t need to know my real plans!).

In my final year at uni, I’d bought Richard Branson’s autobiography: Losing My Virginity, and as if I didn’t admire the man enough already, it just reinforced a number of principles that I already believed in – having the spirit of entrepreneurship, being fearlessly creative, and quixotically innovative! I decided that I wanted to be part of a big name company that embodied these principles, but also had to remain true to myself and reclaim my dream of being in the Health & Fitness Industry. Fortunately, one of Richie B’s main companies is Virgin Active – the gym/health club branch of his business. So, this was a win-win!

‘It became apparent that I was something of an outlier in the industry early on…’

I put in my application and within just a couple of days got a call to come in for an interview; I was invited in and put through their interview/screening process whereby they try to determine if you have “Virgin DNA” – in other words, do you as a person embody the principles and beliefs of the Virgin brand (specifically, the Virgin Active brand). I knew I was right at home (just I had known back when I interviewed at Queen Mary a number of years prior), and flew through the entire process with flying colours.

After the initial process you have to pass a phone interview (with your prospective Club’s General Manager), and finally, one last in-person interview. By the end of the week, I was on payroll.

My initial role was that of Fitness Advisor – essentially, my job was to sell gym memberships. The tricky part was that my club – based in Barbican (on the cusp of the City of London) – hadn’t hit their monthly Sales Targets in several months… But after my second month there, we were smashing through our Targets by such huge margins that by the following year the Head Office (which was [conveniently] located next door to our club) had to reassess our Targets and give us more “aggressive” goals.

It became apparent that I was something of an outlier in the industry early on; my biggest asset when it came to “the sales part” was knowing what the heck I was talking about! See, my colleagues were all charming, silver-tongued wheeler-dealers who put up decent numbers on a consistent basis, but they blagged their way through every single Tour, and pretty much just schmoozed the prospect until they signed. Meanwhile, I impressed with extensive knowledge that was way beyond what a “Sales Rep” should possibly know about exercise and fitness.

‘I was already managing relations with some of London’s biggest firms/banks…’

I’d been “gym-ing” for several years at that point, and one thing I now had access to that I didn’t before: an entire team of Personal Trainers whose brains I could pick to my hearts content! I would do Kettlebell Training with Nik, Hypertrophy with Liam & Jimmy (my tank-sized buddies from Down Under), Functional/MMA-based training with Leon and Mak, and Endurance work with Verona. Suddenly, my already modest knowledge base when it came to Fitness was exploding tenfold! The more I learned (in theory, and applied in practice), the better my numbers got – I was a Top Performer until the day I left.

But before that day I arrived, I was to see my responsibilities increase significantly; about 80% of our membership base (at our particular club) was comprised of lawyers and investment bankers between the age of 25 and 50ish… So, dealing with high-strung, über-meticulous professionals with the absolute highest standards became my day-to-day, but my role was to take on new dimensions as I took on Corporate Relations with huge firms like DLA Piper, Cameron McKenna, Fortis Bank, and even Deutsche Bank.

Within just a few months of being there I was already managing relations with some of London’s biggest firms/banks, and I was on a “first-name-basis” with VA’s Upper Management who I saw several times per week. One thing that pleasantly surprised me was when I met the Regional Head of Corporate Accounts [at the time] (who went on to become the UK National Corporate Sales Manager)… see, she had been the very same person that I had my very first interview with – the one who had assessed whether I had “Virgin DNA”; so it was refreshing to see that even someone that high up in the business still “got down in the trenches” and would take an active role in seeking out new members for the Tribe.

‘One of my “golden nuggets” was an idea that I pitched to the [former] UK Managing Director…’

But okay, you’re probably wondering: ‘Yeah, yeah Chris – that’s great! You were a shining star in Sales, but weren’t you supposed to become a Personal Trainer?’ Well… that was the idea. However, a lesson I’d learned from my brother around the time that I hit 20 was that if you want to be an entrepreneur, you bloody well better know how to run a business!

So, again my dream of being a Personal Trainer was to take a slight backseat… However, I was in the right environment, learning from several top level trainers under the same roof, staying active about six days a week, and continuing to learn as much as I could about healthy eating as well as supplements. All this on top of getting an on-the-pulse, live-action, gold-standard crash course in Sales, Business, Administration, Accounting and Corporate Relations… at one of the biggest companies in the world… for FREE!! Like many decisions I’ve made in my life – it seemed insane to others, but made perfect sense to me!

What proved to be a lot of fun was being encouraged to come up with innovative and creative ideas for Marketing and “Ambient Media”. One of my “golden nuggets” was an idea that I pitched to the [former] UK Managing Director, and that idea was one of making branded stress balls to hand out at the investment banks and law firms when we went on Corporate Outreach.

He loved the idea, and by the end of the month, we had thousands of them ready to hand out. Thing is, most businesses would leave you pens (which would normally get tossed or lost), and we knew that flyers were going to wind up as paper airplanes in the bin, so we were challenged to come up with something unique – something that people would actually keep around and interact with, but would be a constant [passive but visual] reminder of our brand… so, what better gift to give professionals who are among the most highly stressed in the city?

‘… I have no doubt that I’d have a seat at the “Big Boys/Girls Table”…’

By 2009 though, I felt I had developed the skills I needed, and was in search of a fresh challenge – a new adventure. One day – while on my break – I was scrolling through my “Wall” on Facebook, and on the sidebar there was an ad that caught my eye: Want to Teach English in Korea and Earn £X,XXX/month? I thought, ‘Ya know what? That actually sounds pretty cool!’… so, within a few months, I was suddenly on a plane to South Korea! More on that in another post though.

What I was leaving behind at that particular point in my life was one of the very FEW things in my life that I’ve ever thought ‘What if…?’ about… and this was something of an epic trifecta!

See, not long after I’d seen that Facebook ad, clicked on it, started looking into visas (and applying for them), I had been in a couple of meetings with Regional Management – we were planning out the future for myself and an old colleague of mine (the other “big hitter” who I’d worked with side by side to turn our club’s Sales performance around). He and I had big things lined up: six months down the road, we were to be made the Managers of the two major corporate clubs of the entire VA roster (Barbican and Moorgate), and if we continued to perform like we had been doing so to that point, then there would be Regional positions with our names on them within just a year or two of that! Not too shabby! And this was almost a decade ago (aged just 24 at the time)… so, by this point [in 2018] – had I stayed with the company – I have no doubt that I’d have a seat at the “Big Boys/Girls Table” (i.e. rocking a Director-level role).

Not long after these talks, another huge opportunity came up whereby I was given the option to “stay the course” [that had been laid out just weeks prior]… or… head up Sales in the new venture that saw Virgin Active set up in Dubai. Now, my brother had actually been very successful in his earlier years when he started a business in Dubai, so I knew I had some insider experience / connections that I could tap into if I wanted/needed, however, the opportunity just wasn’t for me at the time. As fate would have it though, the Dubai setup wasn’t successful in the end.

But those weren’t the only illustrious career paths that I was steering away from…

‘… I’ve always believed that other opportunities will come around.’

Before word had spread of my impending departure (news of which I’d played close to the chest), I was asked by one of the Heads of Corporate Accounts if I’d applied for ‘THE Position’… Now, I’m not easily confused, but having someone from the Upper Echelons of the company asking if I’d applied for any job (other than the one I was doing) seemed a tad odd to me. So, I asked what she meant….

Turns out, while I had been applying for my visas, negotiating contracts (with my Korean employers) and looking into flights, I had completely missed the news of one of the hottest job opportunities that anyone in the Tribe could have possibly wished for: the chance of becoming Richard Branson’s Personal Assistant!! To be able to travel the world with one of the most successful businessmen on the planet and aid him in his day-to-day dealings, and just be able to learn from an absolute master… I already looked up to him as a mentor, but this way he would have been one in person!

Alas, I had been unaware of the posting for this position – it was on Virgin’s intraweb (for Tribe members – i.e. company employees – only). The member of Upper Management who I was talking to told me that I’d be perfect for the role, and that she’d personally put forward a recommendation if I wanted… It was one of those moments where the world seems to spin a little faster, and you can’t quite believe what’s happening (but in a good way).

I was gutted to find out that the deadline for applying had passed literally that very same morning, but I had come to terms with it very quickly – after all, life was taking me around the world anyway. Granted, this was a [very literal] dream job, but I’ve always believed that other opportunities will come around. But it was so reaffirming to know that I had people in high places who truly believed in me!

CXP Watermark (Black) for Instagram

So, that was it – the beginning of my journey in the world of Health & Fitness started in Sales, evolved into Corporate Relations, and almost wound up with me becoming the PA of a billionaire! The opportunity to be in that environment at such a young age, absorb the knowledge of several amazingly talented Trainers, and see just how a top calibre Fitness business is supposed to run is something I will always value, and never forget.

Well, that’s it for that chapter of my past. I hope I didn’t bore you to death! (Just kidding!). But really, if you actually read to the end of this, then I really appreciate it! That tells me that you are truly interested in getting to know me, which is important to me because while I want you to follow what I say and put into action all the tips and advice I give regarding health & wellness, I also want you to know who you’re dealing with too: I’m just a normal guy, with a wealth of experience, who has had some amazing opportunities in life, and I have a passion for helping others; and sharing my expertise seems to be the best way I know how to achieve that.

So, thanks again for “staying the course” – I’ll catch you in my next post where we’ll be discussing the myths and legends of Hollywood-bods in yet another informative CXP Fitness article.

In the meantime, remember to Train Hard and Train Smart!

 

Yours in Training,

 

Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO

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