In a special issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs magazine, we sat down with Peter Roberts to look back at his entrepreneurial career so far.
Peter was one of 14 people inducted into the Great British Entrepreneurs Champions Hall of Fame in association with NatWest and JD&Co, a brand new initiative led by the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
When you’ve had as much success in your entrepreneurial journey as Peter Roberts has, you could probably imagine a plethora of reasons why you might get out of bed every day. For the PureGym founder and former CEO, his biggest reason is the excitement of supporting young entrepreneurs and helping them on the path to their own success.
It has been a long path to where Peter is today. Often bottom of his classes at school as a child, he says it spurred him to do better and strive for success in adulthood. But entrepreneurship is something he feels he was destined for. “My father and uncle were great entrepreneurs themselves, so I thought it was a bit more in the genes,” Peter explains.
“Sadly they both died when I still quite young. I was left on my own and it was sink or swim. I suppose they are the main reasons that I was determined to get on and do things.”
With Peter’s entrepreneurial father and uncle no longer around to inspire and guide him, he is very thankful to have had a “great mentor”, “a man who mentored me socially and financially and was very keen to help young people and young businesses”.
It was quite some time before Peter started his entrepreneurial endeavours, though. He recalls: “I qualified as a chartered surveyor and got a good and steady job, becoming a senior partner of the surveying firm before I left and went on my own doing entrepreneurial things.”
Unlike many entrepreneurs today, Peter looks back fondly at his employment as a young adult. “I think it’s really important to get that grounding. It can be tough [as an entrepreneur] and you can make mistakes, but if you have a qualification to fall back on, it’s certainly safer.”
Peter has spent most of his entrepreneurial career in the leisure industry, running hotels, pubs, restaurants, resorts, and nightclubs, starting up and selling eight different businesses. Looking back, he says finance and naivety about running a business were his biggest challenges.
“When I started in the 70s, getting funding was very difficult indeed. And I think naivety and a lack of knowledge working in business [was a problem]. I had to do a lot off my own back – just the fact that I hadn’t worked in business [was a challenge]. What I find now, as well, is that entrepreneurs probably know their subject very well, but haven’t had the benefit of knowledge of running and setting up a business.”
Fast forward to 2008 and a single drink in the pub led to the creation of what is seen as the biggest disrupter of the gym market, PureGym. Peter explains: “I met someone in a pub who asked if I’d heard of low-cost gyms. I’d been in the gym market before as a director of a mid-mark company, so I was intrigued.”
Requiring very few employees and no cash handling, Peter thought the concept of a low-cost gym was too good to be true. Having just exited his business at the time, Peter had the freedom to jump on a plane to Germany and the US to do his own research on the idea.
“I spent the next few months doing my research. I assembled a team and wrote a business plan, got some shareholders – I was fortunate enough to have done that process before – and I was able to get some pure start-up money,” Peter says.
That meeting in a pub took place in early 2008, and within a year Peter and his team were opening the first gyms. Having secured start-up funding, PureGym was able to open with four gyms in four different areas; residential, city centre, retail park and in a business area. They didn’t know which would be best suited to this type of gym, and “all four of them worked, much to my surprise”, Peter says. A decade on, PureGym has more than 240 locations across the UK and more than one million members – 50% more than its nearest competitor.
Peter stepped down as PureGym CEO before it was sold to US private equity fund Leonard Green & Partners for £600 million in 2017. In a previous interview with clic.co.uk, he explained that running a large organisation “does not marry up to suit his expertise”. It seems, then, that Peter feels most at home during the start-up phase; researching an idea and building it from scratch.
Perhaps that is why his time is now focused on the next generation. A core group of 13 different young entrepreneurs receive a combination of individual mentoring, investment and Peter’s expertise as a board member.
Peter explains: “My own focus now is a business called Gymfinity Kids, with my old PureGym team. I’m a non-executive, but the team is there and I’m certainly involved.”
Peter’s core group of young entrepreneurs involved him on a regular basis. He continues: “I think where I can add value is that I’ve been over the jumps quite a few times, so I know the potential bear traps, and hopefully I can guide these young entrepreneurs in areas they have no experience in.”
And it’s here that Peter’s passion lies. After decades of success with several different ventures, he finds the most energy from supporting others: “It excites me and gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning.”
“I have some board positions, and I’ve invested in around 90% of them. It’s a combination which actually excites me a lot. I love working with these young entrepreneurs who have great ideas. They know a lot about their subject, but what they don’t have is the benefit of what else goes on outside their direct business, where they have to be careful and where they can take risks.
“On a personal basis, so many people helped me when I was in that position, they helped to shape my career and the success that I’ve had. On a wider note, the growth and spirit of this country are being developed by these young entrepreneurs running businesses. I see the enthusiasm of the young to succeed and to develop their business and it’s absolutely amazing.”