Fitness has historically been viewed as a luxury in South Africa, with gym membership limited to a select few. Add a diet of highly processed foods and it’s not surprising 28.3% of South African adults are obese (World Health Organisation). Itumeleng (Tumi) Phake, 2017 Small Business category winner of the Entrepreneur of the Year Competition, sponsored by Sanlam and Business Partners, hopes to change that with the help of his business, Zenzele Fitness.
While working in the corporate sector as a banker, Tumi (35) encountered the on-site corporate gym facilities and an idea was born. “I worked for seven years in banking and investment and while I was there, I was struck by the great business opportunity to start a fitness group that supplies fitness equipment and infrastructure to large corporate groups with 1 000 employees or more.”
The business case was certainly solid, as improving employee wellness and engagement is an inherent element of most employer value propositions. “By offering employees the convenience of training at their workplace – at an affordable rate – they are more likely to use the facilities, which translates to a good return on investment for the employer,” adds Tumi.
Four and a half years after leaving the corporate sector to start Zenzele Fitness, Tumi can boast 13 thriving fitness clubs and the vision to have over 100 clubs within the next 10 to 15 years. “We started out by approaching large corporate groups, but I soon realised that there were many other institutions with large ‘captive audiences’, such as universities and government institutions. This led to us opening clubs at the University of the Witwatersrand and Rand Refinery.”
However, Zenzele wasn’t an overnight success story and Tumi spent many sleepless nights in the early days of the business. “It was very difficult to raise awareness in the beginning and, because I was targeting all the big corporate companies, that made things even harder. I had raised investments of about R5 million prior to starting the business, but that placed me under immense pressure from my investors to generate business. I don’t think I really slept at all for the first six months,” he laughs.
After a tough first year, Tumi finally landed his first client, South African Breweries (SAB), and things finally started to fall into place. “Today I have top publicly listed companies, such as ABSA and Discovery, as my clients, but it’s important to remember where it all began,” he says.
Zenzele (which means “do it yourself” in isiNdebele) employs 80 full-time staff members at its 13 clubs and focuses on three pillars, namely health, technology and joy. Zenzele uses the My Wellness Cloud-based application to collect information on the indoor and outdoor fitness activities of its club users. “From the outset, we have emphasised the technology element, as our clients are generally tech-savvy, and the information that we receive from the technology allows us to report back to our clients on the fitness activity of their employees, which, in turn, strengthens our business case,” says Tumi.
Tumi has learnt many business lessons along the way, with one of the most important being that nothing is cast in stone. “It’s so vital to be versatile and flexible when you start a business. Things can change so quickly and what is put down on paper often doesn’t translate to reality. You must be open and responsive to change,” he says.
Another lesson was the importance of managing people correctly. “As an entrepreneur, your primary focus tends to be on getting more business and being financially successful, but I learnt early on that I had to lead and invest in the people that I had hired. Zenzele is only successful because of the people that I employ, and I work hard to create a good working culture and environment,” he says.
Tumi admits that he is very conscious of the need for him to remain active (“It’s my whole business concept!”) and he trains at least five times a week in the early mornings, doing a mix of weight training and cardio fitness. “I also really enjoy basketball,” he says.
Winning the 2017 Small Business category of the Entrepreneur of the Year Competition, sponsored by Sanlam and Business Partners, has given Tumi the opportunity to tell his story about his journey as an entrepreneur. “I want people to know that I literally started this business from an idea. I was determined to make it work, so I worked very hard, even when there were setbacks. I hope this inspires other entrepreneurs to do the same,” he says.
Entering the competition also introduced him to his fellow competitors, which were “all businesses of very high calibre”. “I was incredibly impressed by the business that I found myself in. These were real businesses with solid financials and sound structures. It is clear that Sanlam is committed to fostering good, sustainable entrepreneurship,” he says.
Besides opening many more clubs in South Africa, Tumi is passionately committed to what he calls ‘legacy creation’. “I want Zenzele to still be thriving in 50 years’ time when I’m not around. I want to have founded a great business that has created employment and helped to make South Africans healthier and happier,” he says. With a business goal like that, it’s hard not to wish Tumi all the success in the world.