Wife, mother and serial entrepreneur, Yemi Penn runs a London-based F45 Training franchise from her Sydney home 10,000 miles away. But her journey to success has been far from smooth
Could you run a franchise from 10,000 miles away? Yemi Penn has been doing so with exceptional success for the past two years. But then she is an exceptional woman.
Moving to Australia from London’s Brixton five years ago to start a new life after what she described as “messing up big time”, 38-year-old Yemi became a high achiever, creating thriving coaching and engineering consultancies.
But when it came to signing up with the fast-growing fitness franchise F45 Training, she made the unexpected decision to base it back in Brixton. And it works.
Franchisee from afar
“I can hear the disbelief in your voice,” says Yemi, on the line from Sydney. “I obviously had to make some changes when COVID came along and now have a managing partner on board.
“Normally I shuttle between the UK and Australia and would have been in London for two months last April had it not been for the pandemic. I obviously keep a careful eye on what’s happening in Brixton, but not to the point of micromanagement. The important thing is to harness the skill sets of the people you work with.
“You’ve also got to acknowledge that at some point they will probably leave. You should focus on how long they are going to stay and make life as good as possible for them while they are with you.
“What makes F45 different from other gyms? I tried several of the other systems and realised F45 was designed to use technology to bring the community together and was one of the first to do that.
“Another thing that attracted me is that the head office is continually asking: ‘What can we do better?’ They have a hunger for continual improvement.”
Trials and tribulations
Now a multiple entrepreneur with three thriving businesses, Yemi tells the story of her often harrowing journey to her present success with an unhesitating frankness.
“Of course I’ll talk about it,” she says. “If my story helps anyone deal with their own problems, then that’s absolutely fine. When I look back on my trials and tribulations, I don’t think my hunger to succeed would have been so strong if I had security.”
It’s a story of overcoming the trauma of being turned out of the family home after becoming pregnant, spending nights on the streets and in rundown hostels while trying to complete an engineering degree. A story of divorce and failed relationships, becoming what she describes as “a broken, vulnerable, depressed individual”.
You’d never guess. Today, Yemi is fulfilled, easy-going, friendly and confident, passionate about her mission to transform people’s mental and physical health, happily in love and anxious to stress that if you want to do something you invariably can. “I don’t think women know how powerful they are,” she says.
Moving around the globe
Yemi spent her childhood in Nigeria, where she went to boarding school and moved to London with her family as a teenager. There were problems when she told her father she didn’t want to follow in his footsteps and study law and far more serious ones when at 24 she became pregnant.
“I was in love with my partner, but we weren’t going to get married and my parents didn’t approve,” Yemi says. “My mum told me to move out and get myself together. To my parents, you just didn’t have a child out of wedlock so I moved out, registered as homeless and eventually got social housing.
“I was angry and frustrated at the time, but I believe most things happen for us, not to us, so I don’t have any resentment now.”
Yemi stumbled on engineering after finding she enjoyed putting together an IKEA desk and, despite her daunting personal problems, got a first-class mechanical engineering degree at Brunel University.
“I’m an engineer by profession and an entrepreneur by passion,” Yemi says.
Later she moved to Japan, where her entrepreneurial instincts took over: she taught herself hairdressing and sold hair products. She married and in 2012 had a second child, but the marriage didn’t last.
“I felt like a failure again,” Yemi says. “Then the opportunity came to move to Australia for engineering work on large railway infrastructure projects, so I took it. I was 32, my daughter was seven and my son was seven months, so on paper people must have thought I was absolutely mad.”
Looking back, Yemi says a new country and a new outlook on life was just what she needed. Within five years of arriving as an immigrant, she had started her own engineering consultancy, which was making over £650,000 a year, a coaching business and bought an F45 franchise business in London.
I loved the concept
Fitness had been part of Yemi’s lifestyle since university: “Everyone looked pretty and trim and I realised I had to change how I felt about myself - until then, exercise wasn’t something I’d paid much attention to. Then I really got into it and remember thinking: ‘I’d love to have my own gym’.
“F45 in Sydney was recommended by a friend and to say I loved it was an understatement. It offered much more than conventional gyms by combining high-intensity interval training workouts, which were accessible to people of all fitness abilities.
“I also loved the fact that there were no mirrors and I didn’t have to battle with low self-esteem - and even though it hurt like hell, I vowed I would come back.
“After I started my engineering and coaching businesses, I began to think seriously about opening an F45 gym 10,000 miles away in London - in Brixton, where I used to live. All the voices in my head said: ‘You don’t live in London any more - how are you going to do that?’ That’s when I decided to test everything I had been learning to become a coach.
“I told myself: ‘Yemi, if you open this business remotely you truly are worthy to be able to harness the power and all the tools you’ve got to help other people transform their lives.’ It’s a franchise, but I wanted that because I hadn’t ever done business to that capacity. It’s been great, but not without its challenges.”
In September 2018, Yemi’s dream finally came true.
“I just stood in awe as I saw over 100 people come in to train in my gym,” she says. “It was real and a physical manifestation of what can be achieved through hard work, tenacity, having faith and being resourceful.
“To have achieved this while solo parenting on the other side of the world was truly amazing,” Yemi admits she didn’t write a business plan for any of her successful enterprises.
“I typically chose the business that will have the greatest impact and give me the biggest reward by way of satisfaction, accomplishment and finances,” she says.
Filling a gap in the market
She’s got it right. The brainchild of Australian former equities trader Rob Deutsch, F45 is one of the world’s fastest-growing franchises and a result of spotting a gap in the health and fitness market.
He believed the best training was simple, effective and, most importantly, enjoyable. Drawing on a bank of more than 3,000 exercises, the high-intensity training on offer changes daily, working every muscle group and energy system in deliberate phases throughout the year.
Rob says: “People were turning up to normal commercial gyms with very little innovation and results. They turn up on average once a month and that’s really bad in terms of how much usage they get out of it.”
F45’s pioneering approach was based on the formula that variation plus motivation plus innovation equals results. In stark white studios, clients exercise in front of huge plasma screens showing 45-minute workouts. The atmosphere is designed to be non-intimidating and caters for all ages and levels.
“One day you train like an American quarterback and perhaps the next day you train like a surfer,” Rob says. “We’re the Apple store of the health and fitness scene.”
The first studio opened in Sydney in 2012 and the concept was franchised a year later, coming to the UK in 2017.
Rob believes the franchise’s runaway success is all about serious health and fitness, but also keeping things balanced and fun. As he says: “If that includes enjoying the odd glass of wine at weekends, so be it.”
Wife, mother, serial entrepreneur and owner of three successful businesses, Yemi’s working day starts around 5.30 am with a 30-45-minute workout and runs on high octane from then on.
She says she relaxes by sitting on the beach watching the waves, but we wonder how long it takes before superwoman is on the move again.
Yemi’s words of wisdom
What do you enjoy most about being a franchisee?
It’s like dipping your toe into the pool of entrepreneurship, but not your whole foot! Somebody else has thought about all the hard work and the risk and has created a model you can actually make better. People say you want to work smart or you want to work hard. Owning a franchise allows both, especially one that’s a proven model like F45. With this franchise, there’s a sense of community and you know you’ve got backing, which is more comfortable than going on your own in the beginning.
What’s your proudest achievement?
Setting up my own engineering consultancy in Sydney. Growing up, most of us are told there is only one way to succeed, although I’m sure there’s a whole world out there where people are told something different. I was told you had to get a job and work nine to five. To shift out of that mindset and be able to create my own business - initially as the only employee and eventually with two others - opened up a completely new world to me. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t now have F45.
And your greatest challenge?
The first was myself - trying to unlearn all the things I had been told. The second was funding - that was the biggest thing.
There’s no greater oxymoron out there than going to a
bank and getting them to believe in you and your vision to loan you the money before you have the chance to show them how trustworthy you are.
For me, with my background and my story, the periods of homelessness and not having any generational wealth behind me, that was tough.
Biggest lesson learned?
I’m not going to be the first person nor the last to start a business who has come from humble beginnings That was the biggest lesson.
You start a business, whether it’s taking up a franchise or something new, and it can be so uncomfortable and you think you’re the only one going through that. I think there’s some comfort in knowing that others have done it before.
What advice would you give to a younger you?
Be unapologetically fearless. What I mean by that is, unless someone’s going to die, go for it. Now more than ever we can see how vulnerable life is, so you’ve got to give it a go.
Top tip for someone wanting to invest in a franchise? Scrutinise the model, especially the cost model you have been given. Find extreme versions of the franchises that interest you - those that are doing well and those that aren’t doing so well - and figure out where you want to fit between those two extremes.
You have to imagine you’re a franchisee and your business is struggling. How would you get out of it? Prepare for the worst and anticipate how you would deal with it.
An award-winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport.