Looking for a business to run together, former army officers Mark and Rachel Coldham were drawn to The Massage Company’s pioneering membership model
Mark and Rachel Coldham never really meant to become franchisees. They were army officers who had seen service in some of the world’s worst trouble spots, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and never imagined they would swap the military for, of all things, massage. But that’s what happened and they’ve never looked back.
They have ploughed £500,000 into a state-of-the-art massage centre in High Wycombe, the second of The Massage Company’s fast-growing chain of franchises, which is pioneering a membership-based massage service designed to become part of a healthy lifestyle.
Mark remembers: “After we left the army, we were looking for a business we could run together and for years we discussed one idea after another, but nothing really inspired us. We wanted a project we could call our own - something we could put our energy, skills and hearts into. And when the right thing came along, it was by complete accident.”
How they met and married
Mark and Rachel met at Sandhurst’s Royal Military Academy in 2005, before joining the Royal Artillery. “We knew each other, but we weren’t a couple or anything,” Mark says.
That came later after they had both left the army for careers in programme management and consulting. Mark’s focus was on managing major projects like the London 2012 Summer Olympics and Heathrow’s Terminal 2, while Rachel specialised in the financial services sector, particularly digital transformation.
Meeting up again in 2015 and marrying two years later, a joint business project with a good work-life balance seemed a logical next step. “We wanted something we could call our own - something we could make into a ‘forever job’,” Mark says.
Rachel had a young son and they wanted a family life free from the daily London commute. “We agreed not to take the plunge until we found something we could be passionate about and believe in,” Mark explains. “Franchising was not something we had seriously considered - we were still thinking about starting a business from scratch.”
An advert seen by accident
That changed dramatically when serendipity came in the form of an advert for The Massage Company’s franchise opportunity, which was seen by accident while looking for programme management roles online.
“We had thought about the wellness industry and particularly massage because both of us had suffered sports injuries in the past and knew what a difference good quality massage can make,” Mark says.
The spa and wellness industries have grown so rapidly over the past 20 years that it’s hard to believe that in 1995 there were only 25 spas in the UK. Now there are over 1,000.
Mark and Rachel soon spotted that what made The Massage Company different from other businesses was that it was solely focused on providing massage through a membership model that made it both affordable and convenient. There was also the added bonus that it had been proved a franchisee had the potential to build a £1 million-plus turnover business in only four years.
“We were both keen runners and healthy eaters, but the problems of setting up an independent wellness massage business seemed daunting and The Massage Company seemed too interesting not to explore,” Mark says.
High quality massage to the mainstream
The company’s first massage centre had been opened the previous year in Camberley, Surrey by founders Charlie Thompson, UK Spa Association chair, and Elliot Walker, the former managing director of skincare company Murad, to provide US-style quality treatments in a no-frills environment. The message was simple: bring high-quality massage to the mainstream.
Both Elliot and Charlie had many years’ experience in the spa, well-being and fitness sectors and knew the potential: US consumers spend $11-$12 billion a year on massage therapy services and many are franchises.
Elliot says: “We realised that membership-based massage was big business in the States, with over 2,500 successful centres. Like a gym subscription is here, a massage subscription is already part of the US psyche. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen in the UK.”
When Elliot and Charlie researched the market, they realised there was nothing like the US model in the UK.
“The UK takes inspiration from US trends every 10 or 15 years and we realised that if you create a membership model with a really good quality and service of massage you can make something which is a scalable business, otherwise it’s a relatively small operation,” Elliot says.
“We focus on the four most popular types of massage in the industry so that we can offer really good quality. We built a training academy so that all our therapists can go through a certified programme and customers know they can trust the quality of the brand.
“The feedback we get shows that what we’re offering can change people’s lives. Our aim is to transform massage from an occasional luxury treat into a routine part of a healthy life.”
Taking a leap of faith
When Mark contacted The Massage Company, he wanted straight answers and got them.
“The more we poked, the more we prodded and the more we challenged the business, the more our confidence grew on how the model was put together,” he says.
“We decided to go in with Charlie and Elliot and it was quite a leap of faith to believe in the model enough to sign on the dotted line. But we did and we became their second franchisees in December 2017.”
The leap got even bolder when Mark and Rachel took the decision to plough around £500,000 into the new venture by investing in a Grade II listed building in Castle Street, High Wycombe and converting it into a 13-room treatment centre that would create new jobs in the town.
“The building had originally been a priory and was a derelict shell when we acquired it,” Mark says. “We had to do a massive transformation, which included completely redesigning it and building it up from nothing. We did the whole job in about six weeks and opened for business in April 2019. Looking back, I don’t know how we did it.”
The difference massage can make
The Massage Company model promotes the difference that good quality massage can make - not just for sporting injuries, but to ease a huge range of conditions from musculoskeletal problems to reducing stress and anxiety.
“The way the system works is that you come for an introductory massage and then join our membership, which gives you a massage every month,” Mark explains. It’s like a gym subscription. What that means from a business perspective is that I’ve now got 400 members and give nearly 700 massages a month. By the end of the year, we hope to have doubled that.
“Obviously, there’s a certain amount of investment upfront to build the centre, but once you hit a certain number of massages a month it becomes a very attractive business proposition.
“For instance, the Camberley centre, which is three years ahead of us, has over 1,000 members and is giving 1,300 massages a month. At that point, it becomes a really viable proposition.”
The High Wycombe centre offers a range of Swedish, maternity, deep tissue and sports massages, with the emphasis on regular 50-minute sessions for a healthier and happier lifestyle.
The Minimum total amount required for a Massage Company franchise is £250,000, but franchise fees and building costs can push total investment higher. There’s comprehensive training for franchisees and staff, plus regular updates at the company’s training academy.
Elliot accepts that on their first visit the majority of customers aren’t expecting to make massage part of their regular routine: “We’re just showing them that for a reasonable amount of money they can afford to have a monthly treatment that will bring definite health benefits, both mental and physical, including back pain, for which massage is now recognised by the NHS as an effective treatment.
“The industry has come a long way and we have a 10-year plan to develop the franchise to become the largest providers of massage in the UK and deliver hundreds of thousands of massages a month.
“There’s no reason why that can’t happen because at the moment there’s effectively no competition as nobody else is offering a membership massage model in the UK, so our task is to continue to grow the market and ensure our standards and quality of treatment are kept exceptionally high.”
Changing the cultural perception
Mark agrees that the franchise’s approach is changing the cultural perception of massage in the UK: “In this country, massage has previously been seen as one of two extremes: one is the luxury treat end of the market, where someone might go for a spa weekend and have a massage, while at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got sports people who get massages for a specific need.
“You’ve also got 95 per cent of the population who are carrying their children, who are working too many hours, hunched over a desktop, driving their cars a lot, putting stress into their bodies and having no remedy for any of this on a regular basis because they believe massage is unattainable - both cost and time-wise.”
He says The Massage Company has changed the availability of massage by:
• Guaranteeing quality by employing only the highest trained therapists and using the latest techniques.
• Being available seven days a week and until 9 pm on weekdays in order to be available to clients at times when they need help.
• Reducing the price of massage to members to an attainable amount on the basis they will be visiting regularly - so rather than paying £79.95, which would be a good value full price massage, a member’s fee is reduced by £30. The more frequently you attend, the lower the price.
Business is booming
Mark says business is booming because it’s fulfilling a need many clients previously didn’t realise they had: “We have an enormous range of clients, from retirees to busy business people and marathon runners, but what I find wonderful about the business is that we can help people who really need it.
“We have clients who have had strokes, suffer from cerebral palsy, arthritis and other disabilities and who find a benefit from regular massages. We are also looking at relationships with local businesses to provide a massage centre membership as a work benefit to combat both physical and mental stress. We have one company on board already and others will be following shortly.
“Not surprisingly, we pioneered the move ourselves. We practise what we preach and I make sure all my team get at least one free massage a month. It’s a perk of the job we all appreciate.”
Mark Coldham answers our quick-fire questions
What do you enjoy most about the business?
Being part of a brand new business, helping to grow new concepts and providing a service to clients that brings benefits to them. We believe in the product and the way it can enrich and improve people’s lives. By a stroke of good fortune, we got involved in exactly the business we were hoping to find.
What was your greatest challenge?
Creating a new business with all its costs, before income starts to come in. This is a balancing act you simply have to get right.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
You have to be prepared to devote all your time and energy into developing the business. It’s hard, but it’s ultimately worth it. Also, we’ve learnt to do our homework and challenge everything to make sure we’re 100 per cent knowledgeable about all aspects of the business plan. The more you understand every aspect of the business, the more you will be able to solve the problems that come up.
What advice would you give to a younger you?
Plan longer term, in both your personal life and when it comes to the financial implications of setting up a business. Look forward five or 10 years, rather than to the immediate future. Do everything to ensure you pick the right franchisor, which will provide you with a safety net and support you while you gain a knowledge of the business. This will be a huge help. We couldn’t have succeeded without it.
An award-winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport