September 2, 2008

Drop and Give Me 20!

By Kate Hilpern

Ex-Army major Robin Cope (above) drew on his past to set up a civilian boot camp - and put some fun into the regime. Kate Hilpern reports

The name alone conjures up images of domineering sergeant majors, cold showers and enforced press-ups in the mud. But British Military Fitness (BMF), which runs hour-long exercise classes across the UK's parks, has never been more popular, attracting more than 1,000 new members a month.

The company was founded in 1999 by Robin Cope, an ex-Army major, who wanted to offer an alternative to lycra-clad aerobics classes (which were then all the rage) and gyms blasting out the latest Spice Girls' tracks. "I just felt nothing was motivational. Nothing really encouraged you. Bearing in mind I was probably the fittest when I was in the army, I thought there was potential to get people to exercise outside with a military theme."

Having been left some money after his mother died, Cope built a website, persuaded Battersea Park to give him a licence, put an advert in the paper and it all took off from there. Having thought up the business idea in November 1998, it was up and running the following April. "Myself and a couple of colleagues who had the right qualifications and experience got it going," he explains.

With 250 classes now running every week across 70 UK venues for 12,000 people, BMF's current turnover is 3m. What's more, there are plans to expand the business next year. "I think people are coming to the realisation that they join a gym and leave and feel unfit, then they join another gym and leave and feel unfit - and so it goes on. Also I think people enjoy being outdoors and they like being motivated - and perhaps something I underestimated at the beginning was the social aspect. In many classes, they all go to the pub afterwards and we've had 12 weddings now from people meeting through our classes."

But doesn't the mere memory of films like An Officer And A Gentleman (remember Richard Gere, aka Zack Mayo, being screamed at 24/7) put people off? "Oh yes," says Cope, who admits the military aspect is a double-edged sword. "Let's face it,

people in the army are fit. But that makes a lot of people feel they have to be really fit to join and then there's the worry they'll be shouted at and humiliated - neither of which are true."

It may be a no-nonsense work-out, he says, but people of all fitness levels can join and they're encouraged rather than shamed. "Fun is the word a lot of people use. It has to be or people wouldn't come back," he says.

Hollywood movies are largely responsible for the negative stereotypes, believes Cope - and he should know. He was responsible for putting Tom Hanks and the cast through their paces in preparation for the film Saving Private Ryan. But next year when the company marks its 10th anniversary, Cope hopes to address this challenge. "We're thinking about some kind of rebranding - maybe softening our brand - to encourage those people who are put off. We're not sure of the details yet, though. It will need some serious brains."

All 400 of the instructors are ex-military personnel, says Cope - a fact that brought another mixed blessing for the business in 2005 when the business took off exponentially. "I still can't put my finger on why that growth happened so suddenly. I think it must have been the right publicity at the right time," says Cope. "Anyway, in some ways we disadvantaged ourselves by ensuring all our instructors have a military background. It meant we had to control the growth somewhat."

Undoubtedly, the hardest time for the company was two to three years after it had started, when Cope admits he tried to go into too many places too quickly. "We didn't put the right checks and balances in place and didn't properly train our instructors. But I think we've got over that pretty much now."

His concern at the time had been competition, pure and simple. "We were so worried that someone else would have the idea, but even now we don't have competition at a level to be worried about. One of two of our instructors have stolen our members and set up boot camps, but not on a major scale."

Cope and his 15-strong in-house staff have worked out that something like four million people across the country fit their profile. "We have about 0.25 per cent of those at the moment, but I think we could get 1 per cent."

In addition, the company is increasingly expanding its events offering. "We do overseas challenges in places such as Borneo and we're doing lots of runs and races. Then there's the specialist stuff like the classes we did for homeless people in London, which were hugely successful. We want to do a lot more community stuff in the future."

The punters seem happy. Some talk of shifting pounds in a matter of weeks, others of never having felt so fit in their lives. What they particularly seem to like is the variety. You never quite know if you'll be doing jogging, press-ups, sit-ups, star jumps, thrusts or running. What they can be sure of, though, is the only soundtrack is the open air and the occasional gasp of stunned passers-by.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.