Fitness takes a front seat

Vivekanand Palaniappan at the Kilpauk branch of Fitness One. Photo: R. Ragu  

Hips don’t lie,” trills singer-songwriter Shakira, rather aptly, as I enter the Fitness One, Kilpauk Gym where Vivekanand Palaniappan its founder and managing director, waits to meet me.

Ten years have passed since Vivekanand, a former pilot turned entrepreneur, opened the first fitness centre in Alwarpet, Chennai with an initial capital of Rs. 2.5 crores and 25 employees. The ensuing decade saw the opening of close to 50 centres all over South India. In addition to the chain of gyms — which include the Pink series that caters to women only — Vivekanand has also been instrumental in establishing The Academy of Fitness Management that offers courses in fitness as well as the Propel fitness equipment brand that manufactures and retails fitness equipment.

At first, fitness was something done out of necessity rather than passion claims Vivekanand. “I spent close to two decades in the U.S. working as a flight and ground instructor and later as a cargo pilot. The nature of the work was such that I had to work out and keep myself fit,” he says.

On his return to India, he decided to understand the fitness industry here better and realised that there were huge gaps in the market.

“When I returned after working abroad and turned entrepreneur, I had no idea what the industry in India was like. I realised that there weren’t too many good places for fitness in India back then,” he says. “The industry has grown a lot since we set up the first studio in 2004. People are more aware about fitness today then they used to be. It is seen as a necessity not a luxury and I’m glad about that. A lot of similar businesses have sprung up in the last 10 years. In fact, many of our own staff and clients have entered the industry. I see this as a positive thing as it raises the bar and ensures some amount of standardisation.”

Yet it is still a challenging market to work in, he adds, “It is an unregulated industry and things change very fast in it — what starts as the latest trend gets obsolete soon. New methods of training are introduced, new forms of exercise are created, and there are constant advents in understanding nutrition — so we constantly need to update and adapt ourselves to this,” he says.

Other issues include poaching of personnel and procurement of equipment, he adds. “India is a price-sensitive market and one needs to find that balance between catering to that market as well as covering fixed and operational costs.”

His foray into manufacturing equipment and establishing an academy for fitness is partly a response to the gaps in the industry.

Talking about the Propel brand, he says, “This is a very capital-intensive business. Our first eight centers were set up with imported equipment but we realised that to grow further we needed to make our own. It took us a while to find factories that were ready to manufacture these products as they weren’t allowed to publicise that they made it. Then the recession hit and orders from the West dried up so factories in Taiwan and China approached us. Now, we equip our gyms with machinery from our in-house brand Propel and also supply this equipment to homes, gyms and corporate. Also, we invest a lot in R&D — our bodies are complex and a clear understanding of biomechanics is required.”

This brand ambassador of fitness walks his talk too. “I workout with a trainer at home every day and sometimes with a friend in the gym. I also do yoga,” he says.

On future plans, he says, “I want to open more in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. It is challenging — the awareness there is much less. People will join a gym only if pushed into it — a visit to the doctor or a sudden look at the mirror that scares them. But ideally, preventive healthcare which includes exercising regularly and eating sensibly should be seen as part of one’s lifestyle as it keeps medical costs low. You are less likely to be afflicted by lifestyle diseases when you look after yourself.”

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 10:46:17 AM |

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