The Life! Interview

From running a mobile gym to Singapore's biggest local chain of fitness centres

Lifting weights at his first gym, Unleash Fitness, in 2009. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUNG TZE KHIT
Lifting weights at his first gym, Unleash Fitness, in 2009. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUNG TZE KHIT
Standing next to his mobile fitness van in 2008. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUNG TZE KHIT
Standing next to his mobile fitness van in 2008. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUNG TZE KHIT
Chung (right) playing with primary school friends in 1995. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUNG TZE KHIT
Chung (right) playing with primary school friends in 1995. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUNG TZE KHIT
Gold’s Gym’s Chung Tze Khit has never felt like giving up despite the ups and downs in his business. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Gold’s Gym’s Chung Tze Khit has never felt like giving up despite the ups and downs in his business. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Chung Tze Khit took a gamble when he took the $40,000 his father had saved for his university education and bought a Volkswagen Caddy van instead.

With his father's support, the budding entrepreneur, then aged 23, stocked his van with a workout bench, dumbbells, exercise mats and other gym equipment, and plastered a white decal on the vehicle's window that read: "Singapore's 1st Mobile Gym".

The novel fitness concept saw him travelling around Singapore, setting up work-out spaces at his clients' homes or parks nearby. Making clients push the van along a flat road - with Mr Chung at the wheel - was even part of the work-out.

In fact, his clients have been the force pushing his business a much longer way than just a short stretch of tarmac.

The 29-year-old now runs Gold's Gym, the largest home-grown chain of personal training gyms, with 17 outlets across the island in places such as Tanjong Pagar, Upper Bukit Timah, Upper Thomson and East Coast. He owns and operates one outlet, and manages the other 16 outlets with 10 franchise partners.

He achieved this in under five years.

With an eye on expanding his business aggressively this year, he will be launching a spa and wellness arm, called Gold's Wellness Spa, in a few weeks.

The spa outlet, covering more than 2,000 sq ft, will be located at NTU Alumni Club in Slim Barracks Rise, off North Buona Vista Road, offering a range of services that include massages and facials.

Speaking to Life! at his Upper Bukit Timah outlet, Mr Chung says of that $40,000 helping hand from his father: "I like to think of that money as my education fund that I put to much better use. It wasn't a loan per se. I contribute to the family and make sure my parents lead comfortable lives."

Before his parents, Mr Chung Chee Keong, 86, and Madam Tan Ong Ah, 70, retired, they owned and operated two photography studios in Bedok and Geylang.

His interest lay away from photography, though. He began taking health and fitness seriously in his second year at Temasek Junior College, when he started working out with his secondary school buddy and current business partner Dan Teng.

In his first year of training, Mr Chung, who jokes he used to look "like a stick", bulked up by 10kg through a training programme he and Mr Teng devised.

They later set up a website called Results! Personal Training in 2007 which helped link clients up with personal trainers, which still exists today. It was the start of their long business partnership.

In between working as a freelance personal trainer operating the mobile gym, Mr Chung paid for his university education, obtaining a degree in sports science from Australia's Edith Cowan University via distance learning.

Not everything was smooth-sailing in business. Mr Chung says it took a failed venture in 2009 to make him realise how he wanted to run his business.

On the back of the success of his mobile gym, he teamed up with three other partners, including Mr Teng, to open Unleash Fitness, a 1,700 sq ft gym in Turf Club Road in Bukit Timah.

The venture folded after nine months due to differences among the partners in how the business should be managed. One partner wanted to focus more on sports training, while another partner was more focused on bodybuilding, he recalls.

"The whole training, even equipment and philosophy, it was all over the place. We knew things weren't working out because of the business direction we had in mind, but it was an amicable parting," he says, declining to say how much money he lost from the business venture.

The experience taught him the necessary business know-how to be prepared for his next venture, from choosing locations and negotiating leases to coming up with a marketing plan and finding the right partners to work with.

"This small amount of money (lost) is definitely an attractive price to pay for business knowledge that can never be learnt in school," he says.

In 2010, he and a new partner, whom he declines to name, sank in about $80,000 to open Gold's Gym at a 1,400 sq ft heritage shophouse in Tanjong Pagar. Mr Teng left Singapore for a while to work in the banking industry in Hong Kong for three years and joined the outfit only last year.

The gym was branded as a weight-loss and aesthetics gym specialising in personal training.

Mr Chung's gym has no relation to the chain of fitness centres that sprang up in Singapore in the 1980s, even though it bears the same name. It is also not linked to the American chain of fitness centres started in California by Joe Gold.

"The name (Gold's Gym) had been dormant for so long and no one owned the brand, so we started fresh from there," he says.

He does not sell gym memberships to clients; the space is issued only for personal training as he felt it was more lucrative to serve a niche market "offering the best service rather than going for the mass market and compromising on personal training".

The gym quickly became a money- maker, managing to break even within the first few months of operations.

In the two years that followed, three more outlets opened in Boat Quay, Jurong and East Coast.

Mr Chung says the gym's training approach is traditional "but it works". A client looking to lose weight, for example, will be given a strength training routine with cardio-vascular exercises or circuit training thrown in to help with fat-burning.

Owning and operating four gyms proved too much to handle for Mr Chung, so he decided to come up with a franchise model "to scale it and grow it to the next level".

"It was too much work when the gyms had no toilet paper, I had to go and buy it. It was really just nitty-gritty stuff like that which made it too much to handle," he recounts.

He began franchising outlets mostly to personal trainers whom he knew personally and had worked with. But he has a hands-on role in managing the franchise outlets from sourcing the locations and handling the lease agreements to providing a pool of trainers and equipment.

Today, there are 17 Gold's Gym branches in Singapore; Mr Chung directly manages the Changi branch. Without giving details, he says that "revenue is doubling year on year".

"It is the next logical step for a personal trainer to manage his own business and get residual income because you cannot be a trainer forever," he says of his plan to rope in other personal trainers as franchise partners.

He adds with a laugh: "So now, they get to buy their own toilet paper and they get to choose whatever colour they like too."

For a savvy businessman, Mr Chung, who plans to have 30 gym and spa and wellness outlets by year's end, comes across as laid-back and easy-going.

The tall and fit-looking bachelor, who came to this interview casually dressed in a fitted black polo tee, bermudas and trainers, smiles and tells Life! that his ensemble is his typical work outfit, even for business meetings.

Mr Chung says he still trains four clients, all of whom are friends who have stuck with him for between four and five years. He manages to squeeze in three workouts a week for himself.

In his leisure time, he hits the beach once a week to play volleyball, collects vinyl records and enjoys taking short holidays in places such as Australia, Bali, Hong Kong and South Korea. He never takes long vacations as he does not like to stay away from the business for too long.

He is the baby of the family, with three older step-siblings - two step-brothers in their 40s and a step- sister in her 50s, from his father's previous marriage.

His father is proud of his son's accomplishments and says he just wanted "Khit to do what he loved doing".

"I never wanted to force him into doing something he wasn't 100 per cent passionate about. He has a good enough brain in his head and I was sure he would figure out the right career path for himself," says the elder Mr Chung.

Mr Teng, 30, describes Mr Chung as a relaxed and confident guy, and a great friend. He recalls the early days when Mr Chung would work from morning to night on renovations to get an outlet ready to hand over to their franchise partners.

"He took charge of the renovation and even re-stripped the floor as he didn't think the quality was good enough, then worked all night painting the gym. It is this grit and determination that played a significant role in the success of Gold's Gym," says Mr Teng.

Through the ups and downs, Mr Chung says he has never once felt like giving up.

"I've never worked for anyone before and I've never had to write a curriculum vitae. Things are working out well and I can truly say I am happy with my lifestyle."

Last year, he set up an association for personal trainers called the Personal Trainers' Association of Singapore with the aim of improving the quality and standard of personal training services.

His association, which boasts about a hundred members, will act as a formal network for trainers, and offer educational courses and job opportunities. He also plans to work with insurance companies to offer members and their clients accident insurance.

"All trainers should be qualified and currently there is no regulation (of the industry) in Singapore. Hopefully, we will get support from the Government and maybe an endorsement from Sport Singapore."

melk@sph.com.sg