For a high-flying corporate lawyer, Luke Guanlao sure makes for an unlikely gym-junkie. How do you go from a regional general counsel role with Robert Walters to being interviewed by The CEO Magazine because of your range of gyms?
“Well at the Robert Walters point, I was earning a very high salary and I was very happy with my career progression, but I also wanted to do more,” he replies. “I wanted to build a passive income stream to supplement my core income stream, my salary.
“So my brother and I, we co-owned a property in western Sydney and we decided to sell that property to free up some cash to allow us to invest in or acquire a business. We looked at everything from Gloria Jeans to Subway, but we wanted to buy into a franchise that had existing systems, a framework, strong support, and a franchise that allowed you to step away from the business and not have to work in it.
“After looking seriously into several brands, we landed on Anytime Fitness, and I proceeded to invest my life savings.”
“The acquisition of the master franchise business from Maurice represented the pinnacle of my career!”
Luke was running on a shoestring budget and couldn’t even afford to set up a stall in the local mall to attract memberships. Instead, he rented a car space in the parking lot and cordoned it off with supermarket trolleys and tape.
From his office in the CBD, he would have to race an hour out west to the car lot to sell memberships. On days when it was raining, he would be huddled under an umbrella, still spruiking the benefits of health and fitness.
But his unwavering belief in the Anytime Fitness model paid off because prior to the gym’s doors opening, he and his team had sold 460 memberships – a record then. The franchise went on to become a 2,000-plus member club, sitting comfortably in the top 10 Australia-wide at that point in time.
Luke ran with the momentum and bought two more Anytime Fitness gyms locally. Being an ‘Australian-Filipino’, his thoughts then turned to the motherland, the Philippines.
After inquiries about the presence of Anytime Fitness in the Philippines, he found out that Maurice Levine had already paved the way, and a meeting with him quickly followed.
Impressed by Luke’s ingenuity in Australia, the father of Anytime Fitness in South-East Asia suggested Luke join him in selling franchises rather than being a franchisee himself.
“The next minute, I’m moving over there with my wife and my daughter and our world turns upside down,” he grins. “By 2019, I had 40 gyms. Three gyms in Sydney, 27 in the Philippines and 10 in Malaysia, all with my investor consortium which consisted of my family and close friends.”
Then at the 2019 IHRSA (the Global Health & Fitness Association) conference in San Diego, Maurice dropped the bombshell to Luke that he wanted to sell and retire.
“That’s probably one of the biggest turning points. From my perspective, it represented career progression. The acquisition of the master franchise business from Maurice represented the pinnacle of my career!” Luke continues.
Along with his partners and investors, he became the Co-Owner of Anytime Fitness Asia, the largest 24/7 franchised gym network in Asia, and Co-Founder and Group CEO of Inspire Brands Asia – which owns Anytime Fitness Asia.
“I wanted to buy this business because I wanted to be a leader of a business that was going to make a huge impact on the South-East Asian market in respect to health and wellness.”
“It was the first company I’ve been part of since I started working in 1999 that I felt a strong affiliation with its value system and its value proposition,” Luke says. “It was deeply emotional. I wanted to buy this business because I wanted to be a leader of a business that was going to make a huge impact on the South-East Asian market in respect to health and wellness.”
As a leader, Luke says transparency and vulnerability are key to getting the best out of his staff. “I find when you are courageous enough to be vulnerable with your staff as a leader, it connects you to them, it brings you closer to them,” he explains. “It builds trust, it builds respect, and it builds a level of openness to the extent that it humanises the corporate world and reminds us that, ‘Hey yes, I’ve got a job, but we are all human beings here trying to achieve the same goal’.”
Since taking over, Luke has also made a number of important strategic moves including decentralising support for the franchises.
“Previously, the entire region was supported by the team in the Philippines. And as you can imagine, supporting a new market like Indonesia where the culture’s different, the language is different, the people are different, consumer sentiment is different, you need to have a bespoke approach to how you penetrate the market, but also how you support the franchisees,” he explains.
With the impact of COVID-19, Luke is also in the final stages of a big move that would protect his portfolio through diversification. Not just geographic diversification but sector and industry diversification.
“COVID-19 was painful for us. All our eggs were in one industry, which for me as a leader and the CEO is a risk that I knew I needed to mitigate moving forward. I can’t give away too much now, as we’re under an NDA, but Inspire Brands Asia is taking on a new brand as part of this strategic imperative, and it’s very exciting.”