Rosemary Conley: Queen of fitness

Despite numerous pretenders to the throne, Rosemary Conley CBE is still the biggest name in fitness after three decades helping the nation tone up and slim down.

GrowthBusiness catches up with the exercise entrepreneur to find out if business is booming and how she handles the ongoing pressure to compete in a crowded market.

The New Year always heralds the start of a nationwide resolution to shift a few pounds gained through seasonal excess. It’s a phenomenon that the retail sector is quick to exploit, particularly the diet and exercise market. Everywhere you look at the moment there’s a flash-in-the-pan celebrity cashing in by bringing out an exercise video. TV and sports personalities suddenly all have wisdom to impart on the best approach to diet and exercise. But there’s only one lady among them who can truly claim to be an expert, with 35 years’ experience under her petite-sized belt.

As the creator of the world-famous Hip and Thigh Diet, Rosemary Conley has produced 27 fitness videos and 26 books, and has a chain of 190 qualified exercise teachers across the country, busy sharing the secrets of her tried-and-tested fitness regime with 80,000 club members. Alongside Slimming World and Weight Watchers, it’s one of the ‘big three’ weight loss organisations in the UK. But Conley, 59, hasn’t always been interested in diet and fitness and certainly didn’t consider it as a career option. ‘I always imagined I’d end up working with animals,’ she confesses.

From training to Tupperware

Born and brought up in Leicestershire, Conley recalls, ‘I didn’t think much about a career when I was growing up, but then women didn’t in those days. In the 50s, it was the norm to get married and become a housewife.

‘So when I left school at 15, I didn’t have a particular next step in mind. My mother was a secretary so I simply followed in her footsteps.’

After training at Goddards secretarial college in Leicestershire, Conley worked in an accountancy office, which she says taught her a lot about the inner workings of a business and how to be organised. ‘I knew the skills would be useful for my future, as it taught me to be organised and systematic.’

She also began selling Tupperware, the archetypal 60s homeware product. ‘To my delight, I found I was rather good at it,’ she laughs. ‘I was also doing a cordon bleu cookery course at the time, so I used to fill my Tupperware containers with amazing dishes and take them to the demonstrations. No wonder they sold so well!’

After just six weeks in the job, Conley was made a manager and stayed with the company for 18 months. ‘Because I hit all my targets, I was rewarded with fabulous goods like a washing machine and dishwasher, which in those days – the 1960s – was quite something. It was then I came to understand that being rewarded for achieving goals is tremendous motivation.’

But Conley’s love of animals soon precipitated a career u-turn. ‘While I was travelling around the country doing Tupperware presentations, I sometimes left my Peruvian mountain dog in the back of the car. One day, she pulled the lining down from inside the roof. That was when I decided to go back to secretarial work, on the proviso that I could bring my dog to work with me.’

Conley secured an interview for the ideal office job, but admits, ‘I was so worried beforehand that my huge, 12-stone pet would misbehave in the interview, I mildly doped her!’ Suffice it to say the dog slept soundly throughout and Conley got the job.

Flexing her entrepreneurial muscle

By the 1970s, Conley was married and had a daughter, during which time she was doing a lot of home cooking. She recalls, ‘I started taking an interest in food content and learning about calories, as well as tailoring my own exercise programme and realising the importance of good grooming.’

Conley’s approach soon raised interest among her neighbours and she began running an exercise class in her kitchen, then in the local village hall. Within six months she’d given up her job as a secretary to concentrate on developing the business and eight years later had 50 classes countrywide.

‘Then I was approached by the magazine publisher IPC as it wanted a chain of fitness classes to complement its slimming magazine. So in 1981, eight years after I’d started out by spending £8 to print 30 advertising posters, I was able to sell the business for £52,000. That was immensely gratifying.’

Conley stayed on to manage the enterprise for five years, but remembers it as ‘the toughest of times.’ Working a 90-hour week building a business for a large corporation took its toll and she and her husband parted. Reflecting on that difficult time, she says, ‘The stress definitely contributed to the breakdown of my marriage and, to be honest, it was too much responsibility for me at such an early stage in my career.’

Jumping hurdles

It was at this time that Conley became a committed Christian. ‘God became the chairman of the company that is my life,’ she says.

Christmas 1985 marked another life changing turn of events. IPC sold its slimming magazine and disbanded the associated fitness clubs. Conley was out of a job; her company car and executive salary gone along with it.

To make matters worse, during the spring of 1986 doctors announced she had a gallstone problem.

‘I was basically instructed to cut out fat or I would end up in hospital,’ she recalls. ‘If I began to avoid all high fat foods there was a chance I could avoid surgery.’

Proving that every cloud has a silver lining, she began forming the diet plan that was to transform her life and become an international bestseller. Constructing a low-fat programme of eating based on years of experience, Conley found that she lost weight from her hips and thighs in a way she never had before. Energised by the discovery, in 1988 Conley published her first book, The Hip and Thigh Diet, followed by The Complete Hip and Thigh Diet in 1989.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the books propelled Conley to stardom, generating a media frenzy and making her a household name. ‘I suppose it was the Atkins of the 80s,’ she muses.

By 1990, Conley had her own BBC series and the top-selling BBC video of all time. She launched her own magazine and began endorsing fitness and electrical goods with her distinctive brand. Every newspaper and women’s magazine charted her phenomenal rise to fame and Conley was jetting off around the world on promotional tours.

‘It was a baptism of fire on fame,’ she says. ‘During one three-week tour, I flew 16 times and did 120 interviews!’

Though it was an amazing experience, Conley admits she didn’t enjoy being carved up in so many directions. ‘You get to the stage where you really don’t want to pack another suitcase or sleep in another hotel room.’

Rewarding experience

Ten years on, Conley is still one of the most respected names in the fitness business and she continues to show others how it’s done. Her latest book, Rosemary Conley’s GI Jeans Diet, is the number two in the charts, with her video at number five. Together, she and her second husband, Mike Rimmington, have built an extensive fitness empire with four highly-successful operations under one umbrella brand. In addition to Rosemary Conley Enterprises, there’s the publishing arm, the division that deals with the branding of electric applicances, fitness equipment and food products, and the franchise network Rosemary Conley Diet & Fitness Clubs. Recognised as one of the best UK franchise operations, it has won an unprecedented four British Franchise Association awards, including 2005’s ‘Franchisor of the Year’ accolade.

In 2004, Conley was awarded the title Commander of the British Empire for her services to improving the diet and fitness of the nation. ‘I was absolutely thrilled to receive that honour,’ she enthuses. ‘Prince Charles presented me with my CBE at Buckingham Palace, confiding in me that he works hard to keep fit.’

Reaching new heights

Despite being a famous name and successful businesswoman, Conley is modest about her achievements. She humbly tells me she doesn’t consider herself to be a celebrity, a refreshing contrast to the fame-hungry stars of other fitness products on the market.

But surely she feels under pressure to compete against so many up-and-coming names trying to steal her crown? ‘It wouldn’t be wise to get complacent,’ she says, ‘so we’re always looking at new directions to keep it fresh.

‘Being in the food market, for instance, is incredibly competitive. But we sold one million pots of our Belgian chocolate pudding last year, so we must be doing something right! And in March, we’re launching our low-fat luxury ice cream – it’s like a low-fat Häagen-Dazs. I wrote to the company that makes it to tell them how scrumptious it is and apparently they’ve framed the letter and hung it in their reception! The personal touch in business can have a huge impact.’

Still very much hands-on, Conley is conscious of the importance of taking time off work. ‘I’m off skiing next week and my husband and I escape to a house in Portugal whenever possible.’

Has she any plans take a back seat? ‘Why would I want to quit?’ she replies. ‘I attended a photoshoot recently with a group of women who, by following my diet and fitness regime, had gone from looking like their grannies to being model-like beauties happy with their bodies. What greater reward is there?’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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Fitness industry