From pizza delivery boy to Britain’s youngest billionaire: the rise of Ben Francis & Solihull-based Gymshark
Gymshark has become one of the most recognisable fitness brands across the world - here’s the story of the company’s rise to global success
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Ben Francis recently became the UK’s youngest billionaire.
At just 30-years-old, Francis is the founder of the fitness and lifestyle brand Gymshark, which is now worth an estimated £1.25 billion ($1.5bn). The brand has been worn by some of the most famous US celebrities in recent years, incluidng Vanessa Hudgens, boxer Ryan Garcia, Kendall Jenner and Nicole Scherzinger.
Francis has certainly come a long way from the days when he was sewing the company’s clothes himself while studying at Aston University. We’ve taken a look at the rise of one of the UK’s most inspirational entrepreneurs, who just so happens to be a local lad.
The company was founded by Bromsgrove school friends Ben Francis and Lewis Morgan in 2012. Ben was born in Birmingham and grew up in Bromsgrove, just outside the city. Ben has said that he got his work ethic from his family upbringing.
His mum worked for the NHS and only recently retired, while his dad worked in Redditch for the telecoms group AT&T. As a 14-year-old, Ben also worked with his grandad as a young teenager who had his own business lining furnaces. He says the financial risks his grandfather took with his business is something that massively inspired him.
He attended Bromsgrove High School with Lewis which was when he first started going to the gym. Speaking on the High Performance Podcast with Jake Humphrey, Ben said: “At 16-years-old I got into the gym and absolutely fell in love with it for so many different reasons. I would say the main one was because I knew that if I turned up five days a week for a year, then in a year I would be better off than previously when I started.”
After struggling with his GCSE’s but excelling in his A-levels, Ben got into Aston University in Birmingham to study Business Management. Francis has said he had an interest in developing websites and apps from a young age, which he developed through his IT classes at sixth form.
Before Gymshark, he developed a website selling number plates for cars and then after he got into the gym, he developed two fitness applications, called Fat Loss Abs Guide and iPhysique - neither of which made much money, he said.
The fitness fanatic saw a gap in the market while attending the gym. He’s previously said that when he was working out, he noticed that many of the other bodybuilders had adapted their own gym clothes as there weren’t many clothes which were quite the right fit for them.
While studying at Aston, Ben then founded Gymshark with his friend Lewis, who was studying business at Worcester University. The company initially sold supplements, before Ben began designing and selling fitness apparel online.
After asking his grandmother to teach him how to sew, Ben initially made the clothing products himself from his parents’ garage in Bromsgrove, using a sewing machine and screen printer he bought with £1,000 of savings.
To support himself while studying, he even worked at Pizza Hut as a delivery driver in the evenings, and he would handmake the the Gymshark products in his spare time.
Ben’s hardwork and determination certainly paid off. A tracksuit which Ben developed then went viral on Facebook at the BodyPower fitness trade show in Birmingham in 2013, which is when things really kicked into gear for Gymshark. The company went from doing £300 a day in revenue to generating £30,000 in sales within 30 minutes thanks to their live video from the event which promoted the tracksuit.
Speaking on the High Performance podcast, Ben said: “We stumbled upon the market model which essentially many people use today. We had a new product which we built specifically for this event that we didn’t sell online.”
He added: “We grew up watching YouTubers, many of them were our heroes and we asked some of them to come to this event and they said yes. We were blown away at the fact that they responded to us.”
Ben said they inadvertently created a community with the different YouTubers and gym-goers in Birmingham, who were posting Gymshark clothing online which helped to expand its reputation.
As the company started to develop further and further, its revenue quickly reached £250,000. Ben and Lewis then dropped out of university after 12 months, with Ben also saying goodbye to his job at Pizza Hut to run Gymshark full-time.
The company’s meteoric rise
The company began to develop quickly, aligning itself with prominent fitness influencers, athletes, and YouTubers to help promote the business. Ben and Lewis would go to different fitness events around the world with Ben’s brother packaging their increasing orders for their customers.
As the company expanded they opened a new base in Redditch and employed staff. Gymshark quickly became one of the UK’s primary gymwear brand’s with orders coming in across the country and eventually, the world. In 2016, Lewis partially left the business, cashing his shares for around £100 million.
Francis has said in the past that the two Gymshark founders had ‘different visions’ for the company. But Lewis has since hinted that it was anything but an amicable split. Talking about his reasons for leaving Gymshark, Morgan, who is now the chairman at the AYBL Group, told the CEO Cast podcast: “Loads of stuff went on behind the scenes, which I’m not going to talk about. It’s hard for me to say the exact reasons without getting solicitors on my door tomorrow.”
Gymshark was named the UK’s fastest growing company in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 and relocated from its origional base in Redditch to its current 42,000 square foot headquarters on Blythe Valley Business Park, Solihull in 2016. As the company grew, so did its staff numbers, with the company now employing more than 500 people.
Ben also appointed Birmingham-based businessman Paul Richardson - the man who was recently linked with a takeover of Birmingham City - and Gary Vaynerchuk, to the company’s board. The former Reebok executive Steve Hewitt also joined the company as chief executive recently.
Gymshark has since opened offices in London and Hong Kong. And in August 2020, US private equity firm General Atlantic purchased a 21% stake in the company, which valued Gymshark in excess of £1 billion.
For a while, Ben, who also has his own YouTube channel to document his and the company’s day-to-day activities, worked as the company’s chief marketing officer, chief brand officer and chief product officer after stepping down as CEO in 2015, but he resumed his position as CEO in 2021.
But his Gymshark journey hasn’t been without its difficulties. On Black Friday in 2015, the company’s website crashed due to a software issue which resulted in the company losing thousands. Ben said the tech problem meant people were getting Gymshark products when they hadn’t placed orders, and those who had placed orders weren’t getting them. He said this happened as the company didn’t do enough due diligence, with him admitting: “I just thought I knew best.”
He said he spent weeks writing handwritten notes apologising to people and that the business took around a year to fully recover from the ordeal. And in 2020, Gymshark’s paid-for fitness plans by social media influencers were also leaked online.
MBE and billionaire status
Ben was awarded an MBE in the 2023 New Year Honours for services to the business sector and an honorary degree from Aston University in 2022.
The Gymshark CEO now lives in the Cotswolds with his wife Robin, and their twin sons were born on 24 December 2022. Recently, Francis, a lifelong Aston Villa fan and season ticket holder at Villa Park, was named on Forbes’ World’s Billionaire list who are 30 and under. He now has a total net worth of $1.2 billion (£922 million) - becoming the UK’s youngest billionaire.
The 30-year-old has also been appointed as a member of Downing Street’s business advisory board. His brand now sells in 230 countries, and Ben has mentioned numerous times that he wants Gymshark to rank alongside the likes of Nike and Adidas as one of the world’s most recognisable sportswear brands - and with the company’s meteoric rise over the last decade, who would bet against that happening?