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Diana Williams, Fernwood founder

When Diana Williams opened the first Fernwood gym in 1989, she thought she was setting herself up with a new hobby. Williams never expected her pastime would become a countrywide success, eventually attracting more than 68,000 members and generating over $100 million in turnover. Nor could she have predicted she would become a celebrated and in-demand business leader.

The Fernwood story began when Williams grew tired of “blokey” gyms where she felt intimidated to do the weights training that delivered real results to her fitness. So she created a safe space where women would be comfortable to do more than the old stereotypical female workouts – and the concept took off. The entrepreneur had found her niche, and her hobby quickly became a fast-growing business.

In the 23 years since launch, Williams has been recognised many times over for her contributions to the Australian business community. She was named Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year in 2005 and inducted in to the Franchising Council of Australia’s Hall of Fame two years later.

No business journey is without its ups and downs though, and Fernwood faced some early opposition in the form of protesters. Here, Williams talks about the lessons learned during this daunting period.

You had some issues with protesters early in the piece – what did this experience teach you? 

It happened a couple of years after we’d started franchising. We’d just taken over a gym in a shopping centre – a mixed gym that wasn’t paying its rent – so the centre agreed to accommodate the male members and we agreed to take care of the female members. The centre seemed to forget their end of the bargain though.

So, we re-opened the facility as a women’s-only gym, when the week prior it had been a mixed gym. All of a sudden men were protesting and we were taken to the Equal Opportunity Commission. We had already been to see Equal Opportunities to apply for an exemption, but of course, an exemption doesn’t stop people from protesting. It was a really nerve-wracking time as we’d just started growing as a franchise, based on the concept that we were a women’s-only gym – and that was under threat.

We hired a QC and the matter was eventually sorted, but looking back it was a really good thing to have happened to us. The best thing was all the media exposure that came as a result of it – it really lifted our profile. All of a sudden, we were known nationally!

The lesson I took from this is that there are always opportunities around the corner; you never know what shape they’re going to come in. It’s also important to remember that you can always take something good from a bad experience.

Work/life balance – is it a myth, or something achievable for business owners? 

The first thing you learn is how to hire and keep the right people, and then you teach yourself how to let go. It’s simple – if you haven’t got the right people around you, you just can’t let go.

It’s difficult though, because when you own a business and you’re passionate about it, you drive pleasure from spending so much time working on it. You’re not at work because you have to be; you’re there because you want to be. It takes over your thought process, so you have to force yourself to get better at balancing your work with your family and friends. Stepping away becomes a discipline you have to master.

In the early days I was bad at this because I was so passionate about getting the business up and running. But now that I have such a great team around me, I’m able to trust in them to take care of everything – so I can relax a little more.

What piece of business advice would you offer to other women in business? 

Every woman is different, but I think it’s important to have confidence in your convictions and to believe in yourself. You’re going to come up against many naysayers, so it can be difficult to rise above this unless you have some strong self-belief. The same goes for men too.

Women have great potential to do anything they want; they just need a bit more confidence in themselves. Follow your dreams!

You’ve become quite a prominent business leader, what qualities do you think a great leader must have? 

Managing cashflow is the number one thing a good business leader needs to be able to do, because it’s the secret to running a good, solid business.

To be a good leader, you also need to be courageous, good at listening and know how to be firm but fair.

In your experience, what’s the secret to managing rapid business growth? 

Managing growth is much easier now than it was in the early days. When we first launched we had to grow quickly and reach what I call ‘criticial mass’ so we could sustain the business model. The secret to dealing with this was to watch cashflow carefully and to minimise our debt as much as possible.

Looking back, what achievement are you most proud of? 

I would have to say I’m most proud of the fact that so many thousands of women have changed their lives thanks to what I’ve created – it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy!

I’m also proud that we’ve survived the tough times. We’ve been around for nearly 25 years now and survived a constant onslaught of difficulties – GFC’s recessions and a huge amount of competition in the market. Our competitors have come and gone though, and the key to our surviving is our focus on doing what we do best, and staying relevant.

What’s next for Fernwood?

We’re very into the digital space, so we’re focusing on innovation. When I say digital innovation, I mean we’re engaging in social media and online marketing, but also educating our members through digital media and running our business better using digital processes rather than doing so many things manually. I believe we’re leading the market in this way.

And of course, we’re focused on continued growth – we want to keep being a leader in the market.