24 Hours With Tony de Leede: health and wellness entrepreneur

After bringing the Fitness First chain to Australia and building it into the biggest chain of health clubs in the country, Tony de Leede left in 2008. He now co-owns a range of health and wellness businesses. See what a typical day in his life looks like.

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After bringing the Fitness First chain to Australia and building it into the biggest chain of health clubs in the country, Tony de Leede left in 2008. He now co-owns a range of health and wellness businesses including Fit n Fast gyms, Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat and Hotel Komune Resort & Beach Club, resorts set on surf breaks in Coolangatta and Bali. 

His business partners include Hollywood star Hugh Jackman, who’s invested in Gwinganna and Fit n Fast. Now 62, de Leede wants to slow down, but can’t change the habits of a lifetime to hang up his sneakers just yet. He started his first business at 12,buying and selling stamps, moving onto renting out surfboard storage space at the family home in Cronulla, before setting up shop in Sydney’s Centrepoint selling batik dresses from Bali. He turned to the fitness industry while living in the US, starting Australian Body Works in 1981, which he expanded to 23-clubs across Atlanta before selling the business and returning home to Australia in 2000. We share a day in his life.

5:30am: We’re in Bondi this week, so the first thing I do on waking is make a double shot latte and some wholemeal toast for my wife, Sue, and I. We eat it in bed while watching the morning news and discussing the day ahead. It’s cold this morning, and I don’t want to go out, but I head to vicious cycle, an indoor cycle studio that’s about 100-metres from my house, for a spin class. Close to the spin studio is Beach Fit, where I do some cardio while checking my emails and calling one of my kids in the US.

8:15am: I head home and make myself a smoothie and go through my to-do list. I print some lengthy and more complicated emails off rather than reading them on the screen and then I’ll fold up the paper and make lists of things I need to do. Once I get a sense of the day, I go through the drafts of emails my assistant has prepared for me. I don’t personally send long emails very often; I’m a one finger “typer” so I record them into a voicemail and my assistant picks them up, or I’ll dictate them to her over the phone. She types them up and sends me drafts to correct. It’s a slightly unconventional way of doing things but works for me.

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9:30am: Normally I’d head back to a café to work, but today’s a bit unusual in that I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for about 25 years – visit Hopewood Health Retreat and Day Spa in Wallacia near the Blue Mountains, which was the inspiration for me opening Gwinganna. I’ve got a strong emotional attachment to it because my late mother would go there three to four times a year and come back very inspired. Sue and I drive out there to take a look. It closed in June after nearly 50 years, and friends have asked me if I’m interested in buying the business and building it up again, but I’m trying to scale back over the next four years. I built a beautiful house at Gwinganna five years ago and have only spent about six weeks there. I have to resist the temptation to start another business. I’m never going to stop, but I want to slow down. As the Fit n Fast chain gets up and moving strongly again I have a very strong business partner and right-hand person in Belinda Humphries. Same with Komune. I’m trying to live a better life myself and pay more attention to practicing what I preach. I have a horrible sweet tooth, and although I still maintain a fairly good exercise regime, the eating tends to creep ahead of the exercise if you don’t pay attention.

1:00pm: On our drive back from Hopewood Sue takes me to her favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Berala for some Pho. Over lunch, we end up talking about the business. Sue’s a very major part of the business; she works in it part-time, and I seek her counsel on lots of different things, and she’s a stable influence on me. We also travel a lot together. We go to Bali every six to eight weeks to check in on Komune, spending at least a week there, and to Gwinganna at least once a month for two or three days. We’ve also got a place in Buckhead in Atlanta and travel to the US quite a lot because two of my three children live there.

3:00pm: We arrive back in Bondi, and I head to a café to work. A lot of my business is run over the phone and in meetings. I haven’t had an office since I left Fitness First. Even then I tried not to use it too much. I tend to meet people outside – I had our Fitness First board meetings in a café at Bronte. The directors would have a three-hour meeting over breakfast, do some exercise, and then go on with the day. I still work that way now. I move around to different cafes. I’ll visit two, sometimes three a day, have green tea, a Piccolo latte, or a salad and make phone calls, respond to emails, and mix it up with meetings. I find it very easy to switch from one business to another. I’d say I spend about 50-60% of my time on Fit n Fast, 30% on Komune and maybe 10% on Gwinganna. And there are various property investments to fit into the mix. Fit n Fast is taking up more of my time because it’s in a state of evolution. We opened our 18th club in Sydney’s Wetherill Park in April, and it’s still growing, but we haven’t done much to it for the past couple of years. I’ve waded in and watched how the industry is going, but this year we’ll move in a different direction to be more competitive. I’m looking at different concepts of fitness and talking to people who have opened micro-gyms in the yoga, functional training or Pilates field. We’re going headlong into virtual fitness and producing virtual content for our clubs. We’re also considering introducing to some of our clubs yoga facilities and Barre classes: performed on a ballet bar with resistance bands they’re big in the US and just coming to Australia.

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5:00pm: I check in with Tony Cannon, one of my partners in Komune, who’s in Bali. My other partner is our General Manager Wayne Moffat. The resort is on the Keramas surf break; it’s in a beautiful location and the past year has become more popular for weddings. Earlier this year, we opened the Health Hub offering yoga, cross-fit and functional training retreats and boot camps. The idea was to provide the facilities for our guests to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle while on holidays as well as providing a venue for fitness providers to run retreats. A growing number of people are going to Bali for health and fitness related holidays; they still want to sit around the pool and drink, but they also want to work out. I try to take a helicopter view of each of the businesses. I’ve got very capable people that I’m either partnered up with or who work with me in the different businesses. My main strength is that I’m always looking ahead and anticipating what’s going to happen a year or three years from now. We need to be on the ball because business is so competitive, especially in the fitness industry. I take a phone call from Sharon Kolkka, General Manager and Wellness Director at Gwinganna, for an update. It’s ticking along nicely at this stage, and we’re attracting more visitors every year. It’s been open nearly 10 years, and most of the team has been there since the beginning. I make a few more calls to keep in touch with my very wide network of friends and business colleagues. Talking about what’s happening in our various industries, whether it is fitness, Gwinganna or Komune, is something I find very stimulating, so I rarely sit down. There’s never a day when I think I’ve got all my calls done, or everything accomplished. There’s always something to do, but I enjoy it.

6:30pm. I’ve promised Sue I’d try and have a more balanced life, so I finish up for the day. A lot of people will stay in front of their computers until late in the evening, but I’m not as savvy on computers. I don’t have Facebook; I don’t explore the web too much. I just focus on the core businesses I’m in. We eat out about half the nights of the week and stay home the other half. Tonight we’re off to Erskineville to visit friends and on Friday, we’re heading to Gwinganna for our ‘Taste of Gwinganna’ weekend where we host friends and business associates three times a year. I feel fortunate to have had a successful career. I’ve had one or two ventures that have gone down, but nothing too painful. There have been lots of tough times, but you just have to keep pushing ahead. I was talking to my son last night about the three types of people in the world: those who make things happen; those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened. I instil that idea in my kids – you’ve got to get out and make things happen. And, if things are down, you push through and think about what you can do, rather than what you can’t. That’s the philosophy I’ve had all my life, and I’ve always worked hard. The other thing I tell my son is, “You only have to work half-days – you’ve just got to figure out which 12 hours of the day that is”.

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