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'As a child, my father had me handing out leaflets in a shopping centre. It was a business lesson'

This company manager was thrown into the deep end at the weigh-loss firm her parents established.

Fora Staff

WHEN I WAS a child, I grew up in a very different environment to a lot of children – not just because I lived in Newry during the Troubles.

Unlike many of my friends, my mother, Agnes McCourt, had her own business and I grew up as it was taking its baby steps.

It was the 1970s and it just wasn’t the norm for women to have a business, because once they had children, they were expected to stay at home.

Being around that business, and seeing the kick my mother and father got out of it, inspired me to eventually take it over from her. In a way, it was part of my DNA because the business all came as a result of my mother having me.

After giving birth, she gained three stone and she wanted to lose the weight herself, but there was nothing at the time that enabled her to do that.

Imagine the 1960s, there were no gyms, no exercise classes and no yoga groups where we were living in Co Down. There were also no supportive networks to help my mother to lose weight.

So with some encouragement from my father, she started what today is called Unislim.

Capture Fiona Gratzer Source: Unislim

How it started

It had humble beginnings. The parish priest gave her a hall and she created her own club so she could lose weight and help others to do the same. She really was the pupil and teacher all-in-one.

My father was also involved by writing the talks for my mother that she gave at the meetings.

So he would be at home looking up the Encyclopedia Britannica for tips because there was no internet and they had to get the information from somewhere.

In the end, all the members lost weight and that was how Unislim was conceived. But my mother didn’t really think for a second there could be a business out of it. So she went back to her teaching job.

However, it all really kicked off when one of the newspapers picked up on the story that there was a lady in Newry who could ‘talk the weight off you’.

She was the talk of the town and then that story was picked up by someone who worked in BBC Northern Ireland and my mother got an interview on the radio.

From then, everyone wanted to have a piece of her because they thought she could literally talk the weight off you – because she was so inspirational and motivating.

So both my parents gave up their pensionable jobs as teachers to focus full-time on it, with my mother the front of the organisation and my father behind the scenes and in the office managing the strategy.

Pitching in

I got involved in the business from an early age. Before my parents even had an office, we would be at home counting out leaflets and the membership plans to send out to the Unislim classes nationwide.

Our living room was essentially converted into a mini office and myself, my brother and sister were put to work. Even to this day I can look at a pile of leaflets and can tell how many are in it – it’s a skill.

Once they had an office, I would scoot around after school and swing myself around in the executive chair and fell in love with the environment. Everyone was buzzing around, there was activity and comings and goings.

It was like a toy shop for me and it showed me that all I wanted to do was work in that type of environment.

It wasn’t just counting leaflets though. My father would bring us to Dundalk to hand them out at the shopping centre and, looking back now, I think he was teaching us a business lesson.

He would observe quietly to see what the reaction would be from the public because we didn’t discern when we handed out flyers. We just handed them out randomly to people, but I don’t think it was very well received by too many people at the time.

Tracker-768x752 Source: Unislim

Not everyone was happy, because they thought we were inferring they needed to lose weight. It was a mistake and a real learning curve for me as losing weight is a real sensitive topic. You need to broach it very carefully.

From those early days, we have completely changed our strategy and wouldn’t hand leaflets randomly to people in shopping centres now.

We still do similar promotions and marketing campaigns, but because Unislim is a healthy lifestyle makeover, we would give out a healthy recipe or an eating plan or motivational tips that would be useful to everybody.

No regrets

After school, I went on to college to do an arts degree and followed that up with a postgrad in marketing, which was always my desire.

And while I was always interested in joining the business, my mother insisted that before I committed to it I should travel around the world. She wanted me to get new work experiences before I came back and decided to get immersed in the company.

It wasn’t a sure thing that I would definitely come back and work in the business. There was never any pressure on me to do that, but I did and I knew that to gain the respect of all the other staff that I needed to earn my stripes.

So I trained as a Unislim class leader so I could take classes, and I ran three or four a week. Then I worked in the office in the post room for at least a year, packing up parcels and literature to send people.

I’ve been running the business on my own for five years now and don’t look back or regret anything I’ve done in the company. Like everyone in business, I do make mistakes, but I’m not one to dwell on them.

Moving into technology and developing our new ‘club hub’ app for our members has been a massive financial investment, but it’s been a labour of love. We’ve made a few mistakes along the way with that but have adapted it to create a really interactive app.

We launched our first app a few years ago and that may have been a bit ahead of its time. It required a lot of money initially, but as development work is so expensive it needed even more to keep it constantly updated.

chi-550x550 Source: Unislim

My own stamp

The company is a huge legacy to take on, because Unislim is a well-known brand in Ireland.

I’ve put my own stamp on it with a brand refresh, because I want to appeal to the new, younger audience, as well as attracting more male members.

We need to make ourselves relevant to the next generation because Unislim is 45 years old this year, so I thought it was time to reinvigorate it.

We launched our new ‘feed yourself fit’ eating plan and also created Unislim Gorge Us, which is a food brand. Just over a year ago, we released our first product – frozen, rustic-cut oven chips – which is now available in 500 stores nationwide.

Looking to the future, I have two children, an 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. She came in briefly to help out during the summer – we put her to work doing blogs and helping in the office – but I would never pressure them to work in the business.

To be honest, I’m too happy running the business myself to worry about the line of succession right now. Retirement is a long way away and I don’t see myself giving it up.

Fiona Gratzer is the managing director of Unislim. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them. Originally posted on Fora.ie

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

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