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'I sold my house to start my business. My dad was the only one to back me'

As part of our How My Business Works series,we profile Motivation Weight Management.

Image: Motivation Weight Management

FOR FIVE YEARS after he sold his house, Paul Connolly struggled to get his business off the ground.

The 52-year-old Wicklow native and his wife Aisling run Motivation Weight Management, a chain of clinics across Ireland that aims to help people lose weight to improve their health.

Connolly, who spent years working in sales for car companies, moved over to the UK in the early 90s as the Irish economy was suffering.

While there he and his 65-year-old father, who worked as a doctor, decided to return to Ireland to start a weight-loss treatment clinic.

The business was successful at first, and the pair opened more outlets in Cork and Limerick. However, as the years dragged on people started to raise questions about the effectiveness of weight-loss treatment chains like the one the Connollys ran.

Connolly himself says that while the treatment was generally successful initially, many patients would regain weight once they stopped going to the clinics and taking weight-loss medication.

“Around that time, medication was getting a bad name and bad press. Results were poor and people were relying too much on medication,” he tells Fora. “I wanted to find something that would help us deal with the mental part of it.”

Connolly went looking for a better approach to helping people lose weight, and ended up travelling to North America where he heard a lecture from obesity expert Dr Maurice Larocque on how people could lose weight by focusing on their mental health, not just on medication.

Convinced that this approach was the way to go, Connolly went to the banks looking for a loan to get a new clinic, one based on Larocque’s research, off the ground.

“I was looking for €50,000, and unfortunately the bank wouldn’t lend me the money,” he says. “I had to sell my house in Sandyford and then rent to set up my first clinic.

“I remember everyone saying that dealing with the mind was probably ahead of its time and wouldn’t work. The only person who backed me and said ‘go with your gut’ was my dad.”

Connolly’s father has since passed away, but not before he got to see his son get his new business off the ground.

‘Gut feeling’

Connolly opened the first Motivation Weight Management clinic in Dublin city centre in 1992 at the age of 32. While he was confident in his new business, it took years for it to take off.

“I just had a gut feeling that it was going to work. The first five years were a struggle with people getting to know us.

“Initially we were small with just the Dawson Street clinic, but as our client numbers grew we opened in Cork and Limerick again.”

During this time Connolly’s wife Aisling joined the business, and now helps him run the firm.

paul connolly motivation weight aisling Aisling and Paul Connolly

“She came on board in about 1997. She worked in Sherry Fitzgerald in admin and she came in to help with the admin stuff for us one day. She was so good and liked the business so much that we both decided she should stay,” he says.

“After that we started expanding a bit more, and then got into franchising organically. Some ex-clients started opening clinics and the franchising started from there.”

Motivation Weight Management now has over two dozen locations across the country. Some 10 of these are directly owned and controlled by head office, while the rest are franchisees.

The company offers one-to-one meetings with consultants – it doesn’t do group sessions like organisations such as Weight Watchers.

At these meetings, the consultant draws up a meal plan with the customer and gives them a list of mental exercises to do.

“All of our consultants are trained in cognitive behavioural therapy. They give out weekly handouts and do exercises that help with self-image and motivation,” says Connolly.

“For example, for a visualisation exercise they could picture themselves at their ideal weight at work or at their daughter’s wedding.”

The firm also does some work with people who have eating disorders, but Connolly says that “in the main we are a weight-loss clinic”.

Consultations are weekly and tend to last about an hour. One meeting costs about €27. Most customers normally do a 10- or 20-week programme.

Paul Connolly motivation weight 1 cropped Paul Connolly Source: Motivation Weight Management

Franchises

As well as taking in money from its customers, Motivation Weight Management also gets a cut of the sales from its franchisees.

People who want to set up one of their own clinics pay an upfront fee of between €15,000 and €25,000 for a licence, depending on the area they are looking to set up in.

Franchisees then pay 8% of their turnover to the firm’s head office, which Connolly says go towards “management services” and “national marketing”.

Connolly says the firm employs about 100 people, has sales of €6 million and is profitable.

The company’s clinics are fairly evenly spread across the counties, with multiple outlets clustered in urban centres like Dublin and Cork.

Its services are targeted at “anyone who wants to lose weight, from half a stone to 20 stone”.

The way Connolly sees it, there aren’t many competitors in the field. While he says some individual doctors offer a one-to-one, weight-loss service that’s based around mindfulness not many chains offer anything similar.

motivation weight clinics A map of Motivation Weight clinics Source: Motivation Weight Management

“Personal trainers do (offer one-to-one services), but they don’t offer treatment on the psychological side. That’s what’s different for us,” he says.

Passing the torch

The company previously toyed with the idea of rolling out its concept across Europe, however Connolly says that the firm is focused on expanding across the Irish border.

“At the moment we are busy with training seminars and with developing an app. They’re taking up a lot of time,” he says.

“Once we have that sorted we will be looking to partner with someone in the North to set up clinics there.”

He adds: “(I don’t think) we will move into Europe, we have enough on our plate. I don’t believe in getting too big because things can get out of hand. The Irish market is our only interest at the moment.

“We’ve also started doing online consultations through Skype. It’s up and running, but it only has a handful of people, so it’s something we’re looking to expand as well.”

As his father did with him, Connolly would like to involve his children in his business. He and Aisling have three girls, aged between 11 and 16, and the Wicklow native hopes that they show an interest in his company when they get older.

“My eldest will be doing the Leaving Cert next year and she wants to go into psychology, so it would be something that would interest them,” he says.

“It would be great to see them carrying on the business, a passing of the torch, but it’s a while away yet.”

This article is part of our weekly series examining the nuts and bolts of businesses. If you would like to see your company featured please email news@fora.ie.

Written by Paul O’Donoghue and posted on Fora.ie

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