How keeping fit keeps business in the black…

14 August 1998

How keeping fit keeps business in the black…

Opening a fitness club has kept profits in shape for one

Northumberland farming family. Sarah Walton reports

FIT for life, fit for business is the motto of Northumberland farming couple Anthony and Crissy Stoker. Putting that philosophy into practice led them to open a fitness centre on one of their two farms.

The Fitness Club complements a holiday cottage business run at Village Farm, Shilbottle, by Crissy. A row of neglected stables and outbuildings have been transformed into a holiday complex which includes a heated indoor swimming pool, recreation area, seven holiday houses and a hard tennis court.

The club exploits the existing facilities of the pool, sauna and sunbed, built in 1992, to extend the season of the holiday homes. A gym, steam room and sun room were opened last July.

The Stokers original plan was to build a gym for their holiday customers to use. But, as their designs began to take shape, and when Alnwick District Council shelved its plans for a new fitness centre, the family identified a bigger business opportunity.

"We operated on the basis of adding value to the property," explains Anthony. "If the venture didnt work for some reason, at least the building would still make a nice house."

Crissy adds: "We didnt want it to be dreary. We wanted the Ahh… factor."

Local builder

That was delivered with the help of local builder Robin Darling – at a price. The building work cost about £60,000, while at least £20,000 was spent on fitness equipment. Borrowed money was used with a realistic plan of repaying the majority within five years.

A highly trained team of three staff the gym. Their responsibilities include supervising their clients individual fitness requirements on the basis of a personal fitness plan.

The Stokers place strong emphasis on integrating the fitness club with the familys farming business which centres on Town Foot Farm, a 175ha (430 acre) holding rented from Alnwick Estates.

Main enterprises are cereals, sheep and ostriches. Last year, Mr Stoker cut his mule ewe flock from 600 to 200 enabling him to give up some rented grazing and allow more time to devote to the fitness centre.

His working day starts at 6.30am with a trip to the pool – not to swim, but to check the chemicals and clean the toilets.

Next he feeds the ostriches. The 11 three-year-old birds were acquired at three months and the hens have started to lay. Anthony collects the eggs three times a day. The eggs are kept cool and then delivered weekly to a special incubation unit near Duns.

Returned for rearing

After hatching they are returned for rearing and take 12 months to reach prime condition for the specialist food market. After inspecting the sheep, Anthony looks after any handiwork around the holiday complex that needs attention.

Meanwhile, Crissy deals with clients and the office. She manages the bookings, insurance, advertising and accounts. The busiest day is Saturday when guests leave by 10am and a small army of part-time employees arrives to clean each house and sort out the linen before holidaymakers arrive after 3pm.

On top of their hefty business and family commitments, Anthony and Crissy are both training to become fully qualified fitness instructors.

So would they recommend opening a fitness centre to anyone looking to diversify farm income? "Research is essential," explains Anthony. The Stokers devoted two years to planning the Fitness Club.

"First ask, is there a real need for this enterprise? If yes, aim for top quality and go for it." Then, he adds wryly: "But not if you live near me."

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