Ben Francis didn’t become wealthy through a family inheritance or business school connections.
Instead, the CEO and co-founder of Gymshark used his Pizza Hut job earnings at age 19 to buy a sewing machine and start his fitness apparel company in his parents’ Birmingham, U.K., garage.
Eleven years later, his adolescent tactics literally paid off. Francis, 30, who has a reported net worth of $1.3 billion, joined Forbes’ billionaires list for the first time on Wednesday. He’s in rare company: The list’s average age is 65 years old.
Originally, Francis and co-founder Lewis Morgan launched Gymshark as a website selling fitness supplements, he told CNBC Make It in 2021. But after getting fed up with his ill-fitting weightlifting clothes, Francis suggested pivoting the company.
He and Morgan used their savings to buy a sewing machine and a screen printer, and his mom sent him videos to teach him how to sew, he added.
The pair brought Gymshark to a bodybuilding expo in 2013, but didn’t have any money to spend on advertising. On a whim, “about 10 minutes into the event,” they decided to give popular fitness YouTubers free products, Francis said.
“My heroes were on YouTube,” he said. “So it was just a case of, ‘Oh, it would be so cool if our heroes would come to the U.K. and be with Gymshark at this event.’ I didn’t really think that much into it.”
Some of those influencers went on to wear the apparel on their channels, launching Gymshark’s sales to $45,000 per day, up from just $450, according to Forbes.
A couple months later, Francis dropped out of college to run the company full-time — but vacated the CEO role in 2017, passing his title to former Reebok director Steve Hewitt.
“CEO was not the right role for me when I was in my early 20s,” Francis told CNBC Make It. “Just because I’d started a business that had grown very quickly didn’t mean I was the most competent chief exec.”
He spent the next four years in supporting leadership roles within Gymshark — including chief product officer and chief marketing officer — to learn more about the ins and outs of the business, before returning as CEO in 2021.
That year, he sold a 21% stake in Gymshark to private equity firm General Atlantic for $300 million — a deal that valued the company at $1.45 billion, according to Forbes. Francis reportedly still owns 70% of the business.
Still, the company’s billion-dollar valuation is a fraction of the market value of competitors like Nike and Lululemon: roughly $166 billion and $44 billion respectively, as of Friday morning.
“I really think Gymshark can be the U.K.’s answer to those brands,” Francis told CNBC Make It. “But that’s not saying that the U.K. is where it starts and ends for us. We also want to be a truly global brand.”
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