‘I didn’t grow up dreaming of owning a gym. I had no money and had to take the opportunity’
THERE’S A CERTAIN irony to meeting Philly McMahon in a commercial gym in the middle of one of Dublin’s busiest business districts. This is behind enemy lines.
As lunchtime approaches, the steady stream of members coming through the doors develops into a more constant flow. The music gets a little louder and the place comes alive.
From our position in the reception area, you can see that the gym floor has become overly-populated and there’s now a queue waiting for the next bench and squat rack to become available.
“My gyms aren’t like this,” he jokes.
It’s less than a week after the 29-year-old helped Dublin to a second successive All-Ireland title and the smile is still etched on his face. Understandably so, too.
While many of his team-mates are still reveling in the achievement, McMahon has returned to reality and the daily grind associated with running two businesses.
In the last few years, McMahon has added FitFood Ireland to his portfolio and now runs it alongside his three private gyms on the north side of Dublin. Factor in his own playing and training commitments and time is very much of the essence.
Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
“I suppose a nine to five job is a little bit more secure,” he tells The42. “You can at least switch off for the weekend and not have to worry about things slipping when you’re away.
“I’m lucky I have a lot of good staff who are working for me and they’re doing really well. They help the business massively and it allows me to take that time off and not have to worry.”
McMahon has never really known security and to get a better understanding of the depths he plunged to before embarking on his journey, it’s worth rewinding ten years.
As a teenager freshly out of school, the Ballymun native didn’t care much for points and courses. To keep his parents happy, McMahon enrolled for a two-year Post Leaving Cert (PLC) course in Coláiste Íde studying Sports and Leisure Management.
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At this stage, he was working his way through the Dublin football ranks and had become a regular in the minor and U21 set-up. A job as a lifeguard in Malahide’s Arena health club presented itself as part of his course and McMahon couldn’t refuse the cash.
“I was getting up at 6am and it was just something I didn’t enjoy doing, thinking that it’s what I would be doing for the rest of my life,” he explains.
“So I went and got a job in the DCU gym. I was young and stupid and had a big car and a big loan. I was surrounded by people who were in college especially in Ballymun Kickhams. There were like two communities in one there and a lot of the Glasnevin lads would have been in college and I got the bug.
“But I didn’t know how to do it but in the end I had to repeat the Leaving Cert. I spoke to my parents and they said they would support me in whatever way they could. They fed me, a long pan and a packet of ham for lunch and €2 a day for a drink.
“I was driving into school in a big Audi A4. People must have thought i was loaded but I was broke at that stage.”
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
From there, McMahon progressed into an Education and Training course in DCU — but he was still financially stricken. His parents could only feed him for so long, so he needed to do something. Anything.
And that’s when he turned a corner.
“I had an opportunity with Ballymun Kickhams,” the three-time All-Ireland winner continues. “They had a space in the clubhouse and I started training for women. At that stage the obesity levels in Ireland were massive.
“The attic upstairs was used for the teams and there was a bit of equipment in it. Over the years, everything I made I just stated to put back in to develop and build it.
“I was always looking to see what Strength and Conditioning coaches were doing with Dublin. Always upskilling myself with courses and seminars but it happened from playing sport and I got that bit of a passion. It was an opportunity, I needed money so I had to do something.
“What I was doing, boot camp-style training, very few other people were doing. It just caught fire and blew up from there.”
This was all happening when McMahon, 19 at the time, was breaking into the Dublin senior side. As a footballer with a promising future, it would have been easy for him to sit back and accept the situation; to collect social welfare every week and accept that he, having grown up in Ballymun, was not meant to own a business.
It was, if truth be told, more out of necessity than anything else. After all, he had nothing to lose so it was worth a shot.
“There was very little investment needed. I had very little to lose. So even if I started off and made a lot of money and eventually things went pear-shaped, at least then I started with nothing and ended with nothing.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I didn’t understand business. I never did Business Studies in school or college and I just had to learn through practical means. I eventually got support and got business mentoring and coaching so that opened my eyes. When the market was going really bad, I then started to look at what I was not doing and I was doing an awful lot wrong.
“For me, the vision I have or where I want to get to I haven’t even taken the risk that I want to take. I’m hoping over the next year and a half that risk will come about and I get the opportunity to do it.”
From that small room in the clubhouse at Ballymun Kickhams, BeDo7 was born and McMahon now operates three gyms; two private and one for sports teams.
In a ferociously competitive industry, separating yourself from the rest is key to success and while is stature as a Dublin footballer helped along the way, McMahon says their unique model has been the main factor in the company’s growth.
In essence, his gym is everything the commercial one we’re sitting in isn’t; personalised and trainers working with clients on an individual or small group basis. Their tagline is: A fitness club for people who hate gyms.
“We’re very personalised. That’s what we’re trying to do and sell. Let them come to us, explain to them what we do and let us show you the value for money we give you.
“If you go to a mainstream gym, you’ll pay your membership, maybe not use it and the majority of those members don’t fulfill their membership or use the gym enough so probably drop off.
“We’re there to help them members to bring them and the system we use is designed to help people move better, become stronger and become leaner.
“I learn every day from my members. There’s a unique atmosphere which I don’t think you could replicate in any other gym in the country. I’m very lucky to have those people. Great atmosphere, a sense of community. Everybody knows everybody in my gyms.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
“Whether you’re big, small, fit, unfit, gay, straight, struggling with drug addiction, mental health, we cater and welcome and support everybody.”
With a membership base of over 200, McMahon’s gym business is thriving and the success of that allowed him to invest in FitFood Ireland, a seperate company which employs five people currently.
“I started my first company when I was 19 so I’ve been doing it along time,” he adds. “I’ve been through the whole ups and downs of the industry and seen how much it has been saturated.
“But we’re hoping to open up a restaurant soon enough and hopefully upscale the model for the gyms soon.
“My companies are about developing something bigger than I am as a person. I want to do things that I shouldn’t. I’m from an area in Ballymun that a lot of people would think you couldn’t open a chain of gyms or a chain of restaurants if you’re from there.
“I want to change that stigma and give back to where I grew up and give back to the area which has given so much to be. That’s the vision I want to create; something I didn’t think I could.
“I didn’t dream of it, it happened by opportunity. An opportunity came along and I needed money, I had to do. It wasn’t something that I always wanted to do. It’s funny you get a lot of people saying ‘it was my dream to open my own gym’.
Who doesn't love a bit of planking first thing in the morning? 💪 get in and get it done! Goooood morning! ☀️ pic.twitter.com/pS3RsVlVRF
— BeDo7 (@be_do7) May 27, 2016
“I guarantee you when you’re a kid in school and the teacher asks you what do you want to be when you grow up, you’ll never say ‘I want to open my own gym.’
“It’s not really a dream of mine but something I’m really, really passionate about and this industry is something that gives me a challenge everyday I wake up. I suppose it excites me to wonder where I can take it.
As McMahon’s stature as one of the most recognisable sportsmen in the country has grown, so too has his capacity to grow his portfolio. The two have gone hand-in-hand.
“It was difficult in the beginning because people were going to the gym possibly because of my profile being a Dublin player. As a Dublin player, you’d like to think you know your stuff, you’ve been around highly professional people and you could potentially give some of that knowledge back to clients so that’s probably why we had such a big push in terms of members.
“My target was to eventually design a model that people would go to my gym based on the gym and not me and I think that’s what has happened.”
More information on Bedo7 and FitFood Ireland can be found on their websites.
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