From fitness gains to brand ideals: A Gymshark guide to leadership

From fitness gains to brand ideals: A Gymshark guide to leadership

From humble beginnings in founder Ben Francis’s parent’s garage in 2012, Gymshark has become a powerhouse of the fitness industry with 5.8 million followers on Instagram and a turnover of £401.9 million last year. In this month’s brand spotlight, we take a look at their journey and consider what we can learn from Gymshark’s success story


Gymshark was not Francis’s first attempt at building a business. While working part-time as a student he dabbled in building fitness tracking apps and drop-shipping health supplements. Ben’s passion for fitness was always the driving force behind his business dreams. So, when he was struggling to find gym clothes like the ones his fitness idols in the USA we wearing, he decided to make them himself.

“We saw the problem, and we solved it. We created bodybuilding and fitness wear inspired by what our heroes wore, and made it fit to our body types. We designed for ourselves (we were the customer) we spoke to the fitness market that wasn’t being spoken to.“

Ben Francis

Gymshark’s big break came at the 2013 Bodypower expo and the launch of their luxe tracksuits, modelled by some of their favourite athletes. Customers flocked to their stand and the tracksuit sold out completely.

“Although now it makes total sense, at the time, to have an open stand, with famous Youtubers wandering around and launching a product at the event – this was unique.”

Ben Francis


This led Gymshark to their, at the time, ground-breaking new strategy – influencer marketing.

“We created the product we wanted, and we communicated in the way we wanted to be communicated to. Through social media.”

Ben Francis

Francis sent samples of his clothes to his favourite fitness YouTubers (in the early 2010s YouTube was the rising star of social media), in the hope that they would love the products and wear them in their videos. Their strategy worked and Gymshark’s brand ambassadors, each with a huge social media following of their own, have become the cornerstone of their marketing strategy.

At this point, Gymshark seemed unstoppable, but exponential growth doesn’t come without its challenges. The brand’s 2015 Black Friday sale should have been a triumphant moment, but instead saw the Gymshark website crash under demand.

“The failure cost Gymshark an estimated $143,000 in lost sales. Worse, it also cost the company the trust it had spent years earning from customers expecting a great experience.

Francis penned more than 2,500 handwritten apologies that included discounts to those who were affected by the Black Friday crash.”


It is this authenticity and commitment to his customers that allowed Francis to weather this storm. 2015 is also the year that he decided to step down as CEO.

‘You end up having to balance your time between day-to-day activities for the role you’re working in, but you also have the inevitable founder and director responsibilities – like understanding financials, business structures, managing risk, long term plans, attending board meetings and so on. This is a lot to manage for anyone, let alone a young entrepreneur who has little to no prior business experience.’

Ben Francis

Francis recognised that he still had a lot to learn about running a business and so appointed Steve Hewitt to the role of CEO.

“It allowed me to spend my spare time working on my weaknesses… I’ve been able to learn and grow at a turbo-charged rate that will stand me in good stead over the next ten years, learning at a rate otherwise impossible.”

Ben Francis

Fast forward to August 20221 and Francis was ready to step back into the role of CEO and his ambitions for the brand are huge, in the video announcing his appointment he sets out his vision

‘We want this to be one of the greatest brands on the planet, we want this to be a brand that outlasts anyone in this building. I want this to be a brand that generations to come can also be proud of.’

Ben Francis

A Gymshark guide to leadership

Francis’s ambitions may seem lofty but given Gymshark’s incredible journey from garage workshop to international heavyweight, we wouldn’t bet against them. So what insights can we take away from this young entrepreneur’s story? Here are our four main takeaways.

The power of authenticity

Gymshark is a brand that really lives its values. This can be seen through their blog, which covers the lifting techniques, high protein recipes and product releases that you would expect from a sportswear brand. But, there is also a mental health hub: Deload, a demonstration of Vogueing and a diverse range of models, in terms of body type, skin tone, and disability, all wearing Gymshark clothes. The tagline ‘united we sweat’ underpins the idea that everyone is welcome in the Gymshark community. It’s a thread that you can see through the website, social media and choice of ambassadors.

This commitment to authenticity is further demonstrated by voluntarily publishing their ethnicity pay gap report and factory list alongside the mandatory gender pay gap report and tax strategy. This transparency demonstrates to customers and clients alike that Gymshark’s values are more than just taglines, but a set of principles that guide everything they do.

Understand and appreciate every function in your business

Putting ego aside for the good of the business is not something you would necessarily expect from such a young entrepreneur, but Francis has shown on multiple occasions that Gymshark comes first. Following his decision to step back as CEO he took on the roles of Chief brand officer, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Product officer to fully understand each function while building his leadership skills.

“I’ve worked in so many different facets of the business, I really think I’m in an amazing position now where I can amalgamate all of that knowledge, experience and expertise, and hopefully be the person that can really help to lead Gymshark to this next level.”

Ben Francis

Nurture your people; from your employees to the wider community

Of course, not everyone can utilise an army of social media influencers with thousands of followers, but you do have ambassadors. Are your employees proud to represent your company? Do your contractors return time and again? Would your clients recommend you to their stakeholders? Each of these individuals and groups has its own sphere of influence.

The Gymshark brand represents a diverse community of fitness enthusiasts from all walks of life. We see this not only in branding but also in their employer mission to be a place where everyone belongs.

Gymshark’s employees are at the heart of their employer brand and they proudly show them off through their ‘day in the life of‘ and ‘meet the family’ posts on LinkedIn and support them through the community events focused on health and wellbeing.

Looking after the employees you already have will help you to attract the brightest talent in the future. Morson can support you to build an employer brand to be proud of.

Trust your team, they’re better than you

You are never too important to ask for help. Despite being the founder of the company, Francis realised that Gymshark needed a CEO with more business experience, so he appointed someone who he could learn from.

‘As the business grew, it became clear that we needed a CEO who would manage the entire business. Steve Hewitt was clearly the person for this. He became the CEO in 2017 and we started the creation of the Gymshark board.

It allowed me to watch how Steve works, and learn from him. I’m a firm believer that you can learn extremely well by watching what others do who are better than you, ask them questions about why they do certain things, and truly understand what they do.

Ben Francis

Morson has a wealth of experience in recruiting the right people with the right technical skills for your business, whether that’s a new CEO or a technical specialist. You can even outsource your recruitment to us entirely through our RPO and MSP services. Our end-to-end solutions optimise every aspect of the recruitment process. With Morson as your recruitment partner, you’ll have an expert on hand to find the right people for every type of role.

RPO1 named as finalists at the In-House Recruitment Awards 2022

RPO1 named as finalists at the In-House Recruitment Awards 2022

We are thrilled to announce that RPO1 by Morson Group Onsite at Manchester United are finalists at the In-House Recruitment Awards 2022.

IHR is the largest, most inclusive community of In-house recruiters. Their members benefit from over 70 thought-leading live and virtual events each year. They’re also distributors of industry-leading digital content, community forums and an all-inclusive supplier directory.

The awards recognise the UK’s best in-house recruitment teams across all areas of the industry, from candidate experience to executive search strategies.

This nomination recognises RPO1’s work with Manchester United Football Club (MUFC). In 2021, we launched RP01 as a dedicated recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) service. We developed RP01 to support businesses that want to attract the best talent to their organisation, but can’t dedicate enough internal resources to the task.  Many Morson clients use the service, including globally-renowned businesses like MUFC.

Our team

A team of six from RP01 oversee all ‘off pitch’ recruitment for MUFC – both permanent and fixed term. We cover everything from traditional roles, such as those in head office, through to more niche requirements like account managers. We recently brought community engagement experts into the team to support school-aged children who want a career in football.

We’ve extended the scope of our relationship to support the Venue Ops team in casual hiring. They need c.800 stewards and ticket marshals for match days. To help reach this figure, we’ve boosted their talent attraction campaigns by advising on attraction techniques. We’ve also adapted the wording of job adverts to make roles appeal to a wider range of suitable candidates. We attend careers fairs that help people in the local community understand how to tailor their CVs to the club.

Digital strategy

Morson Digital Studio has launched a two-strand programme of activity for MUFC. Strand one utilises social media to ensure a high volume of applications across the various roles with a two-week lead time. We also use video content across social media to drive applications through to a CV drop. We received more than 1,000 applications in three days and there were more than 1 million impressions on Instagram. Strand two established a media partnership with leading HR and recruitment titles to promote the club’s approach to hiring. We drafted thought leadership and case study pieces which set new standards in recruitment amongst football clubs. Recently, we’ve produced a series of confidential marketing campaigns which will see some of the club’s media channels take a new direction.

We’ve also expanded MUFC’s potential talent network by enabling the co-signing of the Armed Forces Covenant. Our in-house team of ex-forces recruiting experts supported MUFC’s submission to the covenant. We acted as advocates for the club and utilised our own Gold Award. The club has organised an event welcoming potential ex-forces candidates for a tour to find out more about roles available. We look forward to seeing how this partnership develops.

Our RPO1 team at MUFC have successfully hired 239 vacancies across all departments at the club during the 21/22 season. The diversity of roles ranges broadly from specialist medical, coaching and academy roles within football, right through to finance, digital and partnerships vacancies across corporate commercial functions, and operational roles within Old Trafford stadium and Carrington training ground. No matter how unique or specialist a vacancy might be, we are never lacking in confidence with advice, and a plan to attract the best talent to the role.

For us It’s not just about filling roles, it’s about optimising the entire recruitment experience. Placing your ambitions at our heart, we become one with your organisation empowering you to transform your talent strategy. Visit the RPO1 website to find out more

Labour trends report: Where has all the talent gone?

Labour trends report: Where has all the talent gone?

For the first time since records began vacancies in the UK are outstripping the number of people seeking work.

Vacancies reached 1.3 million in February-April 2022, 499,000 more than pre-pandemic levels. Labour shortages are becoming a persistent feature of the market and the expected post-pandemic rush back into the office hasn’t happened. Competition for talent is fierce at the moment as employers face new challenges including:

  • rising economic inactivity
  • inflation
  • candidate expectations of their employers

In this labour trends report, we look at some of the causes of this tight labour market,
discuss the impact on businesses and employees, and consider what employers can do to attract talent in this challenging climate.

If you would like to discuss the content of this labour trends report contact

“You have to think about how you’re making a person feel. Data can tell you what’s happened, but you don’t always know why” – Karen Brookes, Sir Robert McAlpine

“You have to think about how you’re making a person feel. Data can tell you what’s happened, but you don’t always know why” – Karen Brookes, Sir Robert McAlpine

In our final feature with Sir Robert McAlpine’s Karen Brookes, director of people and infrastructure and member of the Board, we delve into the company’s drive for more diverse recruitment, Karen’s eclectic career background and the wheels that are in motion for Sir Robert McAlpine to pursue industry change.

Recruiting a diverse and inclusive workforce

“Something we’re extremely proud of is that in the last 12 months, we’ve developed a consultative employee network, made up of elected members, who act within affinity groups to ensure our organisation is truly diverse and inclusive because this is such a key area for us right now”.

“We’re using specialist recruitment techniques with Morson to bring a more diverse workforce into our organisation. These affinity groups oversee trends and challenges in areas like ESG, BAME, LGBTQ+ and working families. They each come from different backgrounds so bring various perspectives to the table to ensure we’re offering as much support to everyone within our business as possible. They’ll identify if our policies offer the same standards to both men and women, for example. They spot if certain groups in the organisation need extra training to put them on a level playing field with their peers.”

As part of Sir Robert McAlpine’s MSP with Morson, the company benefits from a wealth of recruitment technologies and support. Which are integral to ensuring it appeals to a diverse pool of talent.

“Using Morson’s resourcing teams, we ensure we’re wording job adverts correctly to be suitable for people of all genders, ethnicities and abilities. We also send quarterly EDI questionnaires to identify challenges and opportunities within the recruitment process. Morson has begun rolling out exit questionnaires, which deliver a new dimension of insight.

“Every business working in the sector has a duty to ensure they are working to make their recruitment policies more diverse and inclusive. There is still a lot of work to be done.”

Karen’s journey

In 2017, Karen became the first ever female Board member at Sir Robert McAlpine at the age of 53. Prior to this, her career had been what she herself describes as eclectic.

“I grew up in a working-class family,” she says, “I didn’t want to go to university, so I did my A-Levels and was married by 19. I had my children when I was still very young, having worked for a medical pharmaceutical company and then moved to a golf bag manufacturer. Balancing that with doing the bookkeeping for my husband’s business was a challenge. We owned fruit, veg, fish and floristry shops, but the businesses weren’t doing too well.

“I took a temporary job in my uncle’s builders merchants’ yard but saw an advert for a job in the furnishing and carpets division of ASDA. It was a six-month temporary role, but shortly after starting they offered me a permanent job in personnel. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and over the next six years, they supported me through additional qualifications in personnel management.

“Next, I joined a company which ran sales contracts for three-quarters of the UK on behalf of Yellow Pages. There my job involved comparing policies and employment contracts, salaries and benefits to fuse the two companies together. The job took me around the country and my children came with me wherever I went. Being a single parent and working as head of HR was a challenge, but I never looked back and worked my way through everything. But eventually, it was time for a change.

“I took a Board job with AMEC which was a completely different role; my previous job had been completely sales-focused, but was a very emotionally intelligent business. This was much more intellectually intelligent, with data-led work dealing with some extremely clever individuals. So during the four years I was there I learnt a lot of very valuable lessons – including that if you’re dealing with people, you have to think about how you’re making a person feel. Data can tell you what’s happened, but you don’t always know why. This is particularly important when it comes to diverse recruitment – the numbers can only tell you so much.”

Partnering with Morson

It was during her role with AMEC that Karen first came across Morson, who fulfilled a contract sourcing some of the niche skillsets the company required.

“Morson impressed me from the first day. We had a strong partnership, they were an open book and extremely positive. I knew I wanted to carry that relationship forward wherever I went. I moved into another board role with the Cabinet Office, then I joined WYG – now part of consulting and engineering firm Tetra Tech – as director of people and infrastructure. At WYG there was one person overseeing recruitment. It was a similar size organisation to AMEC – around 2,500 employees – so I decided to bring Morson in. Morson isn’t a business you do a single project with; they get it right, so you always go back. They knew what we needed to do to achieve our wider organisational ambitions, and by outsourcing, we reduced our overall costs. Plus, we needed niche skillsets and that is Morson’s specialism.”

“The job centred on a diverse range of people and their recruitment experience,” Karen says. “You have to consider the environment they’re working in, the tools they need to do the job. Do they have opportunities to progress? What was their experience like joining the business? What would it be like if they left us? The ultimate aim is to ensure that everyone has a positive experience, even if they leave. That was my final job before I joined Sir Robert McAlpine.

“So, this probably sounds quite eclectic, but I decided early on in my career that I wanted to work across many different sectors. I anticipated that I’d want to become a consultant and I wanted that rounded experience. Plus, working in so many fields keeps me switched on and I enjoy variety.”

Experiencing gender bias

In a typically male-dominated industry, has Karen experienced gender bias? Yes, she says, and she has advice for other women who might go through the same challenge.

“I’ve worked in distribution factories, in massively unionised businesses, in merchant yards and warehouses – of course I’ve experienced gender bias. This is another reason why I have always been so keen to try new roles. No one can tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I don’t act affronted when it happens. I’m firm and fair and make it clear I can work together with someone for a greater outcome. Whether that’s a better product, service or policy, rather than at loggerheads which is no good for anyone.

“If, as a woman, you experience gender bias and you feel comfortable enough to call it out, then do. If you don’t, take a breather and walk away. At a later point, speak to that individual on a one-to-one basis and ask, ‘do you know how that made me feel, is that what you intended?’. Most of the time they’re not aware – not many people deliberately embarrass others – using this approach they learn something. And of course, that applies to everything – any form of discrimination or bias. The more we all call it out, the less likely it is to remain in the discourse of an organisation.

A woman working on a construction site

Improving inclusivity

“Our affinity groups ensure we’re always thinking, always having conversations and looking at how we can progress in ED&I. A colleague once told me that during her first ever time on a construction site, there was no female toilet. Today, sites have specific toilets for male, female and trans colleagues. We take it for granted now, but that’s only due to the hard work of people pushing for change in the past.”

Today, Karen uses her extensive experience in construction to support others progressing through the industry. She wants the upcoming generation of talent to be equipped with the skills, values and ethos to be able to create an inclusive future for everyone.

“My role as a mentor is to encourage my mentees to set their own agenda. What is important to them, what do they want to learn from me that will help them progress? Yes, it’s a two-way conversation but it’s very much about them and what they need to get out of it. But really, I want everyone to focus on bigger picture strategy; not the ins and outs of their day jobs. How does our organisation fits into our crowded sector, what do we need to do to challenge norms? We want to become the go-to for people looking for a job that’s more about purpose than profit.

“With Morson, I’m confident that we can attract the right people and become known for all the fantastic opportunities we offer to candidates outside of their job description.”  

We understand the complexities and opportunities of widening participation and take our commitment to this very seriously. Our EDI consultancy is designed to help clients attract diverse talent into their organisation and improve/create inclusive cultures and identify barriers to inclusion in the recruitment process. Visit our EDI consultancy page to find out more.

“You have to think about how you’re making a person feel. Data can tell you what’s happened, but you don’t always know why” – Karen Brookes, Sir Robert McAlpine

“People seem to think construction is digging holes; they don’t realise the vast array of careers in the industry” – Karen Brookes, Sir Robert McAlpine

In our second feature with Sir Robert McAlpine’s Karen Brookes, director of people and infrastructure and member of the Board, we discuss employee culture at the organisation, why family values are so important and plans for engaging a new generation of leaders and skilled workers in their careers in construction.

“The range of employees here is vast, from individuals who’ve been with us for 40 years, to young talent joining our apprenticeship programme.” As such Karen has seen a wide variety of skills and experience at Sir Robert McAlpine.

“Our managing director in London started as an apprentice and worked her way up to the role of project director. She then took time out to travel with her husband as part of his job and have three children. After all that, she came back to rejoin us.

“People’s reasons for wanting to be part of our organisation vary. Some want hands-on experience in construction and the opportunity of a lifelong career. Others want to join a business that’s big on the sustainability and environmental agenda. Many want to be part of a team that gives back to the community.

“People seem to think construction is digging holes; they don’t realise the vast array of careers in the industry. And, yes we’re always working with our talent partner, Morson, to identify experts in niche trades – like stonemasons and carpenters. But for a construction business to thrive requires more expertise than you can imagine.”

Sir Robert McAlpine is well known in the industry for the benefits it offers employees for their hard work. Karen explains that these rewards create a career experience that becomes more than ‘just a job’, and creates a family-feel.

Attracting top talent through your brand

Employer branding is really important these days and is something we work closely with Morson on. We’re offering a package which is industry-leading, but also true to our values and not just an empty selling point”.

“Our suite of employee benefits shows our team that we care about what’s important to them. For example, giving everyone an extra day of holiday on their birthday. Volunteering days – with charities or local schools – so they can give back to causes that are important to them. And work experience weeks, where young people from our communities can get to grips with what a construction career involves. The benefits of these are mutual, for both the young person and our team members.

“There’s also the sabbatical bank, which we introduced just before COVID. Previously, each year, you could only carry five days of holiday forward. However, people weren’t able to take holidays abroad – or even in the UK – during the pandemic. So we gave them the chance to put any unused holiday into the sabbatical bank. On top of this, we promise to match anything that is put into the bank. It means every employee has the chance to take paid time out to do absolutely anything they want to do. Whether it’s a short career break, adding it onto the end of parental leave or doing something totally different like writing a book.

Family values

“We also take care of our employees – if they’re struggling, we do everything we can to turn that around. Throughout COVID, some of our employees’ partners were forced out of work because they were shielding, made redundant, or furloughed. We offered grants to help those people make ends meet. Offered a consolidated loan scheme to people who had outstanding debts which would make life more bearable during such a financially difficult time. We treat our staff like we would want our family members to be treated by their employers.”

And that focus on family transcends even further throughout the business.

Two construction workers, one male, one female, looking at a tablet

Parental leave equality

“When a new child enters a family, it’s such a special time. We’ve made our paternity and maternity policy gender-neutral. Every new parent receives 26 weeks of paid leave regardless of gender. They can take it in year one or over a three-year period. It’s their choice as to how they spend time with their family.

“When we introduced this policy, some older team members pointed out that it was something they never benefitted from. Now we’re looking into grandparental leave so that all generations of a family can spend quality time together and get to grips with all the changes that a new child brings.”

Whether it’s a case of appealing to candidates in the market who are seeking a new role or ensuring existing team members feel compelled to remain within the business, Karen explains that Sir Robert McAlpine’s employer brand is one of its most valuable assets.

Tackling churn

“Attrition rates in the industry can be as high as around 20 per cent, but we’re operating much lower than that. I believe it’s down to how we, as an organisation, and how Morson as our talent partner, take care of our core team and any contractors who join us on a project basis. Working together with Morson, we’re always analysing how best to engage with the workforce – what do they want? What would they value? What could we introduce that could make their experience with us even better?

“And it does help achieve long-term employee loyalty, which we can then use to benefit the business further. For example, we’re about to launch SRM Accelerate, which is a tool for succession planning for the very top levels of the organisation. We’re looking at the next director of people, the next 10 MDs of our regional businesses, perhaps even the next CEO.

“Also, this year we’re launching our Future Leaders programme, which is for everyone working at level four or below, who may be at the start of their careers. Anyone can apply to be part of it and they’ll receive management training, working on real-life organisational challenges and projects with a view to them moving up in the organisation across the next five years.

“At any one time, we have between 100 and 150 graduates and apprentices and that pool is diversifying in terms of who comes through the door, whether that be gender, ethnicity or ability. We want to typify the communities in which we’re building our projects, and demonstrate that a career in construction is open to everyone.”

Finding the right fit

Morson and Sir Robert McAlpine work together to encourage people of all backgrounds to apply for roles within the company, using specialist technology. Morson deploys diversity questionnaires to drive inclusion within the recruitment process and utilise gender neutralising technology to scan job adverts for any language with gender bias. And what’s also key is striking a perfect balance between experience and skills, and values and beliefs, to ensure they support people to carve out careers in construction for life.

“When you’re recruiting in this marketplace, it is so important to test people’s skills and capability. If you’re an engineer, for example, we’d expect you to have a certain number of years’ experience. But absolutely, the most crucial thing to us is behavioural fit and cultural values. If there was a couple of years’ difference in trade experience between two people but it was clear the person with fewer years under their belt would fit better in our organisation, there’s no question as to who would get the job.

“We’re currently in talks with Morson about launching a cultural psychometric questionnaire which will soon become part of our selection process. We’re in a strong position in that we work with Morson for our talent resourcing, and they understand our organisation, and what types of personalities would fit best with our own, but I feel you can never do enough work in this area because even just one hiring error a year can be damaging and expensive.


“These days, people change jobs every three or four years; there aren’t many professions or organisations where you have a shot at a 40-year career, but construction can offer that, it’s a real differentiator. And that’s a blueprint we want to pull together to set a new standard in the industry, and is why personality fit is so important. If your values and beliefs are in line with ours, then we have the programmes in place and the employee benefits you’ll need to map out a construction career which sees you develop personally and professionally. You just have to show you’re as committed to us as we are to you.”

The way businesses attract, convert and delight talent needs to be agile, insightful, and unique. Candidates and employees demand more. Organisations need to understand their audience and find innovative ways to make their brand shine in front of the right people. To help, we created Morson Digital Studio.