A former partner at McKinsey & Company, the CEO of Pure Gym Humphrey Cobbold is one of the leading figures in the world of fitness, heading a network of 264 gyms that receive 75 million visits a year from over 1.1 million members.
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Private Equity & Venture Capital
Getting fired from your first CEO position might not sound like a great career move but Humphrey Cobbold believes the experience has made him a better boss.
Until that moment in 2013 as CEO of online cycling retailer Wiggle, his CV was impeccable. After attaining a master’s in geology from the University of Cambridge, he joined McKinsey’s, where for over 15 years he worked on close to 100 projects across multiple sectors and continents. Then a client, Trinity Mirror, persuaded him to leave consultancy for an executive committee role at the media giant. Wiggle was his first shot at the top job.
During his time in charge he grew turnover from £33m to £170m, he increased annual profits from £4m to £16m, and sold the business for its founders at a good price. “By pretty much any measure that was a successful, if slightly white-knuckled, ride as Chief Executive,” he says. But the new investors decided on a new course.
“When private equity guys do that…they’ll reset the senior team, and the Chief Executive is pretty much the first one to get the chop. That’s the way it works,” he says. “I was out on a Monday afternoon and not allowed to go back to the business that I had given my heart and soul to for four and a half years.”
He had never experienced anything like it. “Up until that point, people would’ve looked at my career and probably said: you haven’t put a foot wrong – you were well-educated, you have a degree from Cambridge, you went to McKinsey, you did an MBA at INSEAD, you went to an interesting company in Trinity Mirror, etc., etc. It’s pretty golden. Then you get fired.”
At first it hurt. “When it happens it absolutely knocks you. I defy anybody who says otherwise,” he tells SRI.
But today, as he heads the UK’s leading gym chain and pioneer of the low cost, high quality fitness experience, he has come to see that painful episode as ultimately beneficial in his journey as a business leader.
“People can spot really quickly if a leader does not really believe, or is not true about, what they’re saying”
“I think that was good for me. I think that if I had a bit of a bubble, it punctured it. It taught me a degree of empathy and sensitivity to people, because I’ve had to let some people go,” he says. “I look back on it, with hindsight, as an entirely positive experience, although I’d be misleading you if I suggested I viewed it as such at the time.”
In running Pure Gym, a business which he has grown at over 60 percent CAGR since 2011, he relies on a sense of what he calls “healthy paranoia” to keep ahead of his competitor set. “The moment arrogance and complacency creep in, you’ve got a tough job on your hands,” he says.
Although he describes his career path as a “mosaic of experiences” rather than a linear progression, his success has been underpinned by his time at McKinsey and the deep learning he gained in varied business environments; “That gives you tremendous reservoir of patter recognition that allows you to reference situations that you see and observe.”
He says that, as much as convergence is important, divergence will be an increasing feature of the business landscape: “Lots of aggregated business models are getting broken up. I mean, fitness clubs used to be fitness, plus sitting around, plus coffee, plus food. We’ve broken that up and said: ‘How about you just come to the gym? Go next door to Costa for coffee.’”
Clarity of purpose, strong communication and empathy are qualities Cobbold values in leadership, but “top of the list” is authenticity. “People can spot really quickly if a leader does not really believe, or is not true about, what they’re saying, or if what they do is different from the words that come out of their mouth” he says.