Mat Williams: Pain And Gain
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
A key part of the human experience is our desire to belong, to find meaning and to play our part in a wider story. Why do you think the creative story-telling industries of film, literature and music have been relatively untouched by the last ten recession-tainted years? Deep in our inner-beings, we long for significance, connection and purpose.
But, with this in mind, one of the most difficult lessons to learn along the way is that, despite our best efforts, sometimes we are unable to fully control our circumstances and outcomes. Sometimes the storm clouds gather and there is nothing we can do but grit our teeth and press through.
I recently visited Mat Williams, former professional rugby player and, more recently, co-founder and co-owner of Unit 7 Gym (U7) on Marsh Barton, Exeter. I was blown away by his positive outlook, particularly bearing in mind his unexpectedly challenging career journey to date. The conversation that followed was a real pleasure and inspiration. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it.
Hi Mat. Great to finally meet. Could you tell me about your background and career so far?
“Hey Joff. It’s good to finally meet. So, my professional career began at 18, following my A-levels. I was a dual-schoolboy International at rugby and athletics and signed my first professional rugby contract with Cardiff, before being given an opportunity to play in Ireland, representing Munster. Following three successful seasons and gaining International honours at under-21 level, I had an opportunity to return to Cardiff Arms Park- a dream move back to my hometown club. It was all going so well with seven years of career progression, amazing opportunities and experiences. Life felt fantastic. I felt fantastic.
My career, however, was cut short by illness. After a routine groin operation, I contracted MRSA and spent eighteen long months in bed, trying to recover. I now realise that I was battling depression as well as MRSA: one week I was running around with my teammates enjoying pre-season and revelling in the adoration, camaraderie, lifestyle, self-expression and confidence that playing sport professionally brings. The next week I was laid up in bed, the reality that I would never play professional rugby again, setting in. My confidence took a real hit and I began to doubt myself in everything I did.
By 2004, I had set up my own Personal Training business but, being the son of a Head Teacher, I then decided that education was the way forward. I spent 3 years training as a teacher, funding my studies through being a PT. Whilst I enjoyed my career as a PE teacher, the school environment wasn’t for me. It left me disillusioned with our education system and at odds with school politics, so I realised that I needed to make a difference on a larger scale, to people who really wanted to improve themselves.
In the spring of 2014, a chance meeting with a local gym owner gave me an opportunity to move on from teaching and I became the Manager of a brand-new gym in Exeter; Peak Performance. At the time, Exeter hadn’t been overrun by big chain-gyms, so it felt like a good time to be part of a new gym venture. Despite this, I had no real experience in management and, even though I love the gym environment and am passionate about the many positive impacts of training, it was a difficult time for me. However, it taught me a lot. It taught me about business. It taught me that a gym needs a clear identity, values and direction. It taught me that it is vital to work as part of a team and to support and nurture the careers and talents of colleagues.
The journey towards creating U7 began whilst I was still working at Peak Performance. It was there that I began training Simon Almond, owner of Devon Contract Waste. We built a great friendship and realised that we shared many of the same beliefs about business, life and people. We would often talk about wanting to create some kind of health hub to support people with their mental health and wellbeing and it seemed inevitable that we would go into business together in some capacity. When the opportunity arose to buy Peak Performance, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss (although it wasn’t what we had in mind and far from what we were planning on doing). It was a calculated risk, however, and an opportunity to develop something special. My mixed experiences as manager at Peak Performance absolutely helped to shape how we run our business at U7 today. I love the fact that we have been able to build a team of carefully-selected, like-minded, dependable personal trainers who are committed to what we are trying to achieve at U7, and they have all been team players in other capacities. We are quite simply a bunch of good, honest people who work together, socialise together and know and respect each other’s life and work experiences.”
That’s an amazing journey Mat. What is the broader vision for your business?
“It’s something that we have given a lot of thought and we have distilled things down to the following statements. We want to remain Exeter’s leading independent gym by providing a unique, high quality and premium training facility at an affordable price; to develop our community of members and our strong team of personal trainers and coaches; to support and encourage our coaches to develop themselves in all aspects of health and fitness and to help them be successful; to develop a reputation for doing this well and in an ethical and personalised way, cutting through the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality and fads that have plagued the fitness industry and to promote a more open-minded approach to health and fitness, allowing people to simply enjoy training!
As our slogan suggests, Unit 7 is ‘More than a Gym’. We are a community and together we are stronger. At U7, you can train how you want to train and be who you want to be, in a friendly, encouraging and supportive environment. We want our members and all who are involved with U7 to be proud of their gym.”
It sounds like you are building something really special here. What have some of your challenges been?
“Clearly, my battle with depression and MRSA took me to some very dark places. Those experiences, however, have equipped me with a huge sense of compassion and empathy for others. It has absolutely directed how I feel about the fitness industry and how it can benefit the wellbeing of society.
Also, tackling the huge world of social media and tapping into its potential for marketing has been something I have tried to avoid as the concept isn’t something I have naturally taken to. I am all too aware of its power when it comes to advertising though and I have had to embrace it. We’ve had to learn how to reach people, find the right people to help and generate ideas that promote the gym in a unique but appropriate way.
Finally, and arguably most significantly, the emergence of larger, commercial gyms certainly presents challenges. These are challenges that we are facing head-on. We are enjoying being Exeter’s best independent gym and will continue to evolve and improve what we do.”
On the flip-side, what have some of your most notable successes been to date?
“I co-own a business! We are rebranding, albeit very much a ‘work in progress’, much like everything at the moment. But, we are developing a great team of individuals and we are committed to developing them further. They have demonstrated excellent commitment to the cause and are a huge asset to our business. We have such a diverse range of qualities, life experiences and skills between us, and our U7 community is certainly benefiting from that. Improved communication has meant that we are constantly gaining feedback and this continues to educate the evolution of our business plan. We are developing a great environment to work and train in. To me, this is a huge success, both for the business and personally. I never thought I would be able to help shape a business. I always wanted to work in a way that was true to my values and beliefs, but always thought it would be on a much smaller scale, not with my own business or team of people!”
And what are some of the values that drive you personally?
“I would say that honesty, kindness, and determination to be better are all big things for me. Throughout my short rugby career, I was intent on improving myself both physically and mentally; I strived to develop a bulletproof body and a bulletproof frame of mind. On the pitch, I felt incredible confidence, born from the fact that I knew I had prepared well. I studied speed, strength, mobility and nutrition and I lived and breathed the sport. If you wanted to get ahead, you had to educate yourself (a lot of trial and error) and I really enjoyed the process. Unlike today, there weren’t these incredible sporting academies where everything is laid out for you and where ‘science is king’. I have always been committed to life-long learning and this is something I aim to promote with my PT clients now- striving to equip them with the knowledge and skills to make life-long changes, not just quick fixes.”
What does the future hold for you Mat?
“We are still a long way off where we want to be. What we have achieved as a collective, at U7 in such a short space of time, has been incredible. The gym has developed and improved beyond recognition but we are under no illusion that we still have lots to do. I am excited about our trainers and even more excited for our members. They will play a huge part in our future development and have so much to look forward to. We are committed to providing an excellent facility here in Exeter that our community and coaches can be proud of. We plan to introduce the U7 Academy where education will be at the heart of everything we do. We will be strengthening Community links and will continue to work with high-level athletes as well as those who want to improve themselves both mentally and physically.
Also, I have recently become a member of the UK Strength and Conditioning Association and plan on sitting my exams in the not-too-distant future. I’d love to work with high-level athletes and provide them with an exceptional facility in the coming years. I’m also currently studying to be a nutritionist and am enjoying learning again and widening my areas of expertise.”
What advice would you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Losing my dad suddenly at 18 has certainly shaped the way I see things. Although some may say that the world of business is cut-throat, I actually believe that, as in life, you need to be a genuinely nice person. Being a nice person will make you desirable to work with, for all the right reasons. I would like to think that if you asked anyone who knows me they would say I’m a genuinely nice, approachable guy. Of course, you also need to back yourself, grow a thick skin and be resilient. Being a nice person doesn’t equate to weakness. Perhaps there are certain situations/industries where being bullish in business is vital, but not in my experience so far. You can show strength by dealing in facts and not fiction; you should develop your critical thinking skills and commit to life-long learning.
Finally, I’d say that business isn’t just about you. You have to be selective and as good a judge of character as possible so you can surround yourself with people you trust but who will also challenge your ideals and ideas. My good friend, business mentor and U7 co-owner Simon Almond, has been incredible. Already a successful businessman, he continues to be an inspiration and makes learning about business a pleasure. Also, we are incredibly fortunate to have finally found an excellent manager in Dave Bargent, who shares our vision for the future and works so hard to drive the business forward. We are building something that we truly believe in and are proud of.”