Screw it let's do it: How Virgin Active launched in South Africa

People take part in an indoor cycling class at Virgin Active South Africa
Virgin Active South Africa
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
8 June 2022

In Virgin By Design, the book that shares the rich history of the Virgin brand, Richard Branson jokes that if he didn’t own Virgin he would have been sacked years ago. 

He says that the advantage of this business model is that “you can take big, bold risks”. He adds: “Then you just hope you don’t fall flat on your face. But my attitude is: if you can create something extraordinary, the likelihood is it’ll be a success.”

One of the biggest risks that the Virgin Group has taken in its history all came about from an unlikely source: a phone call from Nelson Mandela. He contacted Richard directly asking him to help save 4,000 jobs in South Africa’s struggling Health & Racquet Club chain. 

Two people stretching on the training floor at Virgin Active South Africa
Virgin Active South Africa

At the time, Virgin Active had just three health clubs in the UK. This significant investment that Madiba was asking for would mean expanding the network to more than a hundred – a big risk for a young and relatively untested brand. 

“It wasn’t a massive financial outlay, but it was during a tough period,” Matthew Bucknall, former Virgin Active CEO, said. “There were a lot of voices within Virgin saying, ‘Should you really be investing in a capital-intensive business like this?’

“I said, ‘I get all that, but we’ll show you, it’ll make money.’”

A GRID training class at Virgin Active South Africa
Virgin Active South Africa

And of course, he was right. The investment paid off. Virgin Active bought the struggling clubs, saved the jobs and turned it into a successful business.

The Health & Racquet Clubs had been pitched at exercise fanatics, with a focus on strength and weight training. But Virgin Active South Africa introduced a softer product, making the health clubs more customer-friendly with a focus on group exercise classes. This meant they were less intimidating for casual exercisers and helped Virgin Active thrive in the region.

Two people on exercise bikes at Virgin Active South Africa
Virgin Active South Africa

Today, Virgin Active runs more than 130 clubs in South Africa. And the company obsesses about the customer journey with a mission to create irresistible experiences that encourage people to be active. But many of the decisions it makes are focused beyond the training floor.

Over the years, Virgin Active has created lounge spaces at its clubs, and also introduced ways for people to work out wherever and whenever they like. Read more about how Virgin Active thinks beyond the club.

For more inspiring insight into the world of Virgin, take a peek into Virgin By Design, Virgin’s 50-year history of its truly restless spirit.