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Clubs rely on people power

Published on Friday, 11 Mar 2011
Puma’s target market is a young and energetic one.
Photo: Robert Ng

A boom in sports retail and healthy lifestyle has boosted Hong Kong's gym and fitness club sector in recent years. But increased business and growing competition have fuelled a shortage of homegrown talent that is felt across the local industry.

Many companies understand that in order to stay ahead in this highly competitive market, improving staff quality and developing talent are of utmost importance.

"Good people can help grow the company, that's why we are always on the lookout for high-quality staff," says Isabella Tam, regional human resources manager of JV Fitness Limited, which operates the California Fitness chain and mYoga.

"It is difficult to find the right kind of talent, especially when the demand is higher than supply. But because we are a global leader in this sector with a long history and a quality brand, we can attract quality people," she says.

Managed by JV Fitness Limited, California Fitness is a wholly-owned subsidiary of 24 Hour Fitness, which has about 400 clubs serving more than three million members worldwide. The first California Fitness club was opened in Hong Kong in 1996.

Apart from the conventional channels, the company also uses alternative recruitment platforms to source talent, including online activities and fitness associations. It has even explored hiring from across the border, searching for potential candidates in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

"We have 10 fitness clubs in Hong Kong, plus two mYoga centres, that's why we are always looking for fitness consultants and professional trainers. And, because of a constant demand for qualified staff, we provide internal training," Tam explains.

"This sector is not just about fitness. We are in a service-oriented industry, so personal communication is very important because we have to deal with customers all the time. And personality counts just as much. Therefore, candidates have to be energetic, outgoing and proactive with good communication skills," she says.

In Singapore, the club has the same problem with recruitment. There they have to search for talent in Malaysia and the Philippines. Last year, the club hired three professional trainers from Guangzhou. "To deal with the recruitment issue, we now welcome beginners and as long as they have the potential and the right qualities, we will train them internally. Our staff, both sales and personal trainers, need to be well-rounded and well-versed in interpersonal communication skills. We expect them to be willing to go the extra mile. Because this is not a regular nine-to-five job, they need to enjoy what they do in order to feel committed," Tam says. The company has a buddy system in which more experienced staff act as team leaders to help train less experienced colleagues. "We find that this kind of peer influence helps motivate people better than the more rigid training model. People feel more at ease in this relaxing environment, and thus more willing to take advice from a friendly colleague than from a human resource manager," she says.

Besides providing a good working environment, the company puts a lot of emphasis on on-the-job training, induction programmes, service training, professional training for fitness coaches and regular workshops.

"Our customers have high expectations. When they come to California Fitness they expect five-star services, and we must deliver. Our staff know they have to constantly improve in order to stay on top," she stresses.

Puma is hunting for job seekers

Despite rising production, operational and staff costs, and an increasingly competitive sports retail sector, Puma Hong Kong still believes the local market has great growth potential. But rapid expansion and rising wage expectations are making recruitment increasingly difficult for the company.

Simon Auyoung, general manager of Puma Hong Kong, says young job-seekers can be unrealistic in their job and pay expectations.

"Our clientele is very often young and energetic, so we need to recruit people who have similar traits to them," he says. "In other words, our candidates have to be young, energetic and sporty. Many people may think there is a big pool of potential candidates for us, but that is far from the truth."

He says young job-seekers are highly demanding. In many cases, they expect to be paid 50 to 75 per cent more than market rates, without realising that they don't have the relevant experience.

With about 80 full-time employees, Puma Hong Kong operates eight retail shops in Hong Kong and has more than 300 points of sale. That means staffing is a constant challenge, along with rising rents and production costs.

"Like other companies, we have many incentives to motivate and retain staff including discretionary bonuses, among other benefits," Auyoung says.

"We need good people at all levels - frontline sales, cashier and merchandising - who ought to be pretty versatile because we deal with quite a wide range of products from clothing to bags and other sports accessories,"

he adds. "We provide continuing staff training to update them on product and brand knowledge and sales techniques. We also organise regular factory visits to give them a full picture of our operation as well as for team-building purposes."

Auyoung says the minimum qualification for retail staff isForm Five, and for marketing and merchandising, applicants should have tertiary education qualifications.

He says Hong Kong will remain a highly attractive market for the German multinational company because it is well developed and mature with high growth potential and huge spending power.

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