The COVID-19 pandemic has made people realise that health is the core of life. Without good health and a strong immune system, the body is susceptible to viruses and takes a longer time to recover. However, exercising and group workouts at fitness centres have been marred by social-distancing measures in this pandemic-struck year. In light of this, SG Lifestyle’s Column Editor, Angela May Tan, speaks with Sean Tan, Director at True Group, which owns True Fitness, TFX and GFX, to find out how the youthful and energetic 50 year old is manoeuvring the seismic shift the fitness industry is facing.
SGLS: True Group has been a consistent player in the local fitness arena for more than a decade. That’s very impressive given the relatively short shelf life of many of your competitors. What’s your secret?
Sean: True is the oldest fitness brand in Singapore. Dependability, reliability and consistency have served us well all these years. Given the competition that comes with new entrants, our team at True has been keeping our fingers on the pulse of new fitness trends, so we can be nimble and adapt fast.
Two years ago, we decided to strengthen our market position and segment our businesses. Therefore, in 2019, we launched our premium brand “TFX” to cater for members who wanted different, more specialised types of workouts and experiences. Recognising, however, that our original brand “True Fitness” was immensely popular with the mid-market, we invested in widening our offerings to members, thereby anchoring “True Fitness” in the mid-market segment with the most value-for-money offerings.
In November 2020, we launched “GFX”, a boutique-like concept for group workouts and a “pay-as-you-go” membership model.
SGLS: You were a litigator by training and trade for many years. Why and how did you make the shift to what you are currently doing? Any regrets?
Sean: No regrets at all. I had a very fulfilling career for 12 years as a commercial litigator. Over time, I recognised that my potential is best realised when I am deployed in roles that allow me to utilise a blend of my legal training and commercial realities. And through all these, sports and fitness have been a constant thread.
I left law in 2008 to be based in Beijing with a private equity fund. This was during the year of the Beijing Olympics. Putting my litigation practice into good use for my country, I also joined Team Singapore as Legal Counsel for the Olympics.
In 2015, upon joining the Tsinghua Tongfang Group as the Group Legal Advisor, the company acquired a majority stake in True Group in mid-2017 and hence, I came on board as Director.
SGLS: Many gyms have gone out of the picture as group and even personal training sessions were ceased in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. True seems to have escaped unscathed. What’s your secret?
Sean: I would love to be able to tell you that we are unscathed, but that wouldn’t be true. The reality is that with safe distancing measures and capacity restrictions not being significantly eased, it has been a tough period.
The silver lining is that the fitness industry in Singapore has been united and for the first time, an industry body – the Singapore Fitness Alliance – representing fitness and wellness businesses will be set up. I am the President of the Singapore Fitness Alliance, and we have proposed pilots to the Government to allow more members to come into our gyms and studios. We hope that our collective voices will be heard, and our proposed pilots be allowed to take off.
SGLS: Your businesses are mainly operating in two countries: Singapore and Taiwan. Why Taiwan? Any plans to expand into other markets?
Sean: We have a very loyal membership base in Taiwan, and with Taiwan having been largely unscathed from COVID-19 with no lockdowns, we have been very fortunate to have had at least one engine firing during this pandemic.
COVID-19 has brought the importance of health and fitness to the fore, and the number of persons who exercise to stay healthy and fit will only continue to increase. We have been eyeing other markets for expansion, but this is unlikely to take place in 2021.
SGLS: Are you into fitness and sports yourself? Which are your favourite activities and why?
Sean: I love CrossFit-style workouts with the intensity, variety and the sense of community but my body can’t take the punishment anymore. So I extract elements of CrossFit such as Olympic weightlifting, the functional movements, and the simple gymnastics, and still work on those, with a healthy dose of yoga to keep up my flexibility. I tell my team that I workout so that I can pick myself up every time I fall off the wagon!
Bonus Q: Who inspires you in business and in life?
Sean: Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit. He took different exercise modalities that had been around for a long time (Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, running, swimming, etc), put them all together and mixed them up in new competitive format with a clock, introduced benchmark workouts, and inculcated a strong sense of community. Glassman popularised what we now call high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Interview by: Angela May Tan, Column Editor & Writer
From now till 31 March 2021, True Group is offering special deals to SG Lifestyle readers. Details are below. Terms and conditions apply.
1. TFX: Complimentary 3-day workout access pass
2. TRUE FITNESS: True Fitness’ 15th Anniversary offer for SG Lifestyle readers. FREE 3 day-trial pass and enjoy 50% off the first six months on a 12 month membership, if you decide to join after the trial period
3. GFX: Enjoy 1 FREE class. Limited to the first 50 readers