Soweto dating club
Having beaten South African leisure magnate Sol Kerzner to the prize, Bucknall was soon running 85 clubs on the other side of the world.
After a decade-long weight gain regime of acquisitions via Holmes Place and Esporta disposals and organic growth, the group now has 187 clubs in five countries, 920,000 members, and profits breaking £100m for the first time in 2009.
"We had to cancel everyone's membership and start again.
The majority of the members were on 20-to-30 year debentures and on very low rates," Bucknall says.
"At the time we had three clubs in the UK and a head office of three people.
There were nearly 10,000 people employed in Health & Racket, but Richard backed us.
Health & Racket Clubs, South Africa's biggest gym chain, had collapsed into administration and thousands of jobs were at stake. Virgin Active might be known as a British company in the UK but the group's beginnings lie some 5,000 miles away.
Matthew Bucknall, a former private equity specialist brought in to launch the gym chain, was running just three UK clubs when Branson told him to pack his bags for South Africa and run the rule over Health & Racket.
The test will be in what happens when the spotlight heads elsewhere, but natives speak with excitement of a new time for South Africa.
“Each of the Google volunteers who came with us to Makhoarane Primary School in Soweto took time to sit and read one-on-one with a group of children.
”Read to Rise’s mission is to inspire children to read and give them access to new, high quality reading books.
Bucknall, a keen golfer and Tottenham Hotspur fan, is spending two weeks with finance director Simon Gordon in South Africa watching the World Cup, hitting balls and checking up on progress at the gym chain.
The Virgin Active chief executive, focused but easy going, is well aware of the gamble his boss took all those years ago.
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So far they’ve conducted their programme in over 1,000 classes and distributed over 56,000 new books to children from Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha to Tembisa, Soweto and Lotus River.