The 98 Gym Story
I am often asked about how 98 Gym came to be, and so for those that don’t know me, I have put together the 98 GYM STORY.
My name is Chris Feather, I am the Founder and Owner of 98 Gym.
The accent might give it away, but I grew up in an industrial town called Keighley, which is in West Yorkshire in the North of England. I had a very happy and fortunate childhood, living most of my early years in a small village called Haworth with my Mum, Dad and Sister. Both sets of grandparents lived within a 15 minute drive of our house, which instilled in me the importance of family from a very young age.
Both of my parents worked very hard. My dad left school at 13 to start a mechanics apprenticeship. I watched him work 6-7 days a week, often leaving the house at 4am and returning home after 7pm in freezing English winters throughout my whole childhood. His tremendous work ethic meant he was well respected around our area. Being an industrial town, hard graft was currency.
Then and now, I have always been very proud of my father and the business he built. Everything he has, he has built from the ground. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my mum who worked full-time as a teacher.
It was in these early years that I learnt the value of hard graft and a good work ethic. My dad used to say to me ‘If it was easy, everyone would do it’.
At 17, I left college and signed my first professional Rugby League contract for the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. We were a fairly unsuccessful team, but my first 2 years at Wakefield were the best of my playing career. I was also fortunate to be around a great set of blokes day each day – many of who have become lifelong friends.
From there, I signed for Leeds Rhinos for 4 years, then Bradford Bulls for 3 years, finishing up my time in the English Super League with a 1 year stint at Castleford Tigers.
Upon retiring, my good friend Julian Rinaldi (who later became a trainer at 98) asked me if I’d be keen to play a season for the Villeneuve Leopards. This was the team of the town where he grew up in the South West of France. Of course, I said yes. Villeneuve is beautiful place, and being on the team was a brilliant and life-changing experience. The season in France gave me a whole new perspective on what was important and what was possible.
It was at this time I decided I would move to Australia for the next chapter of my life.
I was heavily encouraged by one of my best mates from home, Sam Burgess, to join him in Australia. He was loving life in Oz and said I’d be mad not to try it. After more encouraging words from Mum, I made the move.
I planned to stay with Sam and just see how things went for a while. Soon enough I got myself a job on a milk round and started playing semi professionally for a Country Rugby League team called the Wyong Roos…
It was an easy life, I was “living the dream”. My days consisted of knocking off work at 7:30am, drinking coffee with Sam and the boys, going to the gym, relaxing at the beach, training a couple of nights a week, and playing on the weekend for the Wyong Roos with a team full of legend blokes – and of course a few beers here and there.
With no desire to return home anytime soon, and with the clock ticking on my visa, it was time to figure out how I could get sponsored to stay in Australia. I decided to take my Cert 3 and Cert 4 in Personal Training. I figured this would at least give me an opportunity to acquire some new skills and make some extra cash. PT would also fit perfectly between the milk run and training for the Roo’s.
By the end of that year I was a fully qualified PT – all I needed were a few clients and a gym to train at…
Russell Crowe & 98 Riley Street Gym
I had already met Russell on the set of Robin Hood while they were filming in the UK. Fast forward a couple of years and he and Sam had become good friends. By this time, Russell had a small private gym in the middle of the city in Sydney, in a building he owned, 98 Riley Street. Back then, the gym looked like something out of a design magazine, there was even a grand piano in the foyer!
Russell gave me the opportunity to use the gym for personal training – the rent was $250 per week and it would only be me working there. I took him up on his offer and started to build up my client base.
While I had a great little business running the coolest gym in Sydney, unfortunately that didn’t stop the visa clock from ticking. I went to visit a visa lawyer for some advice, and as a retired football player, my options for sponsorship weren’t great. I could either become a PT manager or become a gym manager, but both were next to impossible given that I had so little experience in both and not long enough left on my visa to lock anything in. Mentally, I started preparing for a trip home to the UK.
One night over a couple of beers with Sam and Russell I explained my situation. I explained how I had often thought Russell could open his gym to 50 members and run an exclusive members only gym. Not only would this be a very cool asset, it would work well with his movie work and jobs that came into the gym.
On that, he said “put together a business plan, if the numbers stack up let’s do it, if it works we will sponsor you as the manager.’ I couldn’t believe it. Over the next week I pieced together some notes I had written and formulated the plan. Within the next 3 months the gym had its first 50 members, and I had a new job and a visa for 3 years.
Meeting Mark Twight
One month in to running the newly formed “98 Riley Street Gym”, another major influence came into my life, I met Mark Twight.
Mark is the Founder of Gym Jones, among many other things. At the time, he was working with Russell on Superman, and we got to spend a lot of time together while he was in Australia. At first, I had no idea who Mark Twight was, nor had I ever heard of Gym Jones. But, by the end of those couple of weeks I had found my lighthouse. The big gap I felt in my life since retiring from pro sport was about to be filled, and I had Gym Jones to thank for it. I booked flights to visit them in Utah in early 2011.
My first trip to Gym Jones was one to remember. They took me through multiple workouts and seminars. I was pushed to the verge of breaking, both mentally and physically. But I was hooked. Over the next 4 years I made 3 trips to Utah to visit Gym Jones, and they even made a trip to 98 as well.
In what was one of my proudest moments since retiring from playing footy, in October 2013 I became one of 12 Gym Jones fully certified instructors. Later, Mark Twight stepped down from his position and the direction of Gym Jones changed. In 2016 I realised our standards no longer aligned so I made a decision to cease our affiliation with their company.
Back in 2010, Mark asked me if I would look after RC’s training for Superman while he was back in Australia. I was pumped for the opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. Following Mark’s program, I trained with Russell for 4 weeks as a preparation before he shot the movie. Spending so much time together meant that soon enough we became good friends.
After Superman, I found myself travelling the world going from movie to movie as Russell’s personal trainer. I worked on Broken City in New Orleans, Les Miserable in the UK, and Noah in New York and Iceland.
By August 2011 things were wrapping up so I headed home to ask my girlfriend Kate, to marry me. Thankfully, she said yes! Kate has stuck by me through thick and thin, and through some pretty tough times for me mentally. Kate is my reason, and we are looking forward to welcoming a second child soon, a brother for my beautiful Ruby. Our son will be named Jack, after one of my grandads.
Building The Brand
Throughout all of the movie work the gym had been on hold. Now back in Australia, I had the opportunity to see out my plan. I would officially open the gym and start building our brand.
First, we needed a logo, something that would stand out. I enlisted the help of Kate, and she came back with a few designs straight away. Her favourite was a massive black 98 offset to the right on the main wall of the gym. I loved it too. We had it painted up and that’s where it all started. People would even take their picture in front of it after every session. But true to the enduring 98 ethos, if your session didn’t meet the standard, you didn’t get the pic!
I was very careful who I took on as members. I started with friends and then friends of friends. All with common goals, like minded and fully aware of the standard I expected. I always liked the saying ‘The idea is not to be exclusive, it’s to be so inclusive you hold everyone to the same standard.’
The process of on-boarding new clients became self selective. Basically, if you were too intimidated to walk through the door, 98 probably wasn’t for you. I didn’t waste time trying to convince those people. On the flipside, the people who felt a little apprehensive – nervous even, but still walked in, those were the people I wanted. People who were inspired by the atmosphere rather than being intimidated by it. I needed the gym to mean something to them, like it did to me. These people would ‘Hold The Standard’.
Of course, I was very lucky to have Russell as the owner. He always fully supported my idea and never caused me to compromise my standards due to financial pressure. He too wanted to build a gym known for hard work, grit and resilience. A gym that would produce tough, high performing athletes, and a brand that would be eventually recognised as worldwide leader in fitness.
‘Learn about hornets by people who have been stung by them’
Throughout this growth phase, the gym had trainers in and out. Once they had met the initial criteria, what I wanted was EXPERIENCE. I was looking for people who had performed at a high level – sport, military. I knew that without experience there was no buy in, and no point of difference over others.
Today, each trainer has a different specialty but they all have one thing in common, they are the best at what they do. They too ‘Hold The Standard’. I believe our current team: Kev Toonen, Andy Ginn, Matt Chapman, Lewi Ray, Emma Brown, Alexa Towersey and Harriet Walker is the best 98 has seen to date. The only person I would love to see back on the team is Julien Rinaldi. If he returns from France there will be a job waiting for him.
After a few great years managing 98 Riley Street Gym, Russell gave me the opportunity to buy the majority share of the business. It was like a dream come true. Owning the gym was a goal I had since the very beginning, and in September 2017 I bought 98 Riley Street Gym. We did a full renovation and renamed it ‘98 Gym’.
To succeed, I knew that I needed to grow the business without diluting the product. It was at this stage that I got Kev Toonen on board as our program director, who wrote and implemented the 98 Program. Today, we run a full class schedule that fits our strength and conditioning philosophy.
As the program wasn’t typical, it wasn’t easy to encourage people to follow the program at the start – it just wasn’t something they were used to. But we knew it worked, so it was a case of educating our members on the benefits of the program and explaining how it worked. Kev was instrumental in building the program, whether that was running seminars, to hosting upskill sessions and answering anything and everything to do with The 98 Program.
Today, Team 98 (The Trainers) echo this knowledge and ethos in every session. After a year there is some very solid buy in. The results are there for people to see. I am confident in saying that we would have one of fittest groups of general population gym members in Australia.
After the success of the 98 Program ‘in gym’ it was time to take our product online.
We went to the source, and asked our members what they liked about 98, and where the value lay for them. The feedback was pretty much unanimous. Three things stood out: The 98 Program, The experience and knowledge of the trainers, and The 98 community.
We have replicated this with 98 Online. So far it’s going well. We have an active and growing community who share their results and feedback about each session. We are starting to see some really great numbers on there too, which is awesome for all involved.
Recently we have also taken on three 98 Program Affiliates. The affiliates run the 98 Program at each of their gyms. As you’d expect, we were very careful when choosing these guys. These gyms are: Raw Fitness in Bay Of Plenty, Project 180 in Brisbane and CSC Gym in Broken Hill. We’ve spent time with each, and made sure they spent plenty of time at 98 to ensure our standards and ethos align 100%.
Our reputation and standards are everything, and more than ever, I am conscious of not diluting our product. ‘We value integrity, persistence and hard work over aesthetics and ego. We build resilience.’
It goes against the essence of the gym to destroy what we have built in the interest of making money alone. It’s something I have seen so many people do in the past, many of whom don’t exist today.
With a very good team around me, some great mentors, and solid support at home, I am in a great position to build 98 Gym the right way.
The plan is to hold and raise the standard between the 4 walls of 98 while building the community and improving the offering on 98 Online.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Russell for his faith and commitment in me. Without him I wouldn’t be in Australia today. Russell went out on a limb to sponsor a person he hardly knew, on the word of another guy he’d only known for 6 months (Sam). Russell funded the gym for the first 5 years of its existence which allowed me the freedom to build exactly what we have now – and then he graciously sold it to me. It is a real case of I wouldn’t be here without him. Thank you, Russell. I would also like to thank everyone who has been a part of the 98 journey so far. Trainers past and present, and of course our amazing members – we wouldn’t exist without your support and encouragement, and for that, the whole 98 team is grateful.