Steve Mululu owns a group of three Dreambody Fitness gyms – he calls them “high performance centres” – in Sunninghill, Woodlands and in Midrand where he and his staff of 50 practice a unique and highly sophisticated approach to physical training. The emphasis is on improving energy levels rather than fitness, and on health rather than weight, says Steve, who first opened his Sunninghill branch nine years ago.
Seeing the burly, self-possessed entrepreneur in action among the gleaming exercise machines, it is hard to fathom just how far he had come since he left his father’s farm in rural Kenya as a teenager in the early 80s to seek his fortune in Nairobi.
Since he could remember, he had worked on the family farm and never went to school. He ended up penniless in the most dangerous slum in Nairobi, without any literacy or English. All he had was a remarkable physical strength, and a burning desire to break free from his destiny as a hard-scrabble farmer. City life proved even harder, however, and he found himself quite literally fighting for survival.
He found work, and a home of sorts, in a local boxing gym where he also trained to fight. Soon he was training others and making progress as an amateur boxer.
All the while, Steve was teaching himself to read and learn English from anyone he met who was willing to indulge the curious youngster. From boxing training he moved towards teaching general fitness as a freelance trainer at various gyms in Nairobi. It was the early nineties, and from some of his wealthy clients he learned of amazing opportunities opening up in Johannesburg as democracy came to South Africa.
In a leap not dissimilar to the one he took from the farm to Nairobi, he travelled south to the city of gold. Once again, he found himself stranded in a strange place, and promptly got mugged in the centre of Johannesburg. And once again, he sought refuge in the one place where he felt at home – a gym – and offered his services as a volunteer general worker at a Virgin Active gym in the northern suburbs.
As luck would have it, a local man mistook him for a long lost friend, and gave him food and shelter until he could find his feet.
Steve spent every waking hour at the gym, from five in the morning to nine at night, cleaning, working, training, shadowing personal trainers, and learning whatever he could. Soon he was a well-liked fixture at the gym and at the first opportunity he got, he signed up for a personal-trainer course to formalise his knowledge.
Within five years of his arrival in South Africa, he was working as a fully qualified professional trainer to wealthy patrons all over Johannesburg, which is itself an incredible achievement. Yet Steve felt a frustration growing. He saw many people who started gyming enthusiastically, only to lose motivation a few weeks later, and many who were not making progress with their health and fitness.
From his habit of life-long learning – he studies every day for two hours in the morning and two hours at night – Steve had developed a holistic approach to fitness which includes a mental component and replaces the emphasis from superficial looks and weight-loss on to energy and health. What he yearned for was a gym of his own in which he could implement his ideas.
His rich clients whom he approached with his idea strongly recommended that he stick to his personal-trainer gig. The landlord of the site he had in mind wanted three months’ rental upfront, and was equally sceptical about the prospects of a gym. The banks wanted collateral. The local importers of gym equipment serviced large groups only and did not respond to his queries. Overseas suppliers wanted 50% upfront and the rest on delivery. To anyone else, the situation would have seemed hopeless, but by this stage in his life Steve had faced down much bigger challenges.
He relentlessly emailed the biggest supplier of gym equipment in North America, enthusiastically describing the opportunities in the South African market. Six weeks later, he finally got a response from the company’s Europe sales manager, telling him that he was visiting Johannesburg soon.
Steve took him to the empty site in Sunninghill and through sheer enthusiasm converted him to his dream. He introduced the sales manager to the landlord as his “business partner”, which impressed her so much that she offered him a lease.
With a similar mixture of tenacity and evangelism, Steve signed up 100 paying customers based on nothing but his vision.
But that was just the beginning of a very difficult start-up. Discovery told him that the customers whom he had signed up would not be able to gain gym points. Steve camped out at Discovery’s head office until they relented.
By the promised opening day only a few of the exercise machine had arrived, but Steve kept the flame alive by working 16-hour days, doing everything from cleaning, training and sales. After eight months of gargantuan effort he came face to face with closure. He had run out of money to keep the lights on.
His last chance was a finance application that he had put in to Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS). “I stood before the last door, and it opened,” says Steve, who got approval for a loan of R800 000. Rather than looking for assets and profits against which to lend, BUSINESS/PARTNERS was willing to take a bet on Steve’s strength as an entrepreneur, which was apparent in what he managed to build up to that point without any finance.
Slowly but surely, Steve built his gym, and within four years, managed to turn a profit for the first time. Two years ago, he opened a second gym in Woodlands, again with the help of Business Partners finance, and most recently a third gym in Midrand.
Today, Steve is hard at work building systems for his company. His plan is to build a group of five gyms before expanding it further into franchising. With a little bit of luck, Dreambody Fitness gyms will be soon be found nationwide, and if luck proves elusive, you can be sure that Steve will go out and find it.
Highlighted by Arch Dr Isaac Kinungi
Diaspora National Assembly for 254