These days, Alejandro Herrera has a mundane job title: operations manager at Action Fitness. But he has held down many danger-seeking, creative, and odd jobs over the years.
“I’m a mixed martial arts fighter outside of Colombia,” Herrera told Finance Colombia. “And I’m a craftsman, backpacker, washing-machine and refrigerator technician, photographer, bartender. I’ve done everything.”
Though he has worn many different hats, there is one thing he is best known — being a survivor. Herrera has twice starred on the hit reality show competition Desafío, which in format is essentially the Colombian version of Survivor that is produced by the Caracol network. The television series, which means “Challenge” in English, has taken him to Africa and India on different occasions. He nearly won the first time, finishing as Desafío runner-up during the rigorous 2013 competition in Senegal.
Even though the MMA fighter left without a first-place finish, the show indirectly gave life to something even better: his current business, a chain of fitness gyms in Medellín that Herrera hopes to grow throughout Colombia, and beyond, in the coming years.
Wilder Zapata, another founding partner of Action Fitness, not only competed on Desafío — he won. Though the two didn’t appear together on the same season (Zapata won in Morocco in 2014 while Herrera competed first in 2013 and then again in India in 2015), they became pals outside of the series. “It was reality shows that brought us together,” said Herrera. “We got to know each other and started a friendship, and this project was born.”
Neither have much time for TV now. Herrera is spends his days trying to expand the company into a fitness empire. This summer, perhaps as soon as this month, Action Fitness plans to open new locations in the La America and Belén sections of Medellín, and other branches are planned to launch in the city’s high-end Santa Fe mall and the nearby city of Envigado. Then, in time, Herrera sees Cali in western Colombia as the first place outside of greater Medellín that will welcome an Action Fitness gym.
Herrera recently took the time to share his story and plans for growth with Finance Colombia. The following is his conversation with Loren Moss, executive editor of Finance Colombia.
Loren Moss: Action Fitness seems to be a relatively new company here in Medellín. Can you tell me about how it started?
Alejandro Herrera: The company started out about two and a half years ago, when my partner, Wilder Zapata, and I were doing exercises. We were doing bars in a park, and I had to teach some classes in a gym. He wanted to set up somewhere, and I told him that the only way I would teach classes was if the gym were mine. And so the conversations started.
We looked into it — investigated the market — and since we have been sports enthusiasts all our lives, we knew about the needs that athletes have in our city. We started with the idea of democratizing fitness: very good facilities and very good machines with excellent service. That service didn’t exist before.
We started out with this project, and it had very positive impacts on society in this part of the city. People started to ask for it in other places. They started to ask for it in the south, in the north, in the southeast. We got the opportunity, and we opened three locations with the model to give optimum service at the fairest prices. We’re not charging a very high price — nor very low. We’re charging a fair price for the services we have.
We have the best group classes, we have machines with the latest technology, we have group rooms. We have been growing with this model, and we have been very well received by the city.
Loren Moss: Opening a chain of gyms, of fitness centers, seems to me to be challenge. Because there are already some big chain companies that have opened here. What is the strategy? How can you compete with those giants that are already present in the market?
Alejandro Herrera: Well, when we started to research the project, obviously we studied our competition — not only the big companies, we also studied the small ones. We tried to put together a product that could fill all the needs, and we started working hard in the areas where the others were failing.
We know that our strong point is service, our contact with people. We have a culture aimed at making them feel they are a part of the gym. This is their space. This is not a space alien to anyone. This is a space that everyone can share.
Loren Moss: What are the qualities that a company dedicated to fitness needs to thrive in Medellín? There are a lot of companies dedicated to the active lifestyle, particularly for cycling. What is that culture like in Medellín? What are the people like? Are they very fanatical about fitness? Why start here in Medellín and not in the capital of Bogotá?
Alejandro Herrera: Well, the financial magazine Dinero has shown, with studies, that sports and fitness is the niche that has had the biggest growth in the last few years. Gyms, athletic clothes — all of that — have to do with sports and fitness.
Why Medellín? One, because throughout the time that the momentum for sport has been growing, we have realized at the nationwide level that Medellín is like the fitness capital. Medellín is one of the strongest cities in in the area of fitness nationwide in Colombia. So, we know that this is a very good market. Medellín was the city where we had to start out. Everything is here, but we’re not limiting ourselves. We want to be a multinational.
Loren Moss: That was going to be my next question. How are we going to see the company grow in five years? In 10 years? What are the long-term goals?
Alejandro Herrera: Well. The idea is to finish 2017 with between 10 to 12 branches. Apart from that, the idea is to get out and begin to expand at the national level and look towards the other markets. In reality, we were already doing that: looking toward the capital, looking toward Cali, looking toward the coast.
The idea for now is to look toward the places where we know what we are doing — looking for similarities. I would say that Cali is a place very similar to Medellín when it comes to fitness. So I think that the next place is going to be in Cali.
Bogotá is a completely different public. You have to go and do a market study there to see how we can fit in — while respecting our values and our model to positively impact the city. But in 10 years, we want to be all over Colombia, and the idea is to get out on the international level, too. There are places that interest us very much outside of Colombia. But first we have to cover Colombia.
Loren Moss: I have seen that you have the latest-generation machines. Those are, I imagine, hefty investments. How are you supporting growth? How have you managed to establish the company and with what kind of investment? Tell me about the corporate side of the company.
Alejandro Herrera: We have an advantage. We are primarily the Action Fitness chain of gyms but we also have a chain of machine sales outlets. When we started out with the project, we also wanted to study the possibilities of supplying the needs of the city and other chains and other gyms with machines. So we got into other kinds of research, and we looked into the sale of machines.
We have our own brand that we are going to start to distribute. It’s called “Titanium.” Gyms are obviously very big investors in machines.
Initially, we started out with four of us partners, William Zapata, Diego Aguirre, and Daniela. With the model that we have set up, we have been taking care of the new investments. We have people who have come into the project, and we’re all growing together hand-in-hand.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.