Report on meeting with SLIMMING WORLD

Nov 22 2019
With Jenny Caven of Slimming World

We had a large attendance at our November breakfast meeting for our speaker, the stylish and elegant Jenny Caven, Director of External Affairs for Derby-based Slimming World. South African Jenny has been with them 14 years. Yet like most of their 450 employees, and all 5,300 Group Consultants (franchisees), she’s been through the mill of weight loss. Understanding what their customers need through their own experience is, she reckons, at the heart of the business’s success, now the leading operator of commercial slimming clubs in the UK. Given that their main rival, WeightWatchers, belongs to mighty Heinz, that’s a tremendous achievement.

Jenny Caven photo

SW was started by Margaret Miles-Bramwell OBE just 50 years ago from her Mansfield home. She wanted a club which respected rather than humiliated its members. They carried, she knew, a double burden: not only their weight and related health issues, but poor self-confidence, guilt and shame. She also wanted to empower people to run their own groups so the business could expand. This remarkable woman developed and wrote up her own manual for the groups, still known as The Bible. SW is still a family business but is now run by a Board of Directors; lots of the staff have worked there decades and it’s regularly won awards as a Best Employer.

With two-thirds of Britons now classified as overweight or obese, there’s a lot of need. The basic idea is IMAGE Therapy – Individual Motivation And Group Experience. Instead of being told what you can’t eat, the long list of “food optimising” items start with Free Foods – vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs which you can scoff without limit (as you’ll get full pretty quickly). Then choose from Healthy Extras (dairy, carbs, nuts etc) and you can add up to 15 Syns (alcohol, chocolate, pastries). Little or no weighing, no calorie counting (hooray). And since many people eat through boredom, the Clubs encourage physical activity – if you’ve lost a ton of flab, then associating that weight loss with a pleasurable activity will help to keep it off. “It’s not a diet, it’s an education,” said Jenny. A psychology that seems to work, as I can attest. Me? I drink my Syns. Seems appropriate, really.

The business’s numbers however are all about expansion. Plenty of merchandise is available at the Clubs. The recipe books sell 1.6 million copies a year and a lot of research goes into new ones – this helps keep interest high. SW Magazine is the nation’s 3rd bestselling magazine publication with a whopping 4.4 millions copies a year. SW frozen meals, available exclusively in Iceland, are the biggest frozen ready meal brand in the UK. SW Hi Fi snack bars (only at the Clubs) sell 107 million a year; if sold in retail this would be the UK’s top selling cereal bar. That’s success.

The Clubs have over a million members – 1,059,810 the week of Jenny’s talk, with a combined weight loss of nearly 800,000 lbs a week. Everything is digitised now, with the app downloaded over 5 million times. And that means SW has stacks of big data on what works. “We take this responsibility very seriously,” Jenny said.  So ten years ago they started to invest heavily in research and data collection from each member. The NHS refers 45,000 patients a year to SW; the company works with Derby and Nottingham universities. A digital transformation programme is under way – “The weight loss sector is a bit behind on this,” said Jenny, but when it comes to the clubs, “We believe that humans will always be superior to a machine.”

This data scrutiny identifies opportunities as well. 90% of Group members are women, so there’s scope for more work with men – though it’s not clear yet how. And with young people, where the focus could shift to how to develop healthy behaviour. Already SW is strict about compulsive dieting: if your BMI is 20, you won’t be allowed in, even though the NHS lower limit is 18.

I asked what has led to SW taking off so fast in recent years: “Social media,” was the answer, today’s word of mouth. In contrast to competitors SW do not spend much on national PR – the emphasis has always been on local franchisees who know what works in their area.

Questions flowed: international expansion? SW launched in Ireland in 2009, doing OK; they’ve looked at the USA but it’s a crowded field, much “noisier” than here, and it would have taken a long time to make progress, so that’s a No.

Why is there only one group in Buxton, a town of 22,000 people? The aim is one group for every 3,000 population, with a steady membership of about 25, and while it’s important to protect the franchisees, the town could have more. “Recruitment is an ongoing matter,” Jenny said, meaning that they’d certainly like more. So go through the weight loss process first yourself, then you can apply; business training and support is provided, and a satisfying career helping others awaits.

Dr Eastmond pointed out that some people have genetic issues like familial hypercholesterolaemia.  That’s commoner than is realised at 1 person in 200. Hmm.. that still leaves the other 199 of us with other issues, so there’s still plenty of room for SW.

By the end of our meeting the fruit bowl was nearly empty while many of our little pastries had been left uneaten (all the bacon baps vanished, though). We have NO MEETING in DECEMBER (it was going to be hours after the election..) so we will see you all on FRIDAY JANUARY 24TH 2020  from 7.30am, when we’ll be looking at gin and whisky. Toodle-pip!