Diana Williams Career after Fifty
How was a stay at home mother with no formal business training and not a lot of cash able to start one of Australia’s most successful private companies? According to Fernwood Fitness Founder and refreshingly humble entrepreneur Diana Williams, it was just good, old fashioned hard work. From modest beginnings in a Bendigo schoolroom nearly 30 years ago, she would turn her first female-only health club into a nationwide enterprise of some 68 clubs, with over 2,000 employees.

Self-made and down to earth, Diana’s story is inspiring. An inductee of the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame, she was able to overcome skeptics and rejection by lenders, to build the Fernwood Fitness empire. And all with one simple and unifying purpose – to empower women to shine.

Diana Williams Fernwood Fitness

Diana Williams, Founder of Fernwood Fitness


Diana, tell us a bit more about starting your business. Where did the idea to create Fernwood come from?

Well, before I started Fernwood I had been a stay at home Mum for quite some time. I hadn’t worked since before I’d had my first child because women just didn’t work much back then – when you had babies you stayed at home and you were a Mother. Unless you were destitute and had to of course.

But I had joined a gym as the kids had gotten older, and that is where I fell in love with the idea of fitness and weight training in particular. I had started at the gym with a friend – she didn’t keep going as she didn’t really like it, but I kept on and I really got into weight training which wasn’t something I had ever entertained.

Women didn’t tend to do much weight training back in the 80s, it was all aerobics or running. But I was so impressed with the physical and emotional impact it had on me, it changed my body shape, I became more toned, it improved my metabolism, and I thought this is great – more women need to be doing this!

And the reason they didn’t, was because to go into a mixed gym, and over to the weights area, was very intimidating. The men don’t really like the women being there, except to look at, and women don’t want to be there either as it can be a bit sweaty, a bit too hardcore!

I saw that gyms weren’t the sort of place women wanted to go to. At my gym, there was an unpleasant aroma, weights lying around and a grubby atmosphere.

I thought to myself – what a great thing it would be to have a place where women would feel more comfortable, and work out in more of a feminine environment. Still for serious weight training, but women could go and work out and get into it without feeling so self-conscious. That was the reason behind getting started really. I didn’t set out with the idea to create a national chain, of course, it was just something I thought women should do, and the popularity of it ended up being the key to its success.

And what was it like, starting a business back in 1988, as a solo female entrepreneur?

Well, my children weren’t little by this point, they were teenagers and much more self-sufficient. But once I did open the first gym, I was spending every waking moment on the business — I was there seven days a week, and even when I was at home I was still working.

I went from being a Mother that was always around, to being rarely around, and I said to my daughter many years later, well you never seemed to complain to me, and she responded ‘you were never there to hear us!’

But really, they were fine, and she is actually a franchisee now at our St Kilda club in Melbourne. In terms of starting the business, there were challenges and rightly so, due to the fact I had no business experience, or education in business – so in terms of struggling to get finance back then I don’t think it was solely because I was a female, I just didn’t qualify on a lot of levels!

I would have to say actually, there were as many pluses in terms of being a female entrepreneur as there were negatives. You tend to stand out from the rest, you get a bit of extra PR, extra attention. The only negative for me really was getting used to standing shoulder to shoulder with businessmen, and not feeling so totally inadequate, a bit undercooked. ‘I don’t have an MBA or any tertiary qualifications, but I do have an unrelenting passion to make something successful once I start, so that’s what drove me.’

You talk very openly and honestly about starting the business with very little capital, do you think it ended up playing in your success?

(Laughing) My first marketing campaign was literally a letter that I sent out to all the local hairdressers. I had no money! So I sent them all a letter, and an invitation to our opening, because that was the cheapest way of reaching as many women as possible. It was basically the first form of social media but on a piece of paper!

I think people that start businesses with a lot of money outsource a lot more, they would’ve outsourced that sort of marketing to a big agency, but if you don’t have any money then you have to come up with something creative yourself. You do become much more frugal with every decision you make, whereas those with a lot of money from the outset have the potential to waste it. It was such a long time ago really. It doesn’t feel like it, but thinking back, we didn’t even have a fax machine at the time!

What other memories come to mind from these earlier days?

We had to be so frugal, and when we first started out in Bendigo, we opened in an abandoned school room, it was very rudimentary! But very soon we had outgrown that space, and we had to relocate ourselves to a much more appropriate building in the centre of town.

There was this pillar in the centre of the room that was badly damaged, and a big piece of plaster was missing, and because I had no money, I took a Weeties box and a bit of plaster, and used it to recreate the corner of the pillar that had broken away. Nobody even noticed – it stood there for years until they eventually demolished the building. The things you have to do to save money!

Diana Williams working at Fernwood Fitness

Diana hard at work in one of her hugely popular, female-only Fernwood gyms.


And how did you manage the stress of being a business owner and a parent at the time?

Sometimes I think it wasn’t that stressful, but then looking back I realised I was operating on adrenaline. My stress levels were probably a lot higher than normal, but I did enjoy the process. It takes over your thoughts, so you have to force yourself to get better at balancing your work with your family and friends.

Stepping away becomes a discipline you have to master, and in the early days I was quite bad at this because I was passionate about getting the business off the ground. There were a lot of times, especially in those first ten years, where I didn’t even know where I was going to find the money to pay the wages, you know? I even remember using my credit card from time to time before American Express called and told me, I had to stop!

I think at that stage I was more overwhelmed by the fear of failing. It seemed that every five seconds I had to find a solution to something – I just didn’t have the time to worry about how stressed I was. I had to roll my sleeves up and find a solution. It wasn’t always the right one but you do what you have to do, you get there in the end. I think it is the people who procrastinate or avoid making those quick decisions are the ones that end up falling in a hole.

And having that support is so important – you don’t need your husband, partner, or another family member sitting across the table telling you that you’re crazy and your idea won’t work, because you are going to be up against it yourself, without having a bunch of I told you so’s coming back to haunt you.

You have to have that support network around you, but you should always give something a go. I know not everybody has that entrepreneurial, or risktaking spirit, because it is a lot of hard work and everything you try won’t always be successful. I often think I could’ve easily have failed as much as I was successful, it can go either way.

There is a very fine line between success and failure. But as long as you are passionate, and you have done your homework, then you shouldn’t sit back and wait for somebody else to steal your idea!

And are you still working out yourself? How important is it for older women, to add some resistance training to their routine?

Yes, I am! Especially weight training, I still enjoy it. Older women, in particular, should be doing some sort of weight or resistance training. Your muscles are diminishing as you get older, and you need to keep your muscles strong for stability and to keep your posture correct, and it’s great to keep your metabolism in check.

We are always driven to lose weight of course, I think even 90-year-old women still worry about their weight, but I think the health aspect comes into play a lot more strongly as you get older. People start thinking – I don’t want to become all round-shouldered, or get that middle-aged spread, or worse, looking in the mirror and seeing your Mother staring back at you!


What would you say to older women out there who are either thinking of giving something new a go, or are scared by the idea of retirement?

For those women that are uncertain of heading into retirement, well that’s me. I don’t plan to ever retire, I might be forced into it for one reason or another, but it won’t be a choice that I make, because I don’t want to sit around being idle. It’s absolutely fine for people that enjoy that lifestyle, but it wouldn’t suit me at all.

It doesn’t matter what age you are, in terms of giving something new a try. You should never think you’re too old – if you’re passionate about something, and you’ve got the support of the people around you, you have to stick your toe in.

People are always saying to me – I just couldn’t do what you do – but I never set out with the intention to start a national business. I took very measured steps with Fernwood, but as a business grows, you do too, and you learn so much. I am a totally different person now than what I was before this all started, and I can’t believe how much I didn’t know when I look back. But what you don’t know, you don’t know until you know it, as the saying goes.

Back when I first started, I was a different kind of boss, I was doing everything myself. As the business has grown, so have I. I’m no longer so gullible or naïve; sometimes you even become a bit more cynical after you get burnt a few times.

Every woman is different, but I think it’s important that you have confidence in your convictions. You’re going to come up against a lot of naysayers, and it can be difficult to rise above unless you have some strong self-belief. The same goes for men, too.

With no plans to retire, what are you most looking forward to in the future?

We are currently building a new model which is more functional training in a small group environment. Another project we are working on which I am really excited about is working with Deakin University, who are helping us create a mindset programme to help women who suffer from anxiety and depression. Women who might be overwhelmed mentally and could benefit from a combined medication and wellness approach.

We are funding a fellow who is doing the research for us and developing an evidence-based programme that includes food plans, exercise, and coping mechanisms. In recent trials, Deakin University researchers such as Professor Felice Jacka, have discovered that the  Mediterranean style diet, which is rich in whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables, olive oil and nuts, has a big impact on people suffering from depression. We are partnering up with them to put this important programme together not just for our Fernwood members, but also for the wider community.

Fernwood Fitness has 69 premium women-only health clubs around Australia. They also have a number of programme options including their own 12-week Challenge, the small group training Function Fit classes, as well as food training. Find your nearest club online at fernwoodfitness.com.au.