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Tue 10 Mar 2015 09:57 AM

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Fighting the forces of gravity: Bounce interview

Tamara Pupic meets Ross Milton and Doran Davies, co-founders of Bounce Middle East

Fighting the forces of gravity: Bounce interview

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, rare were those ready to bounce back immediately.

Even rarer were those closing deals to the tune of $23 billion that year, but that’s exactly what Ross Milton, an Australian with more than 20 years in global leadership positions at various consumer goods companies, did as part of the team which led the successful acquisition of Wrigley by Mars.

“We actually had the US Federal Reserve ‘monitoring’ the closing of the deal to make sure [that] all the settlements occurred because there wasn’t enough liquidity in the market. And Warren Buffett contributed a large part of the financing,” he recalls.

You might assume that achieving these kinds of business results and climbing up the corporate ladder, within which he was promoted five times eventually reaching the position of Mars’s vice president of HR for Africa, Middle East, Turkey and CIS in 2012, is all that Milton has been interested in.

However, he likes to bounce. Not back from a failure as many other financial professionals have been doing lately, but up and down on a trampoline.

Actually, he’s happy to bounce on any of the 86 trampolines at Bounce Middle East, a free-jumping revolution that has taken Dubai by storm since being opened by Milton and his partner Doran Davies last June.

Having reached the highest positions within the corporate world, his future professional options, as he explains, were limited, especially in Australia.

“I started to think seriously what the rest of my career and the family’s future will look like,” he says, adding that more important have always been his family life, his friends, playing sports, and doing something positive for the community.

Add to that his strong business acumen and the two other important facts, and you’ll get a bit closer to understanding why Dubai became the first city outside Australia to follow the latest fitness craze which has set off from Melbourne’s suburb of Glen Iris.

The first fact is that one of the co-founders of Bounce Inc, Australia’s first extreme-trampolining venue, Simon McNamara is Milton’s close friend.

“In 2011, Simon started building Bounce in Australia. In August 2012, when I went home again, he had already finished it. It was hugely successful and looked like a lot of fun,” Milton says, explaining that earlier in 2012 he had moved to Dubai with his family.

Davies’ participation came in the summer of 2013. The Welshman has also moved to Dubai in 2012 to take one of the highest executive positions at HTC, bringing 15 years of expertise in the telecoms industry.

“I go with a gut feeling. It looked like a lot of fun and you can’t put price on people enjoying themselves, and the fact that there’s nothing like this,” remembers Davies as he thinks back to the barbeque during which Milton showed him a video of “this place in Australia called Bounce”.

“Plus, Ross is a smart guy so it seemed a pretty simple decision.”

Coming across an indoor trampoline park in San Francisco in 2011, two of the five co-founders of Australia’s Bounce Inc [Simon McNamara and Ant Morell] created the concept of ‘a free jumping revolution’ to enable different groups of people to do what they previously perceived as impossible in a safe, well-managed environment.

Although Bounce Inc has gone from strength to strength since the opening in 2012, turning it into a franchise already in 2013 seemed too soon. However, the work on Bounce Middle East did start in June 2013, and Milton explains: “It’s technically not a franchise, we’ve gone into the license agreement with good friends of ours. We were the first to break out from the group and come and do it here.

“The model is akin to a franchise but it actually isn’t. We’ve got some broad brand guidelines we were working within and the themes in terms of the culture we were trying to create.

“We were learning as we were going. We worked collaboratively with the Australian team to actually develop it because they hadn’t done something internationally at that point themselves.”

It didn’t take Milton and Davies too long to build the business from scratch, despite being a lot to do, starting with choosing location.

“For finding a suitable venue in a location that we thought fitted well, what we found to be the most effective was to literally drive around,” Milton says why they chose the location on Street 4B, near Times Square Mall in Al Quoz.

Given the growing reputation of the Al Quoz area for being a centre of many cultural and sporting events in between a row of industrial compounds, the endless driving paid off and they found, as Milton adds, “their sweet spot between the Mall of the Emirates and the Dubai Mall” easily accessible to a varied crowd.

Going further, to obtain all necessary licenses to set up an LLC for their type of business required a lot of patience to educate all relevant stakeholders about what they aimed to create.

Davies says: “Our experience is that genuinely people want to help, and certainly in the government departments they wanted to help.

“But because what we were doing was very different, we had to align all pieces of the puzzle to come up with a trade license and be able to do this in this location. It just meant that we were spending hours going through various departments.”

“This was an industrial plot with a commercial building sitting on it, and we then wanted to put sports and café/restaurant type of an activity on this location,” Milton adds to explain the complexity of their endeavour.

When asked whether they considered engaging any of the city’s agencies to facilitate their setting up process, Davies points out that all of the difficulties had a silver lining: “What we’ve quickly learnt is that if you need something done you have to take the bull by the horns and do it.

“Because we were doing something new that Dubai hadn’t seen before, the ability to go and have a conversation with the DED or others, and talk creatively around the concept, was much better than employing somebody to do that because we were learning as well.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world. At the time, it was difficult but the experience that it gives you and the learning. Now I feel pretty confident,” he says.

“This building was a commercial building with offices, so everything had to be literally demolished, two thirds of the building,” says Milton about the couple of months of demolition they went through prior to the opening on 4 June 2014.

The 20,000sqm facility has 86 trampolines laced with over 12,000 springs, circus grade padding, three basketball hoops and two dodgeball courts, six high performance trampolines and the only “Stunt Grade” air bag in the Middle East. In addition, a café area upstairs serves as a place where parents can rest while having a bird’s eye view of their children still bouncing around. For kids’ birthday celebrations, Bounce Middle East also has three party rooms.

With a capacity of 115 people at any one time, prior booking has been essential from day one since it is usually booked out a few days in advance. The co-founders point out that although the centre appeals to the growing popularity of extreme sports, it is a complete departure from the traditional form of fitness training.

Milton says: “It’s not a soccer field and equally it’s not a music hall. We went for that middle ground where people can come, get entertained, have a good time, and feel like they are at a different place.”

“That’s what we want for them mentally. A lot of people used to ask us whether we do memberships. For us, being seen as a gym and people pushing themselves with memberships is not where we want to be at all,” Davies adds.

Knowing the benefits of bouncing on a trampoline, which include the conclusion of American scientists that 10 minutes of it is a better cardiovascular workout than 33 minutes spent running, or various studies showing its help in combating depression by increasing the endorphins released by the brain, attracting varied crowd has never been a problem for them.

“We are pretty clear that we want to target teens and young adults. But it’s very accessible for little kids to come here as well while parents can use WiFi, have a coffee.

“A beautiful thing about trampoline is that you can get in with them, jump around because it brings back feelings from childhood,” Milton says.

In line with one of their values, which is ‘keeping things fresh’, they’ve been expanding their offer to include The Flight Academy, a trampoline and gymnastics coaching programme, Bounce Ladies Only on Monday evenings, or a structured exercise regime through Bounce Fit classes, and many more.

Davies says: “We are very serious about our business development.

“We use a lot of social media and the people we are talking to on social media are used to interacting daily on these platforms.

“We put a lot of time and effort, everything is done in-house. We do all of our content production and creation in-house.

“We feel that it’s so valuable for us, let’s say, we are the guardians of the brand. We need to make sure that we take full control of that.

“And our sales guy is very important since we’re very focused on making sure that our business resonates with corporates for, for example, team building activities.”

Davies also explains the latest addition to their after-school activity programmes: “We’ve recognised that we provide a form of exercise but that we also have the responsibility to provide some education around that as well,” he says.

“The next one [school-related activity programme], actually we are pretty proud of. We’ve been working with some of the GEMS schools to integrate some of their international baccalaurean modules with jumping around.

“One example of that is that we’ve had four IB schools, which have been studying forces of motion at school, coming here at the end of the module and putting all their theory into practice.”

When asked about the team driving this business forward, the co-founders explain that to recruit most of the 51 staff members, who are the mix of 16 different nationalities, they rented a photo studio for two days and applied a two-minute audition style approach.

Milton says: “We did that deliberately because, for us, it’s all about how people feel when they walk through the door, we want them to feel like home.”

“We were hiring people for their personality first and foremost, and you can’t teach personality. You either have it naturally or don’t because the customer experience element in this business is so critical for us, we were very careful.

“We are a fun place but we take operations very seriously, everyone had to go through first aid and safety course to begin with,” Davies adds.

While the Aussie team is considering a franchise in China and a joint venture in Scandinavia, the two Dubai-based co-founders declare the GCC as “ours” when asked where they would open a new centre.

Davies says: “We know what it takes to build a place like this and operate a place like this. It is not easy. And you manage a brand on top of it as well.

“But we’ve done it, we know what we are doing, and we’ve done it fast as well so we will replicate that as quickly as we can.

“Our style is pretty much to roll up our sleeves and get involved, neither of is averse to picking up a hammer and getting involved. We are very hands-on and we will be with the roll out as well.”

The co-founders definitely practice what they preach, and in line with that they advise other budding entrepreneurs in the UAE. “Don’t find reasons not to do things, find reasons to do things. As long as you work hard, you’ll find the way,” Davies says.

“Whenever I’ve seen someone successful, and many of my friends have been successful entrepreneurs, one of the number one things for them is to roll up their sleeves and do it themselves.

“If you outsource, pay somebody to do [something], they will never have the same passion or drive whereas you’re in it yourself and when you put in your finances, you’re taking that much more seriously.

“That’s when magic starts to happen,” Milton concludes.

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