Anne Diamond asks if Rosemary Conley is obsessed with dieting
We had published 136 issues of my magazine, each read by almost half a million people.
Rosemary managed to bounce back from her business going bust
Hundreds of thousands of viewers had enjoyed our internet TV channel, and tens of thousands of people lost weight with us online. The franchisees had raised more than £2million for cancer research and other causes.
Despite that incredible success, storm clouds were looming. Every December, cash flow was tight but in 2013 we lost 40 franchisees – 25 per cent of our entire network.
Yet we were still excited about the year ahead. Our new-look magazine went on sale just after Christmas, my new book The FAB Diet was being published and we anticipated new members joining classes as well as lots of “rejoins”, which usually happened in January.
The banks were being ultra-cautious so my husband Mike and I put in all the cash we could muster – £100,000 – to help bridge the gap. Subsequently, our bank added a further £200,000 into the business.
Sadly, as 2014 dawned, the new-look magazine did not fly off the shelves and, after two weeks, circulation was down 50 per cent year on year. Sales of my low-fat, ready-meal range Solo Slim were falling. Then franchisees started reporting poor attendance at their classes.
When the credit crunch came, it seemed like a perfect storm.
It was time to send the next issue of the magazine to the printers but we could not pay them for the previous issue. This was the moment I realised we had come to the end of the road. I felt sick.
Mike and I had invested all our cash and had nothing left. I rang him and said: “It’s all over. We’ve got to close the business.” It was the most difficult decision of our lives but we had to take it, and quickly.
It was an incredibly sad day. The business would go into administration because we still had 120 franchisees running weekly classes, a profitable online club and a magazine with a huge archive of material that could be valuable. We just needed investors to help rescue it.
What happened next was not what I would have done or wanted to do. But it was no longer my company, even though it included the name “Rosemary Conley” in its title.
The thought of everyone losing their jobs was heartbreaking. Our staff were like a family, as were our franchisees. We could see a tsunami in the distance but there was nowhere we could run. I was dreading addressing staff at Quorn House, our corporate HQ on the the Monday.
That weekend, Mike and I bought enough food to last two weeks because I knew I would feel uncomfortable being seen in public after the news broke. It was a strange weekend. I hardly slept, and kept going hot and cold with fear and trepidation. The news would drastically change so many people’s lives.
Rosemary held to sell her naming rights to recoup some cash
On the Monday morning, we assembled in the library. Everyone was cheerful and fresh after their weekend. I explained the situation, telling them we had no alternative but to go into administration.
Our administrator Mark Hopkins then explained what would happen next: that he was now running the company and there would be redundancies, but he was trying to find a buyer so everyone was to keep working as normal.
In the meantime, Mike and I would pay people’s salaries out of our own pocket, which he described as highly unusual and a generous gesture, but I do not think anyone registered. Everybody walked out of the library in stunned silence.
Simultaneously, we notified all the franchisees by video. Next we invited them to a meeting. Franchisees came from all over the country and we met in a school hall.
I knew they would be upset, even angry, but what happened next was a shock. Understandably there was a barrage of questions but I was not expecting the personal attacks and accusations that came at me like bullets from a firing squad. I spent three-and-ahalf hours fighting back tears, trying to answer their questions.
Human nature, understandably, puts people on a pedestal and we like having someone to look up to. In our business, that person was me. I was the brand – the solid, dependable, backbone – and they felt I had let them down.
I knew that we were where we were because of circumstances beyond our control, but everybody wants to blame somebody and if it is your name above the door you are the obvious target. I understood, but it did not make it any easier.
The next week I went to take my exercise class, as I had done for 42 years. One of the women gave me the biggest bouquet of flowers. She said: “We’re really sorry and, after you didn’t charge us for last week, we decided to put the money together for these flowers.”
Tears filled my eyes. After so many people had been so horrible, their kindness was overwhelming.
In the mid-1990s, when we were earning a lot of money from books and videos, Mike and I had invested in property. We lived in a very large house and had a house abroad and, while they were worth a lot of money, they also cost a lot to run and we had virtually no funds.
Our office, Quorn House, was owned by our personal pension fund, and the property was rented to the company. But it had not received any rent for months because of the cash-flow issues.
Our villa in Portugal was already on the market but the market over there was in the doldrums. We were asset rich but cash poor.
Quorn House was the base of operations for Conley’s business
Mike’s mum Jeanne, who had been living with us for six years, gave us enough money to tide us over. It was a lifeline.
Over the coming weeks, one by one, members of staff were given their notice. I was made redundant too, but continued to come in every day. It was heart-wrenching saying goodbye to the staff. Some took it badly and were quite hostile.
My only comfort was the knowledge we had provided staff with good jobs and experience that would stand them in good stead. In spring 2015, a year after we had gone into administration, everything was brought to a conclusion.
Franchisees were given the option to go it alone – which the majority gladly did – or to join a group created by an investor. The online business was sold to another investor who invited me and one of our exfranchisees, Sarah Skelton, to join them. Our Quorn House base was sold.
At the end of 2016, I celebrated my 70th birthday with lunch on a steam train on the Great Central Railway, from Loughborough past Quorn, Mountsorrel and Birstall.
It was quite fitting because, when our office was at Quorn House, we regularly heard its whistle as it passed; we had lived at the Old Parsonage in Mountsorrel; and now I hold weekly classes at Birstall Golf Club, next to the railway station.
Rosemary is still going strong in her 70s
Around a year later, I was approached by the European distributor of the anti-ageing facial exerciser called Facial-Flex® I had been using for almost 20 years. If my face looked a little younger than 70, it was due to the exerciser.
As a result, I took over the distributorship of Facial-Flex® for the UK. So, with Mike’s blessing, I began a new adventure. It was fun to be creating a business again.
My interest in skating continued and, in 2019, my Dancing On Ice professional partner Mark Hanretty, whom I had appeared with on the seventh series, taught me an exhilarating new routine to prove to myself I could still perform at 72.
I shared the video with my chest specialist, Prof Ian Pavord, and he was astonished this elderly person with such limited lung capacity could take part in such an activity. In December 2014 the venture capital company that had bought our online weight-loss club suggested a management buyout and I became a shareholder.
Later Sarah Skelton, now CEO of parent company Digital Wellbeing Ltd, asked if I would like to trade some shares in exchange for getting my name back.
One of the hardest things when our company went into administration was that someone else could use my name. I had hoped, even prayed, that one day I would get it back. I was so grateful to Sarah and, of course, said “Yes”.
Rosemary entered the distribution business after being approached
A year later I launched a free video-based website for the over-50s – rosemaryconley.com – to help the older generation to stay fit and healthy.
When the pandemic hit I suspended my Monday evening classes for the first time in almost half a century and created a WhatsApp group, an invaluable means of connection over the difficult months to come.
Because of my lung conditions – asthma and bronchiectasis – I was considered “clinically extremely vulnerable” so I had to selfisolate and when it became clear the country would be in lockdown for a while, I wrote a new book.
Inspired by Captain Tom Moore, my friend and fitness expert colleague Mary Morris and I put together The 28-day Immunity Plan with recipes that incorporated immunity-boosting foods and exercise – the royalties of the ebook going to NHS Charities Together.
Today, I am immensely privileged to still enjoy such an exciting career, helping people to be healthier and fitter, and I love going around the UK to speak about business, staying in shape and eating well, or telling my story of how I found faith in God.
Conley had to suspend her in-person classes during the pandemic
Little did I guess when I started my first classes in 1972 that 50 years on they would still be going strong.
Today, I cannot imagine not taking my Monday evening class. Many members have been attending for 40 years and I consider them friends.
We have supported one another through disasters and dramas, life-threatening illnesses and joyous recoveries, and celebrated many a special birthday with Prosecco and cake. I love my life. So here is to the next however many years!
Edited extract from Through Thick And Thin by Rosemary Conley (SPCK, £19.99), published on August 18. To pre-order for £16.99 with free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832.