Whelan doubles size of DW empire in one go

Dave Whelan
Dave Whelan

Could Dave Whelan’s empire-building days be coming to an end?

In an exclusive interview with the Wigan Evening Post today, the millionaire said that a deal to take over most of Fitness First’s gyms to double the number of his DW Sports Fitness outlets at a stroke will probably be as big as the business will be allowed to get because of retail competition rules.

When the deal is secured we will have around 130 outlets in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales

Dave Whelan

The 79-year-old former Wigan Athletic chairman was speaking from a holiday in Majorca as news broke back home of the £65m take-over of 63 health clubs.

He said: “The deal should be completed within the next fortnight.

“We are getting 63 health clubs which are mainly in the south of England where DW does not have so much of a presence. There nearest thing to a clash is Poole in Dorset and they are five miles apart. Quite a few of them are in the London area where we don’t have a presence at all at the moment.

“It is also a good fit because they do a lot of we do and have also recently spent quite a lot of money doing the gyms up. Half of them have swimming pools as well as gyms.

“Fitness First have 250 other gyms around the world and they are stepping back and selling most of them off. We at DW are not interested in buying the overseas ones.”

Half a dozen UK Fitness First gyms are being sold to Gym World, Mr Whelan saying he wasn’t interested in them because they were “dry” - in other words didn’t have a pool - and/or did not have very much time left on their leases.

Mr Whelan said: “We are not expecting any trouble from the competition people with the deal that we have.

“But it will be difficult to spend more because of the competition rules and regulations. You cannot dominate towns and cities.

“When the deal is secured we will have around 130 outlets in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

“I don’t think the Fitness First staff have anything to worry about either. We operate our company much in the same way as Fitness First.”

Mr Whelan, who turns 80 later this year, launched his DW Sports Fitness business in part to rescue vestiges of the JJB Sports empire he had once built up to be the biggest retailer of its kind.

At its height JJB had boasted more than 600 stores but fell into terminal decline after Mr Whelan left the business.

He has a track record at starting afresh just when everyone thinks he is going to take it easy.

After retiring as a professional footballer in the 1960s, Mr Whelan built up a small supermarket empire which he sold at an impressive profit to Morrisons. The intention then was to take early retirement but he joked in his autobiography that after a week of being taken on shopping expeditions by wife Pat he was ready for a new business challenge and so bought himself a Wigan town centre sport and angling shop called JJB.

The business made him a multi-millionaire and he has had a number of other commercial interests over the years including the Wrightington Hotel and Country Club, Poole’s bakeries and Vizwear.

He relinquished the chairmanship of Wigan Athletic to his grandson David Sharpe a couple of years ago but remains its owner.