Dione Forbes-Ryrie has worked her way to the top at Les Mills.

She started with the fitness company as a receptionist, aged 27, and 23 years later she is now the managing director.

Forbes-Ryrie has a direct team of eight people, but considers herself responsible for Les Mills' 1400-strong workforce.

"I don't think I've been bored once, and to be with a company for 23 years and not have a day where I think, 'this is boring', is pretty unique," she laughs.


Forbes-Ryrie was born in Turangi, southwest of Taupo, and grew up in Rotorua. She was head of the choir at Rotorua Girls' High School before moving north to study commerce at the University of Auckland.

"At school, maths was a very strong subject for me, accounting, economics, so I was always strong with numbers," the 50-year-old says. "I love the water, I love being coastal, and also my father lived in Auckland, which was another drawcard when deciding which university to go to."

After finishing her Bachelor of Commerce in 1987, Forbes-Ryrie spent two years as a financial auditor at the Hyatt Hotel chain, before moving to Blenheim to work as a financial controller for a distillery.

After two years, a bored Forbes-Ryrie fell asleep at her desk one day - an event she describes as the defining moment that spurred her to pack it in and go back to university.

At 27, Forbes-Ryrie was a full-time student again, studying sport and health science.

"To go back and study something I loved was an amazing experience. I enjoyed it far more than I did commerce."

"I had aspirations to be a personal trainer - they were few and far between. There would have been a handful in New Zealand at most, so it was something people who knew me struggled to get their head around," says Forbes-Ryrie.

"[In their mind] it was almost like a cop-out ... but it absolutely didn't end up being that way."

The first thing she did back in Auckland was join Les Mills - for the second time.

"My first week when I was back at university ... I was sitting up at the mezzanine of the Auckland City gym and it occurred to me if I got a job there I could potentially get a free membership, which would save me some money and I could earn some money, so I got the job on reception because it was the only thing I was qualified to do," she says.

"Six months into that I'd learnt enough at uni to start working on the gym floor."

After 10 years or so she had worked as a receptionist, gym instructor, personal trainer for big-name clients and a licensing manager.

She then spent eight years in a role dubbed "business manager", before becoming the chief operating officer and later managing director.

Les Mills' Auckland city club is the largest gym in Australasia. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Les Mills' Auckland city club is the largest gym in Australasia. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The biggest project she has overseen was Les Mills' two-year restructure in 2008 and its membership pricing overhaul.

"We were stagnating, sitting on 45,000 members for a number of years, even though we'd opened a couple of clubs so we undertook a really significant competitive review," she says. "We made some big changes, a lot of it behind the scenes, but from a consumer perspective: some will remember the gym industry was renowned for having contracts of 36 months.

"We introduced month-to-month membership to the market and got very real about what commitment looks like today."

Now she is overseeing the $35 million makeover of the Victoria St gym and new carpark, expected to be completed in 2020.

The refurbishment will include a 100-bike digital immersion studio and boutique fitness spaces.

Les Mills is also focused on finding new locations for more gyms. It hopes to have four more in the next five years, taking its total to 16.

The privately owned company was founded in 1968 by Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Les Mills. Its interests are split equally between gym operations and property, and it owns eight of its 12 sites.

Its sister company, Les Mills International, focuses on fitness programmes which are used in 19,500 gyms in 100 countries.

Forbes-Ryrie says the most challenging part of her role is ensuring that the 50-year-old company stays relevant.

"A lot of people like me stick around at Les Mills forever. There are people who have been there longer than me, and what we can't do is let people like me and others who have been here for a long time age the business."

There are a lot of gyms out there where the gym is not that uncomfortable with people joining and not attending. We're the absolute polar opposite.

Les Mills' Auckland city club is the largest in Australasia and most of its gyms are around 6000 square metres, compared to typical gyms of 500-1000sq m.

But Forbes-Ryrie says Les Mills is not all body builders, Iron Man champs and gold medallists.

"I do absolutely appreciate we can look damn intimidating en masse," she laughs.

"Once you're in there, though, there is something for everybody. We've got beautiful classes like Body Balance, which is a bit of Pilates and a bit of Tai Chi, we've got cycle classes where you just sit on the bike and don't have to turn up the dial if you don't want to, and an amazing team of personal trainers."

The average age of a joiner is in their twenties, while the average member is in their late thirties.

"There are a lot of gyms out there where the gym is not that uncomfortable with people joining and not attending. We're the absolute polar opposite," Forbes-Ryrie says. "We're very much about making our gyms almost impossible to go to and do nothing."

Ninety eight per cent of Les Mills' revenue comes from membership fees. Its revenue has increased 30 per cent over the past three years, and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation have increased 70 per cent.

It is aiming to have 75,000 members within five years.

Les Mills has no gyms overseas, but that is something the company thinks about, says Forbes-Ryrie.

"Right now, we still think there's room in New Zealand for at least another five to eight fully-fledged Les Mills clubs in main centres, and then we do suspect that we could probably even go into some of the regions," she says. "Our growth aspirations are New Zealand-based and international aspirations are programme-based but, yes, I wouldn't be surprised at some point the two merge."

While she says Les Mills doesn't follow the local competition much, "we do keep a close eye on what's happening more internationally, because a lot of what happens in the likes of the States ends up here."

Les Mills founder, Les Mills Snr, during his time as an Olympic athlete. Photo / Supplied
Les Mills founder, Les Mills Snr, during his time as an Olympic athlete. Photo / Supplied

"Fitness is absolutely being embraced in a far more holistic way, it's health and wellbeing now. When I got into the industry, it was fairly one dimensional. It was about physical fitness and essentially what that looked like. Now, it's very much wellness and I think that's just going to go from strength to strength."

At 35, Forbes-Ryrie was widowed when her husband of seven months died suddenly from a heart attack.

"I had a significant perspective change. People always say don't sweat the small stuff, which is very hard for a lot of people to do, but I don't find it hard because I know how everything can change in a heartbeat," she says. "Had I not been through that heartbreaking and really beautiful experience with him, then I wouldn't have been shunted into a place of understanding what living for today is."

At age 46, Forbes-Ryrie married again, to Kenyan businessman Bruce Ryrie, and they now have an intercontinental relationship.

"No year is the same but generally he goes up to Kenya for two or three month blocks and I go to Kenya for one of those and spend a month there, and then within the other three month block we generally meet in France," she says.

"We have a fascinating life. A lot of people when they first hear that we spend time apart go 'aw, that must be hard', then I describe what it's like and they go 'cool, how do I sign up for that?'"

She has four-step children - two daughter and two sons - from both marriages.

Her husband runs family properties in Kenya as bed and breakfast businesses and has an insurance business in New Zealand.

And are there any plans to take Les Mills to Africa? "My husband keeps suggesting that."

Dione Forbes-Ryrie

Age: 50
Job: Managing director of Les Mills
Education: Bachelor of Commerce, Diploma in Sport and Health Science (top scholar)
Family: Husband Bruce Ryrie, four stepchildren
Last book you read: Surviving Death by Leslie Kean
Last film you watched: Call Me By Your Name directed by Luca Guadagnino
Last international holiday: Kenya