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Why this 61-year-old left banking for a boutique gym

cecilia.chow@bizedge.com

Agnes Liew may be 61, but she is fitter than many people half her age. The former banker had spent 35 years with Citigroup, where she was last head of its Asia-Pacific corporate bank and based in Hong Kong. She was appointed vice-chairman of corporate banking for Asia in April 2016 and officially retired at end-June this year.

Liew: I spent half my life running after planes, and I felt it was time to do something different (Credit: EdgeProp Singapore)

 

She opened Oompf! Lifestyle Fitness Centre at 130 East Coast Road on July 1. It was not a decision made on impulse but a planned move. What sparked it off was her annual check-up in 2014, when her doctor informed her that her bone density was decreasing. This is normal for women over 50, she adds, and men over 70. The fear is that if bone mass loss is not stopped, it could lead to osteoporosis or severe damage in the event of a fall. “It’s a slippery slope thereafter,” says Liew. “I’ve seen it too many times.”

She says the best thing to reverse the process is “resistance training”. That was when she walked into a gym for the first time two years ago. It was Fitness First in Hong Kong, as she was working in the city then. She signed up for Zumba classes. “I’ve done Pilates for many years, but I wanted to improve my fitness and muscular strength,” she says. “That was when I got hooked on the gym, and I found personal training espe- cially helpful.”

 

From chasing planes to running a fitness centre

Everything fell into place then. Liew’s regional role at Citigroup required her to fly to a different city every week for the past 11 years. “I spent half my life running after planes, and I felt it was time to do something different,” she says. “The health message was also a sign.” She returned to Singapore and pondered over what she would do next. She considered going into the F&B business. “But I’m not a Michelin-star chef,” she points out. “So, I thought, ‘Why not start a gym since I like fitness so much?’”

Liew thought about the type of fitness centre she wanted to have by first deciding what she did not want. “I didn’t like the feel of a big gym, and I didn’t enjoy the mass classes.” But what she enjoyed was having a personal trainer. “Everyone has a different body makeup and different fitness levels. So, having a personal trainer is ideal, as it helps address each individual’s personal fitness challenges.”

 

Real estate play

That was when she started to look for an ideal location for her first gym. She started by looking at properties in the Bukit Timah, River Valley and Tanjong Pagar areas. “I thought they were so overpriced,” she recounts.

Although she now lives in Bukit Timah, Liew grew up in the east, and her childhood home was on Chapel Road, off East Coast Road. “I’ve always liked the east; there’s a different vibe about it,” she says. “Although the low-rise shophouses and apartment blocks may give it a laidback feel, it’s actually very vibrant.”

After shopping around, she decided on an intermediate shophouse at 130 East Coast Road. A busy street, it also enjoys heavy foot traffic, as it is situ- ated amid eateries and a short walk to 112 Katong. Liew paid $6.3 million for the shophouse last November, ac- cording to a caveat lodged then. “I like the fact that it’s freehold and a conservation shophouse, therefore scant in supply,” she says. “I would never do this business if I had to pay rent and be at the mercy of the landlord.”

Oompf! Fitness is located along the busy East Coast Road, a short walk from 112 Katong (Credit Photo: EdgeProp Singapore)

Buying the conservation shophouse served a dual purpose: as an invest- ment property and a place of busi- ness for her fitness centre. However, she wants to run it as a private club. “There are many boutique gyms in the East Coast area,” she observes. “I think that’s the trend: People want to go to small gyms, as it’s more per- sonalised.”

Liew spent about four months and half a million dollars renovating and fitting out the 41⁄2-storey shop- house, which has a total floor area of more than 3,500 sq ft. The ground floor is now a “heavy-duty gym” for high-intensity interval training; the second floor has the reception area, machinery for cardio workouts, and the shower and changing-room facili- ties. The mezzanine floor is where the Pilates and yoga room is; the top- most level, the attic, is the members’ lounge. Liew also invested “a couple of hundred thousand” in top-of-the- line gym equipment.

 

Members-only fitness club

The biggest debate was over the name of the fitness centre. “We picked Oompf! because when we say some- one has ‘oomph’, it means the per- son is energetic, exciting,” explains Liew. “That’s our vision for our life- style gym. It’s not a gym designed for people who just want to be seen at a gym, or for those who just want to slam weights, but for those who are serious about fitness training.” Her husband helps her run Oompf!

The ground floor is now a “heavy-duty gym” for high-intensity interval training (Credit Photo: EdgeProp Singapore)

The gym is also designed as an exclusive members’ club. Members will have an exercise programme tailored to their fitness goals by a personal trainer. Liew also invested in a company that developed an application exclusive to Oompf! All new members re- ceive a complimentary health assessment at Parkway Pantai clinics, after which they will be asked about their fitness goals. Their health information is keyed into the app, which will help them monitor their heart rate, calories burnt and other vital data during the various exercises. “We believe that fitness training has to be holistic,” says Liew. “We have sessions focused on the upper and lower body; and sessions focused on power training, speed, agility and coordination.” The schedule of sessions, including yoga and Pilates classes, is posted on the website.

The second level is where the reception and cardio area is (Credit photo: EdgeProp Singapore)

The fees are nominal, starting from around $388 a year. “For me, it’s a hobby, and something for me to do in my retirement,” she says. “The busi- ness is an extension of my private club and I want to bring together a community of people who share the same philosophy about fitness.”

 

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