Slimming World, Alfreton
PUBLISHED: 11:06 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013
Pat Ashworth visits the Alfreton home of the UK's most advanced slimming organisation
LORD Lichfield's candid black and white images say everything about the world of slimming, from the luscious bite of a crisp apple to a pair of hesitant feet stepping on to the bathroom scales. These 'Moments in the Life of a Slimmer' are exhibited in the reception area of Slimming World and reflected in the ripples of the mirrored ceiling above, where faces fragment into a thousand joyful snapshots.
An industrial estate in Alfreton is the unlikely location for the UK's most advanced slimming organisation. Slimming World started from home in 1969, didn't have an office until 1973 and has twice outgrown its premises on the Clover Nook estate. The architecturally innovative head office building houses 250 staff in colourful, open-plan offices where even the Founder and Chairman, the legendary Margaret Miles Bramwell, and the Managing Director, Caryl Richards, don't choose to have their own private space.
It's more like stepping into a health club than a company head office, though there's nothing casual about the working atmosphere. This is a busy and committed place, with a buzz and vibrancy about it that very much reflects its origins. Derbyshire-born Margaret Miles Bramwell started her own chain of slimming clubs out of sheer frustration at the way she herself was treated as someone trying to lose weight. The single-mindedness with which she pursued her goal is reflected in the dedication of all the people here to the members who embark on the weight-loss programme.
A former pupil of Swanwick Hall Grammar School (of which she has 'super memories'), she says, 'I had always had a weight problem and had tried just about everything, starting with my first really serious attempt to lose weight at the age of 16. I suppose I'm a bit bookish by nature and training, so I read everything I could find on the subject.' This was at the time when Professor John Yudkin was demonising sugar, she recalls - a revolution that came around again with Dr Atkins. By 1969, she was writing and testing out her own weight-loss system, of which she says simply, 'It worked! It was simple and easy to do because you never had to go hungry and you lost weight.'
'Margaret pioneered the idea of treating people with empathy and compassion, and also started on some dietary approaches which at the time were quite revolutionary - and are still unique,' says Dr James Stubbs, Slimming World's resident obesity specialist and research officer. The company is part of Europe's biggest ever study of diet and weight control and Dr Stubbs has carried out over 50 studies on different aspects of eating behaviour, appetite control, diet composition and energy balance.
'Slimming World is about a healthy diet for life, and also about making people feel better about themselves. There's a lot of stigma associated with being obese, and you can't help if you can't get people through the door,' he says. 'Weight control isn't a mechanistic science but we're about finding practical solutions to help someone who can't keep the weight off to navigate to a healthy body weight while eating real foods. To me, that's far more rewarding than publishing another paper on bits of the brain...'
The statistics speak for themselves. Margaret's one slimming group had grown to 40 clubs within a year. Almost 40 years on, the number now stands at 5,500 weekly groups, led by 2,500 trained Consultants - all of whom have successfully overcome weight problems themselves and can therefore 'stand shoulder to shoulder' with slimmers. Over three million people have attended groups, losing a combined weight of 60 million pounds. Two hundred team managers and 40 field managers ensure the ethos that is IMAGE (Individual Motivation And Group Experience therapy) remains consistent.
Margaret herself trained as a beauty therapist, specialising in make-up as a way of helping overweight women realise they could look better even before they had lost their weight. IMAGE, she says, evolved through 'my personal preference to be treated with respect, as an adult, not a naughty child, and to be empowered to make better choices, not to be dictated to... I was arrogant enough to believe that I knew everyone else wanted that too.' She adds frankly, 'I've since discovered that the vast majority of people actually are like me, but not everyone!'
Staff at Alfreton are given every incentive to keep fit and eat a healthy diet themselves. There are free and unlimited supplies of juice and fresh fruit in every department. The canteen, more akin to a contemporary restaurant, serves a delectable choice of healthy hot meals or salads, plus dessert, for 1.50 or 1 for vegetarians. Today it's Cajun Style Chicken, Roast Leg of Lamb, Quorn Curry and Tomato and Basil Frittata. 'You can eat as much as you like. We do very generous portions,' says the cheerful head chef, Geoff Whitworth. The facility is not just for staff but for the consultants and regional managers who come here for training courses in the purpose-built conference centre.
There's a gym in the basement with a formidable array of equipment, fitness classes and personal trainers for employees who want them. Showers and hairdryers are all part of the provision, and there's a state-of-the-art Health and Beauty salon set up in a unit that used to house stock. They've even applied for planning permission to attach an indoor swimming-pool for the staff. There can be few businesses which make a point of showing you the toilets as part of a tour of the building, but the fibre optic water feature and opulent leather couch in the Ladies has sold the company to many a candidate coming for interview.
But this is, after all, a company which has consistently been named in the Sunday Times Top 100 list as one of the best employers to work for. Everyone is visible at their work: the operators answering queries on the general advice line; those on the members' support line and web-based support facility; the IT department and even the Finance department.
'We have a lot of fun at work. It's never a dull, monotonous place,' Margaret says with undimmed enthusiasm. 'It's full of life and laughter and happiness. Please don't think we never have a cross word - we do. We've even been known to fire someone. But there is a delicious sense of humour that underlies our working days and gets us through even the most difficult times.'
Her philosophy has always been, 'If it's not good enough for me, then it's not good enough for anyone else,' and she says candidly, 'We've always done our best, even when money was tight, to provide a working environment that's the best we can sensibly afford. I've always worked alongside everyone else. The ethos and culture of the company to respect each other isn't a superficial one for "public" only - we really do believe in it.'
The glossy Slimming World magazine is based here, with sales of 260,000 and a new line in using the programme's own radiantly successful slimmers as cover girls. Open its pages and the first thing you see is a plate of egg, chips and beans - an example of 'the sort of food you think you wouldn't be able to cook in a million years,' says the data base and publications co-ordinator responsible for the recipe and food reference books Slimming World produces with Ebury. The Food Optimising programme is based on foods that can be eaten without restriction and on an eating plan tailored to fit a slimmer's lifestyle rather than the other way round.
Up in the Nutrition department, Dr Jacquie Lavin, team leader and in-house nutritionist since 1998, keeps consultants, politicians, policy makers and key influencers up to date with latest research and information, and manages an active research programme 'to make sure that members are getting the very best we can give them.' Slimming World has pioneered with Primary Care Trusts the Slimming on Referral Scheme, which arose out of a pilot study with the Southern Derbyshire health authority and was the first evidence-based programme of its kind.
Under the scheme, GPs and health professionals refer people who are obese to a subsidised, 12-week Slimming World package, at the end of which it is hoped they will be committed enough to take it on for themselves. The results of this partnership with a reputable commercial organisation have been very encouraging, and the company also operates a Family Affair scheme for adolescents between the ages of 11 and 15.
Margaret admits, 'It's not been easy because many health professionals, even today, are unaware of what we really do, how we do it and the difference we genuinely make. That's now changing - much too slowly for me, but it's happening. Our Consultants and mangers take the time and trouble to let their local GP know about members' successes. It often comes as a surprise to a GP who hasn't been able to help a particular patient when the same patient has now successfully (and apparently so easily!) lost weight, and so impressively improved their health as a result.
'It's so important that we work with the NHS. The problem is just too big for the health service. The authorities agree we need a "joined-up" approach across all sectors if we are to make a real difference to the growing problem in the UK.'
Amanda Avery, a dietician with the Southern Derbyshire community nutrition service, works at Slimming World two days a week. She has been qualified for 20 years and reflects that while key people were saying the same things about diet and obesity then as they are now, the concerns were perhaps not being taken on board to the same extent. 'The reality as a dietician is that I'm seeing people in their twenties and thirties with diabetes. They have the potential of living for 50 years with it, whereas in earlier years, they'd have been people in their sixties and seventies,' she observes.
You'd think that today's climate might make it easier for people wanting to lose weight, but in Margaret's experience, that's not the case. 'There are far more things in the shops now to help people but there are also more things to seduce them away from their good intentions,' she reflects. 'Although there are more gyms, getting more and more swish every year, there are also more of us leading sedentary lifestyles. So on balance, I would say it's getting harder than ever, especially when being quite seriously overweight is almost becoming the norm.'
She was 'hands-on' at Slimming World for 30 years and describes herself as 'totally ferocious about promoting the ethos of the company.' The staff are every bit as tenacious as she is to protect the culture, she says with pleasure, paying tribute to 'a marvellous team of people, most ably led by Caryl Richards.' They're well looked after - Christmas, for instance, sees presents, bonuses, a party for themselves and one for their children - but they also avidly raise money through the charity, SMILES, which Margaret founded and which has to date raised 1,400,000.
Ask her how she stays fit, focused and energetic herself and she muses, 'Fit? Pure luck at my age. I do a little walking, cycling, swimming (but need to make time to do more, I know) and I used to use the local gym three times a week, but don't any more. I could justifiably claim that's because I've been so busy this year and that I've had a problem with my shoulder, but deep down, it's because I don't really enjoy it.
'I eat sensibly, plenty of fruit and vegetables, lean meat and fish. I still love bread and my real weakness is cheese, so I have to be extremely strong and use every tip and trick I've ever learned to keep myself under control. Focussed and energetic... I don't know how that happens, but I am like that. I'm quite a passionate person and also very proud of Slimming World. Family apart, nothing in my life is more important to me.
'I no longer work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I no longer have to. But Slimming World is my baby. So I guess I will be passionate about it till the day I die.'