Monday 20 August 2012

Trainer pumped up for the future

Former school rebel and bouncer overcame struggles to become successful gym owner
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2012

Mr Mohamed Fazlon Abdul Wahab is one big happy man this Hari Raya Puasa.

Two weeks ago, he got the keys to his first property: a $1.65 million, double-storey terraced house in the Thomson area.

It is the latest milestone in the life of a man whose secondary school teacher once declared had "no hope" in life, a nightclub bouncer who, through sheer grit and hard work, has now become a gym owner and one of the most successful personal trainers in town.

The jubilation of finally having a home to call his own is compounded by a quieter joy. For the first time in seven years, he will be celebrating Hari Raya with family and loved ones in his parents' home.

"I haven't seen or spoken to my mother in seven years," says the third of five children of a retired glass shop owner and a housewife.

The estrangement followed years of simmering resentment and fractured expectations on the part of both parties.

The 37-year-old has rebuffed all overtures by family members to patch up with his mother, but a growing realisation that life is fragile and unpredictable prompted him to make peace.

"She has told my siblings she really wants to see me. She's my mother after all. I'm getting older and I don't want to have any regrets if something should happen to either of us," he says.

"What is the actual problem? Maybe there's no problem. Or maybe both of us have problems."

By his own admission, he harboured a lot of anger growing up.

The amiable man with biceps the size of cantaloupes was raised by his paternal grandmother, who doted on him.

He was seven years old when she died, and he returned to live with his parents in their three-room flat in Bedok.

"My mother couldn't get along with my grandma and I felt that she took it out on me," he says.

From the age of nine, he sold curry puffs and spring rolls at the void decks of Housing Board flats after school. Later, his mother set up a stall outside the Bedok Swimming Complex.

"I had to man the stall after school, from 2pm until 9pm or 10pm, every day," he recalls.

He simmered with resentment which he channelled into rebellion at school.

"I had no interest in books," says the former Temasek Primary School pupil whose poor grades landed him in the Normal stream at Bedok View Secondary School.

He hung out with seven disaffected youngsters, and they formed a rock band called Passion. He played the drums.

"One of our teachers said we had no hope. We were always asked to sit at the back and we could do what we wanted as long as we did not disturb the rest of the class," he recalls.

One of the boys later died in a motorcycle accident and at least three others fell into drugs. He says he never touched drugs despite the company he kept.

"What stopped me was my father. He was very strict. He would ask to smell your fingers and if he smelt cigarettes, he would give you a thrashing. He believed that nothing makes you learn better than a good beating," he says.

"I don't know if that would work with kids today, but it certainly worked with me."

After his O levels, he worked in his father's glass shop for two years before national service.

"I was not paid. Four months before I was called up for national service, he gave me $300," he says with a rueful laugh.

"I was probably one of the very few who wrote to the Government and asked why it took them so long to call me up for national service. I could not wait to be on my own."

One good thing came out of his stint at the glass shop. One of his father's employees was a man who won a sizeable sum of money in a bodybuilding contest, and later used it to start a successful nasi padang business.

"He told me, 'God may not have made me book-smart but he gave me a good body and a lot of strength which I can use to help me succeed in life,'" he recalls. "What he said has stuck with me ever since."

Mr Fazlon was deployed to the airport police during his national service. By then, he had started to lift weights, hoping to bulk up his skinny 52kg frame.

"I started training but instead of becoming bigger, I became skinnier. I asked one bodybuilder why and he said I was probably not eating enough," he says.

So when an offer for part-time work in the airport flight kitchen came from Changi International Airport Services, he grabbed it. After all, not only would he be getting an extra income, but also he could eat all the good food he wanted, for free.

He beefed up and became very strong, which earned him yet another part-time job at the airport.

"One guy who had a business laundering and delivering towels thought I was hard-working and strong. He handled 100 or 200 bags on every delivery trip. He loved me because although the bags weighed about 20kg each, I could take one in each hand and just toss them," Mr Fazlon says.

"He increased my pay each time I threatened to leave. I earned nearly $2,000 a month from him."

Juggling three jobs left him precious little sleep time - four hours a night at most.

"But it was okay. I can survive on very little sleep," he says. "I'm a money person. If there's money to be made, I can do it."

He just wanted to save as much as possible, driven by a desire to prove his mother wrong. Once, after a disagreement when he threatened to leave home, she taunted him by saying: "Go, go. I want to see how far you can go."

He flew the coop after national service. By then, he had morphed into a 120kg behemoth of solid muscle. He could do squats, lifting more than 350kg of weights.

However, he eschewed bodybuilding competitions.

"One of my friends was Mr Singapore. He went into a health store and asked if his title would get him a discount. The salesgirl just looked at him and said, 'What Mr Singapore?'" he recalls with a hearty laugh.

"There was very little money and you had to wear all that skimpy underwear on stage. It just was not my kind of thing."

Instead, he decided to be a bouncer.

"Don't laugh but being a bouncer was damn cool during that time. You see all these guys at Fire with their earpieces and you go, 'Wah, I also want to become a bouncer,'" he says, referring to one of the most popular discos in the 1990s.

"At that time, Zouk was hiring, and at Zouk, the bouncers wore jackets. Lagi stylo," he says, using a colloquialism to mean "stylish".

Not long after, he took a second job as a floor trainer with Planet Fitness (now True Fitness). He wanted to help his then girlfriend who had been laid off.

"She had to look after her family, pay the mortgage of their flat, so I decided to take on another job to help her."

An avid reader of health and fitness magazines, he readily dispensed tips to gym-goers, many of whom suggested that he be made a full-time personal trainer.

"My manager took me to see one of the directors and the first thing he talked about was firing me. He said he knew I held two jobs and to forget it if I thought I could earn a salary by doing nothing.

"He said he would fire me in two months if I didn't meet my targets."

Never one to back down from a challenge, he aimed to be better than the gym's top trainer, who had about 80 personal training sessions a month. He did just that in three months.

"Many of the trainers then were picky, they didn't want to work this shift or that, but I was very enthusiastic," he says, describing his strategy for success.

"I didn't give clients a hard time over cancellations. When regimens didn't work, I did not blame clients for not following instructions. I'd suggest changing techniques or switching tack."

Soon, he was chalking up more than 200 sessions a month. It also helped that he had a good physique and knew his stuff.

Ms Florence Tan, former managing director of Planet Fitness, remembers the young man well.

"He was top trainer year after year. Even in trying times, after 9/11 or Sars, he met his numbers and broke personal records," she says.

"He held two jobs but he was in the gym at 6am and was the last to leave. He was punctual, neat, customised programmes for his clients and paid a lot of attention to detail. He was just very disciplined, focused and driven."

Making do with barely three hours of sleep a night, Mr Fazlon made more than $10,000 a month from his two jobs. He would put in 15-hour days at the gym before heading to Zouk, where he worked from 10pm until 4am.

He also raked in extra income by buying and selling high-end timepieces from brands like Panerai and IWC.

After nine years, he decided to leave the nightclub. It was a decision prompted partly by the hazards of the job.

Mr Fazlon, who had had beer jugs smashed on his head, remembers violent melees involving drunk gang members. Once, he and 20 of his colleagues had to deal with more than 50 slogan-chanting hooligans.

Another time, a gangster used a bread knife to slice off a piece of scalp of a rival gang member.

"I just put one hand to his head to stem the bleeding until the ambulance came. I told him to hold on to one of my fingers and to stay awake. I said, 'If you pass out, I don't know what will happen.'"

A near-death experience also made him wonder if he was pushing himself too hard.

In 2007, he passed out in a carpark in the wee hours of the morning because of hypoglycemia, which is caused by low blood sugar. He ended up in hospital.

The fitness professional reckons personal training opened him up to a whole new world.

"My clients have changed me," says Mr Fazlon, whose clients include successful entrepreneurs and finance professionals.

"I was not exposed to a lot of things. I would keep and protect money that I made. But my clients have given me a lot of ideas and taught me how to evaluate ideas and grow my money."

It did not hurt that he was hungry to succeed. Besides upgrading his professional credentials - he is a certified trainer from the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association and the International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation - he devoured management books.

One of his favourites is The Art Of Learning: An Inner Journey To Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin, whose early life as a chess prodigy was chronicled in the film Searching For Bobby Fischer. The American eventually became an eight-time national chess champion and a world taiji champion.

Among other things, Waitzkin wrote about how to turn weaknesses into strengths by over-compensating.

After venturing out as a freelance trainer for two years, Mr Fazlon took the plunge in 2009 and invested $130,000 in starting Energia Fitness Club, a 4,000 sq ft gym at Riverside Point, with two partners.

"I was doing well but I reckon it was better to have my own place. I won't be at the mercy of other gym owners, I am in control of my own destiny. It also gives you more credibility," he says.

The club, which has 40 freelance trainers, is doing well but his personal training career is going even more swimmingly.

"I've come to a point where I cannot take clients any more," says Mr Fazlon. He has about 40 clients who pay him about $100 per session.

One of his clients, Ms Carolyn Sullivan, recently won the 10km Shape Run in just over 39 minutes.

The Australian project coordinator in a financial institution started training with Mr Fazlon 18 months ago and one of her goals was to reduce her personal best time.

"That was achieved every month. He understands what my goals are and completely pushes me to my limits.

"He doesn't fluff about, he is very passionate and takes up the full hour so you really get your money's worth," she says.

Meanwhile, Mr Fazlon has other targets - opening a second gym and buying a couple more properties.

Marriage, he says, is not yet on the cards although he has been in a steady relationship with a school teacher for several years.

"And I definitely want to keep on working. I don't know how to sit still."

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