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FITNESS, HEALTH, WELLNESS

features

Life lessons: Tough times

The last three years have been challenging, with no letup in sight, but while hard times are seldom enjoyable, we emerge stronger, wiser, more resilient and grateful – if a little bruised. Kath Hudson asks industry entrepreneurs what they learned from their career low points

Published in Health Club Management 2023 issue 1
Cobbold has been leading Pure Gym since 2015 / Pure gym
Cobbold has been leading Pure Gym since 2015 / Pure gym
Humphrey Cobbold
Pure Gym: CEO
photo: PURE GYM / James McCauley

One afternoon I was unceremoniously fired from Wiggle, the private equity-owned company I’d devoted my life to for the best part of five years.I walked in that day as a CEO and walked out a nobody.

There were differences of opinion between myself and the private equity owners, but I didn’t think they were terminal, so when they delivered the coup de grâce I was shocked. In hindsight it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it felt like it at the time and was very upsetting.

There was a real risk it would derail my career. Important people around London knew I’d been ejected from my role and when a community like the private equity industry knows that, everybody questions why.

Handling the aftermath of these situations is really important and I decided to be completely open. I didn’t go around shouting about it, but I didn’t hide the fact I had been taken out of a role I thoroughly enjoyed and that I’d put my life and soul into. I hope being open about the experience has made me look, and actually be, more human. CEOs are often criticised for being aloof, so to be considered more human is probably no bad thing.

For three to five months, I was a pretty angry man. If I could give my younger self some advice, I would say take it on the chin and move on – life’s too short to spend it angry with the world. Although there’s a natural period of anger when something like that happens, I shouldn’t have been as angry for so long and I should not have blamed people around me as much as I did.

The experience taught me humility. When you’ve been pretty successful in life and get knocked like that, you feel brought down to size. On reflection, that’s no bad thing for anyone. I also learned about the emotions people go through when they are relieved of their responsibilities, or go through a major change, so I hope it has helped to inform me when I’ve been on the other side of the table. I hope I now behave in a humane and reasonable way in such situations. They’re never easy but empathy based on lived experience probably helps.

The cloud had a silver lining. It made me reflect on what I really wanted to do and I’m incredibly grateful because I found Pure Gym during that time and have ended up building a more successful business. I now believe bad things can happen which can lead to good things.

Despite the pain, I learned some important life lessons which I wouldn’t be without. Events happen outside of your control, but the real question is what you do next to improve things for yourself and those around you. Always do the best with the circumstances you find yourself in.

I shouldn’t have been as angry for so long and I shouldn’t have blamed people around me as much as I did
Pure Gym is globalising its estate and growing organically and by acquisition / photo: PURE GYM / James McCauley
Phillip Mills
Les Mills: executive director
photo: Les Mills

As any club operator will attest, fitness is a very tough business. We’ve battled through recessions, debt mountains and countless failures – our global PT licensing business, several clothing firms and three separate nutrition companies have gone under. Struggle has been a very real and regular part of our journey and often it’s been a battle just to keep the lights on.

The most difficult time was after our family gym business was publicly listed in 1984. It was taken over by a group of investment companies in 1987, a month before the global stock market crash. All the investors went broke and I bought our company back in pieces from different liquidators. I borrowed about NZ$10m and although I bought cheaply, that was an awful lot of money in those days.

For the next six years, I had to figure out ways to keep paying the bills from week to week while I paid down the debt. I was so burnt out I became pretty depressed, put on 10kg and wasn’t exercising. It took my partner Jackie to grab hold of me and say “Philly, you’ve got to get a grip.”

Day by day, week by week, my team and I had to come up with new ways to generate cash and improve the business. After Jackie and I spoke about my health, I set myself some goals and one was to make my way up to A-Grade tennis. Of course, I never made it past the Whangarei Open, let alone Wimbledon, but within a year I lost most of the weight, the depression lifted and the business turned a corner.

Working closely as a team we learned dozens, maybe hundreds of things that ultimately made our business better. Many of them we’ve codified into our Group Fitness Management education experience, which we’ve delivered to thousands of clubs around the world.

Since then, I’ve worked through three more global crises – the pandemic being the toughest. Each crisis is always awful, but after you survive the first, you know you can do it again. There’s nothing like hardship to bring the best out of us.

I’d love to have been able to learn those lessons without the pain, but that’s not real. You have to live through it to learn. We’ve made more mistakes than I care to count over the years, but you take your chances, you learn from them and you go again. The most important thing you learn is that resilience is essential if you want to be around long enough to make a lasting difference. Kia Kaha (Be strong).

The most important thing you learn is that resilience is essential if you want to be around long enough to make a lasting difference
You have to live through the pain to learn, says Mills / photo: Les Mills
Rasmus Ingerslev
Partner and chair: Barry’s Bootcamp Nordic AB and Lenus eHealth
PHOTO: Rasmus Ingerslev

Having built a number of businesses over the last two decades, I’ve experienced my fair share of good and tough times. I lost 95 per cent of my fortune in the 2008 financial crash and had to start again from scratch.

My gym chain Repeat didn’t survive the harsh trading conditions of the pandemic, which was mentally very challenging.

Much of the resilience needed and the lessons learned happened very early on, when we were establishing Fitness DK, in the early 2000s. We secured two sites in close proximity to each other, which were scheduled to launch one year apart, but because of a delay caused by the landlord, one overran and they ended up launching simultaneously, making it difficult to build the membership fast enough to minimise the initial loss on operation. As a result, we were bleeding financially and close to bankruptcy.

I looked at the cost structure to see where we could make savings, and we had significant costs for rent, equipment leasing and to the bank.

With new budgets and forecasts, I went to the landlords, bank and equipment suppliers and asked to freeze our payments for a few months and pay later once the clubs were established. They all said yes, allowing us to turn the business around. It made me realise the importance of relationships. If you enter negotiations respectfully and look for a win: win, then you’re more likely to get a favourable outcome.

Another learning was to secure yourself legally and to have respect for the things you don’t know much about. Our problem had arisen because we didn’t secure ourselves sufficiently with the contract. The landlord’s delay ended up as our cost – we weren’t the root cause of the problem, but we had to foot the bill. The experience came at a cost but I’m still grateful for it. Although it’s important to be friends, make contracts as if you are enemies, because if you ever have to look at them you may well be!

Good times and hard times are cyclical and this too shall pass. But don’t bury your head in the sand: work hard and do your best. When the good times come back, remember the lessons from the tough times. Make sure you have money in the account, or access to debt before you need it. And, if you’re in a position to help someone, do it – it might be you asking for the favour tomorrow.

If you’re in a position to help someone, do it: it might be you asking the favour tomorrow
Ingerslev’s Repeat gym chain in Denmark didn’t survive the pandemic / photo: Repeat club
John Treharne
The Gym Group: executive chair
photo: Gym Group

I’m in my fourth decade of working in the sector and one of the things I’ve learned through the course of my career is that it moves in cycles. Times get tough and then you come out of them. I’ve been through a number of challenging periods: the 90s recession, the City falling out of love with the sector and the 2008 financial crash. Much of the time it’s circumstances outside of the sector’s control which makes doing business difficult.

I’m naturally optimistic, but I’ve also learned to keep calm: there’s no point in panicking. Interest rates once rose to 18 per cent – I could have given in – but then they came down. Energy prices will eventually come down too. Although I predict the sector will have to become more sustainable, as this is important to our members.

I was fortunate to have the great mentorship of a chair who drummed some important lessons into me. It was both these and the experience of the recession in the 90s which informed the development of The Gym Group. Firstly, always put the customer and their needs front and centre. We created a low cost, high quality, 24/7 model because our research told us that’s what people wanted.

Secondly, the people who work for you are the key to your success: reward them properly and let them do their jobs with minimal interference. I’ve never been a fan of a highly centralised business.

Challenges also bring opportunities. The low cost sector benefited from the economic climate of 2008 and this will happen again now. There will always be demand for good quality at an affordable price and I also believe in the resilience of our sector. People can eat, drink and watch films at home, but to access the experience we offer – the buzz of a class, lifting free weights and running on a treadmill – they have to go to the gym.

Challenges also bring opportunities. Times get tough and then you come out of them
When things get tough, there’s no point in panicking, says Treharne / photo: Gym Group
Steve Bradley
Fitness4Less and Topnotch Gyms: director

I joined the industry in 1991 and although there were always everyday issues to deal with, generally the industry was on an upwards trajectory and times were good. Then the 2008 financial crash hit and all of a sudden, as a young operations director, I realised I wasn’t going to hit my targets or get my bonus and also that my job wasn’t even guaranteed. What’s more, I was managing a team of people who were worried about losing their jobs and many of our members were in a similar position.

As a director I realised I had to put my own fears to one side, motivate myself, reassure and motivate my team, and get them to do the same for our members. This same mindset has got us through the tough trading conditions of the last few years. And the experience of the financial crash made me develop mental resilience and learn to be more agile and decisive in business.

Back in 2008, I told our sales staff to look for the people who were trading down from the top end clubs to the mid-market and emphasise our value-for-money proposition. We’re doing the same now and resurrecting our mid-market brand, Topnotch Gyms, to take advantage of the trading conditions. More recently, we’ve ripped out all the hot tubs in our clubs: people didn’t want them after COVID and they’re costly to run.

If a club is under performing I’m better, and faster, at making the difficult decision to close it, or move it in another direction.

If I could say something to my younger self it would be not to fret too much. Face the challenges head on and include as many people in the solution as possible – not just board members but ask the opinion of managers, even if it’s not about their club. Ask staff for feedback – the young ones have a different perspective and usually grew up in the area, which helps to embed the club in the community. The tough times have also made me appreciate the value of our workforce, who have consistently stepped up to do stuff outside of their comfort zone for the greater good.

If I could say something to my younger self it would be not to fret too much and face challenges head on
Developing mental resilience is vital to tacking new challenges, says Bradley / Topnotch Gyms
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features

Life lessons: Tough times

The last three years have been challenging, with no letup in sight, but while hard times are seldom enjoyable, we emerge stronger, wiser, more resilient and grateful – if a little bruised. Kath Hudson asks industry entrepreneurs what they learned from their career low points

Published in Health Club Management 2023 issue 1
Cobbold has been leading Pure Gym since 2015 / Pure gym
Cobbold has been leading Pure Gym since 2015 / Pure gym
Humphrey Cobbold
Pure Gym: CEO
photo: PURE GYM / James McCauley

One afternoon I was unceremoniously fired from Wiggle, the private equity-owned company I’d devoted my life to for the best part of five years.I walked in that day as a CEO and walked out a nobody.

There were differences of opinion between myself and the private equity owners, but I didn’t think they were terminal, so when they delivered the coup de grâce I was shocked. In hindsight it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it felt like it at the time and was very upsetting.

There was a real risk it would derail my career. Important people around London knew I’d been ejected from my role and when a community like the private equity industry knows that, everybody questions why.

Handling the aftermath of these situations is really important and I decided to be completely open. I didn’t go around shouting about it, but I didn’t hide the fact I had been taken out of a role I thoroughly enjoyed and that I’d put my life and soul into. I hope being open about the experience has made me look, and actually be, more human. CEOs are often criticised for being aloof, so to be considered more human is probably no bad thing.

For three to five months, I was a pretty angry man. If I could give my younger self some advice, I would say take it on the chin and move on – life’s too short to spend it angry with the world. Although there’s a natural period of anger when something like that happens, I shouldn’t have been as angry for so long and I should not have blamed people around me as much as I did.

The experience taught me humility. When you’ve been pretty successful in life and get knocked like that, you feel brought down to size. On reflection, that’s no bad thing for anyone. I also learned about the emotions people go through when they are relieved of their responsibilities, or go through a major change, so I hope it has helped to inform me when I’ve been on the other side of the table. I hope I now behave in a humane and reasonable way in such situations. They’re never easy but empathy based on lived experience probably helps.

The cloud had a silver lining. It made me reflect on what I really wanted to do and I’m incredibly grateful because I found Pure Gym during that time and have ended up building a more successful business. I now believe bad things can happen which can lead to good things.

Despite the pain, I learned some important life lessons which I wouldn’t be without. Events happen outside of your control, but the real question is what you do next to improve things for yourself and those around you. Always do the best with the circumstances you find yourself in.

I shouldn’t have been as angry for so long and I shouldn’t have blamed people around me as much as I did
Pure Gym is globalising its estate and growing organically and by acquisition / photo: PURE GYM / James McCauley
Phillip Mills
Les Mills: executive director
photo: Les Mills

As any club operator will attest, fitness is a very tough business. We’ve battled through recessions, debt mountains and countless failures – our global PT licensing business, several clothing firms and three separate nutrition companies have gone under. Struggle has been a very real and regular part of our journey and often it’s been a battle just to keep the lights on.

The most difficult time was after our family gym business was publicly listed in 1984. It was taken over by a group of investment companies in 1987, a month before the global stock market crash. All the investors went broke and I bought our company back in pieces from different liquidators. I borrowed about NZ$10m and although I bought cheaply, that was an awful lot of money in those days.

For the next six years, I had to figure out ways to keep paying the bills from week to week while I paid down the debt. I was so burnt out I became pretty depressed, put on 10kg and wasn’t exercising. It took my partner Jackie to grab hold of me and say “Philly, you’ve got to get a grip.”

Day by day, week by week, my team and I had to come up with new ways to generate cash and improve the business. After Jackie and I spoke about my health, I set myself some goals and one was to make my way up to A-Grade tennis. Of course, I never made it past the Whangarei Open, let alone Wimbledon, but within a year I lost most of the weight, the depression lifted and the business turned a corner.

Working closely as a team we learned dozens, maybe hundreds of things that ultimately made our business better. Many of them we’ve codified into our Group Fitness Management education experience, which we’ve delivered to thousands of clubs around the world.

Since then, I’ve worked through three more global crises – the pandemic being the toughest. Each crisis is always awful, but after you survive the first, you know you can do it again. There’s nothing like hardship to bring the best out of us.

I’d love to have been able to learn those lessons without the pain, but that’s not real. You have to live through it to learn. We’ve made more mistakes than I care to count over the years, but you take your chances, you learn from them and you go again. The most important thing you learn is that resilience is essential if you want to be around long enough to make a lasting difference. Kia Kaha (Be strong).

The most important thing you learn is that resilience is essential if you want to be around long enough to make a lasting difference
You have to live through the pain to learn, says Mills / photo: Les Mills
Rasmus Ingerslev
Partner and chair: Barry’s Bootcamp Nordic AB and Lenus eHealth
PHOTO: Rasmus Ingerslev

Having built a number of businesses over the last two decades, I’ve experienced my fair share of good and tough times. I lost 95 per cent of my fortune in the 2008 financial crash and had to start again from scratch.

My gym chain Repeat didn’t survive the harsh trading conditions of the pandemic, which was mentally very challenging.

Much of the resilience needed and the lessons learned happened very early on, when we were establishing Fitness DK, in the early 2000s. We secured two sites in close proximity to each other, which were scheduled to launch one year apart, but because of a delay caused by the landlord, one overran and they ended up launching simultaneously, making it difficult to build the membership fast enough to minimise the initial loss on operation. As a result, we were bleeding financially and close to bankruptcy.

I looked at the cost structure to see where we could make savings, and we had significant costs for rent, equipment leasing and to the bank.

With new budgets and forecasts, I went to the landlords, bank and equipment suppliers and asked to freeze our payments for a few months and pay later once the clubs were established. They all said yes, allowing us to turn the business around. It made me realise the importance of relationships. If you enter negotiations respectfully and look for a win: win, then you’re more likely to get a favourable outcome.

Another learning was to secure yourself legally and to have respect for the things you don’t know much about. Our problem had arisen because we didn’t secure ourselves sufficiently with the contract. The landlord’s delay ended up as our cost – we weren’t the root cause of the problem, but we had to foot the bill. The experience came at a cost but I’m still grateful for it. Although it’s important to be friends, make contracts as if you are enemies, because if you ever have to look at them you may well be!

Good times and hard times are cyclical and this too shall pass. But don’t bury your head in the sand: work hard and do your best. When the good times come back, remember the lessons from the tough times. Make sure you have money in the account, or access to debt before you need it. And, if you’re in a position to help someone, do it – it might be you asking for the favour tomorrow.

If you’re in a position to help someone, do it: it might be you asking the favour tomorrow
Ingerslev’s Repeat gym chain in Denmark didn’t survive the pandemic / photo: Repeat club
John Treharne
The Gym Group: executive chair
photo: Gym Group

I’m in my fourth decade of working in the sector and one of the things I’ve learned through the course of my career is that it moves in cycles. Times get tough and then you come out of them. I’ve been through a number of challenging periods: the 90s recession, the City falling out of love with the sector and the 2008 financial crash. Much of the time it’s circumstances outside of the sector’s control which makes doing business difficult.

I’m naturally optimistic, but I’ve also learned to keep calm: there’s no point in panicking. Interest rates once rose to 18 per cent – I could have given in – but then they came down. Energy prices will eventually come down too. Although I predict the sector will have to become more sustainable, as this is important to our members.

I was fortunate to have the great mentorship of a chair who drummed some important lessons into me. It was both these and the experience of the recession in the 90s which informed the development of The Gym Group. Firstly, always put the customer and their needs front and centre. We created a low cost, high quality, 24/7 model because our research told us that’s what people wanted.

Secondly, the people who work for you are the key to your success: reward them properly and let them do their jobs with minimal interference. I’ve never been a fan of a highly centralised business.

Challenges also bring opportunities. The low cost sector benefited from the economic climate of 2008 and this will happen again now. There will always be demand for good quality at an affordable price and I also believe in the resilience of our sector. People can eat, drink and watch films at home, but to access the experience we offer – the buzz of a class, lifting free weights and running on a treadmill – they have to go to the gym.

Challenges also bring opportunities. Times get tough and then you come out of them
When things get tough, there’s no point in panicking, says Treharne / photo: Gym Group
Steve Bradley
Fitness4Less and Topnotch Gyms: director

I joined the industry in 1991 and although there were always everyday issues to deal with, generally the industry was on an upwards trajectory and times were good. Then the 2008 financial crash hit and all of a sudden, as a young operations director, I realised I wasn’t going to hit my targets or get my bonus and also that my job wasn’t even guaranteed. What’s more, I was managing a team of people who were worried about losing their jobs and many of our members were in a similar position.

As a director I realised I had to put my own fears to one side, motivate myself, reassure and motivate my team, and get them to do the same for our members. This same mindset has got us through the tough trading conditions of the last few years. And the experience of the financial crash made me develop mental resilience and learn to be more agile and decisive in business.

Back in 2008, I told our sales staff to look for the people who were trading down from the top end clubs to the mid-market and emphasise our value-for-money proposition. We’re doing the same now and resurrecting our mid-market brand, Topnotch Gyms, to take advantage of the trading conditions. More recently, we’ve ripped out all the hot tubs in our clubs: people didn’t want them after COVID and they’re costly to run.

If a club is under performing I’m better, and faster, at making the difficult decision to close it, or move it in another direction.

If I could say something to my younger self it would be not to fret too much. Face the challenges head on and include as many people in the solution as possible – not just board members but ask the opinion of managers, even if it’s not about their club. Ask staff for feedback – the young ones have a different perspective and usually grew up in the area, which helps to embed the club in the community. The tough times have also made me appreciate the value of our workforce, who have consistently stepped up to do stuff outside of their comfort zone for the greater good.

If I could say something to my younger self it would be not to fret too much and face challenges head on
Developing mental resilience is vital to tacking new challenges, says Bradley / Topnotch Gyms
https://www.leisureopportunities.co.uk/images/2023/374305_400490.jpg
Industry leaders share insights into the challenges that have shaped them both personally and professionally
Latest News
Leisure Media has added another heavyweight to its line-up of CEOs for its inaugural HCM ...
Latest News
Empowered Brands has signed a deal with European staffless gym chain, Fit+, to be the ...
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Speaking to HCM for its 2024-2025 Handbook, which will be out next month, PureGym managing ...
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Leisure, lifestyle, wellness and entertainment growth investor, Imbiba, has invested in boutique gym brand, 1Rebel's ...
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Urban Gym Group will launch PILAT3S at ClubSportive in Amsterdam next month, to create a ...
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The American Council on Exercise has appointed Dr Cedric Bryant as its new CEO. Bryant ...
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Sport England’s This Girl Can team has launched a new campaign, Let’s Get Out There, ...
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Improving physical strength and fitness, mental health and confidence are the main reasons for joining ...
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Phil Heath, professional athlete, bodybuilder and 7x Mr. Olympia, has fielded a lot of questions about bodybuilding without machines. Should bodybuilders be limited to just free weights? Why?
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier news: Sue Anstiss' Game Changers podcast headed for Elevate 2024
Join us at Elevate from 12-13 June in London for a special one-off live recording of The Game Changers Podcast with Sue Anstiss, CEO of Fearless Women.
Company profiles
Company profile: ServiceSport (UK) Ltd
ServiceSport (UK) Ltd specialises in maintaining, servicing and re-manufacturing all brands of cardiovascular and resistance ...
Company profiles
Company profile: WellnessSpace Brands
WellnessSpace Brands offers industry-leading experiential wellness products, including HydroMassage, CryoLounge+, and RelaxSpace. Each of the ...
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Supplier showcase - Jon Williams
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Featured press releases
Innerva press release: Charity launches community wellbeing space to address health disparities in Birmingham
A charity dedicated to narrowing the gender and ethnic diversity gap in physical activity has launched a community wellbeing space aimed at extending the lives of people with some of the UK’s poorest health outcomes.
Featured press releases
Greenwich Leisure Limited press release: Oasis Beach Pool invites Bedfordians to 'Totally Tropical Beach Party' Tuesday 28 May
Oasis Beach Pool, in Bedford, officially re-opens Tuesday 28 May with a celebration for the local community.
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Snowroom
TechnoAlpin SpA: Snowroom
Cryotherapy
Art of Cryo: Cryotherapy
Flooring
Total Vibration Solutions / TVS Sports Surfaces: Flooring
Lockers
Fitlockers: Lockers
Spa software
SpaBooker: Spa software
salt therapy products
Saltability: salt therapy products
Property & Tenders
Loughton, IG10
Knight Frank
Property & Tenders
Grantham, Leicestershire
Belvoir Castle
Property & Tenders
Diary dates
23-24 May 2024
Large Hall of the Chamber of Commerce (Erbprinzenpalais), Wiesbaden, Germany
Diary dates
30 May - 02 Jun 2024
Rimini Exhibition Center, Rimini, Italy
Diary dates
06-06 Jun 2024
Drayton Manor Theme Park & Resort, Tamworth, United Kingdom
Diary dates
08-08 Jun 2024
Worldwide, Various,
Diary dates
11-13 Jun 2024
Raffles City Convention Centre, Singapore, Singapore
Diary dates
12-13 Jun 2024
ExCeL London, London, United Kingdom
Diary dates
03-05 Sep 2024
IMPACT Exhibition Center, Bangkok, Thailand
Diary dates
08-10 Sep 2024
Wyndham® Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs™ Resort, Lake Buena Vista, United States
Diary dates
19-19 Sep 2024
The Salil Hotel Riverside - Bangkok, Bangkok 10120, Thailand
Diary dates
20-22 Sep 2024
Locations worldwide,
Diary dates
01-04 Oct 2024
REVĪVŌ Wellness Resort Nusa Dua Bali, Kabupaten Badung, Indonesia
Diary dates
09-13 Oct 2024
Soneva Fushi, Maldives
Diary dates
10 Oct 2024
QEII Conference Centre, London,
Diary dates
22-25 Oct 2024
Messe Stuttgart, Germany
Diary dates
24-24 Oct 2024
QEII Conference Centre, London, United Kingdom
Diary dates
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