‘I spent maybe five or six months [in hospital] and I was in a coma for a bit’

Founder of high-end training equipment counts Arsenal, Brighton & Hove Albion and the IRFU among his customers

On a slate grey Monday morning in November, Gregory Bradley is sitting in a coffee shop in an equally grey industrial estate in west Dublin, just a few hundred yards away from where the Irish rugby team is encamped at the IRFU high-performance centre on the National Sports Campus.

Completed in 2019, comprising three outdoor pitches, one three-quarter length indoor pitch, medical rooms and modern strength and conditioning equipment, the mammoth €6 million facility houses the Irish men’s, women’s and rugby sevens teams and their staff.

Bradley, who has made the trip down from Belfast, had hoped to wangle a quick look inside the building. After all, he and Blk Box Fitness – the company he founded and leads – played an important role in fitting out Irish Rugby’s state-of-the-art bolthole.

“We did the gym for them,” he says. “We’ve been working with them, probably for the past eight or nine years. But the opportunity came up to do the new facility then in 2019 and it’s an ongoing relationship.”


With the team hunkered down in preparation for the autumn internationals, the camp is understandably under lock and key. Not even the well-connected Bradley – who counts Premier League clubs such as Arsenal, Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion, as well as Ulster Rugby and Australian Rules club Sydney Swans among his customers – can smuggle a journalist inside for a nose around.

Instead, dressed casually in a shirt, overcoat and a pair of white Veja runners, he suggests hopping in his Blk Box-branded pickup truck and decamping to Java Republic’s Roastery Café for a chat.

Originally from Portstewart in Co Derry, the self-effacing Bradley jokes that the transcription software being used to record the interview won’t be able to understand his northwestern accent. On the contrary, he comes across loud and clear as does his story.

I do feel we’ve gotten the business to a stage now where it’s probably diminishing returns by not having investment.

Without any external investment, Blk Box has become a truly global enterprise since Bradley – who is nominated for this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards – founded the business in 2012. But while he says the past 18 months have been the most difficult since he started the business, it is safe to say the biggest speed bumps he has had to negotiate have been personal in nature.

The company now manufactures about 45 per cent of the high-end equipment it installs at team facilities and private gyms around the world with the rest of its materials coming from the United States and further afield. It employs 90 people at its facility on the outskirts of Belfast, a third each in manufacturing, warehousing, and sales and marketing. Its turnover last year was £13.9 million (€15.6 million).

Naturally, it has a well kitted-out gym on site, Bradley says.

“We’ve got a core group who are really into it,” he says. “We want people who are into [fitness] and live and breathe it and we’ve got quite a lot of coaches on our team. We try to make it as inclusive as possible because there is life outside the four walls of the gym. But we do have some guys who compete in Ironman competitions and run 100-mile marathons.”

Growing up, his father worked in landscape gardening and construction and his mother had a job in market research. “A lot of my friends,” he says, “maybe their parents were either in business or lawyers, prestige jobs. I think growing up in our environment – I would say I was sort of from middle class – I think that also gives you a good grounding and also a bit of a competitive advantage because... I wasn’t just gifted an easy lifestyle.”

Bradley has been obsessed with commerce since his teenage years, when he got his first job selling programmes for the Northwest 200 motorbike race. “You got paid £1 for every programme sold so that taught me in business, you’re only getting paid for results.”

A self-described “failed student”, he left school at 16 but eventually wound up at Ulster University in Belfast, where he studied marketing and communications.

“I really just wanted to get up to Belfast to join the rest of my friends,” he says. To fund his “overactive social life” in college, he became a sort of online Del Boy in his spare time. “I used to buy and sell Abercrombie & Fitch clothes in job lots and then sell them on eBay,” he says. “This was before Amazon and ecommerce really took off.”

After his college experience, Bradley says he was “basically unemployable”, but he knew he wanted to start a business and initially thought about doing something in the health food space. “The idea for equipment just popped into my head because I played Gaelic football,” he explains.

There is, unfortunately, a lot that Bradley does not remember about the early days of his business. Not long after it was founded, he suffered a near catastrophic injury playing Gaelic football for his local club, Eoghan Rua Coleraine, and lost some of his memory as a result.

“I fractured my neck and skull,” he says. “I went up for a ball with another guy. He spent a couple of weeks in hospital. I spent maybe five or six months [in hospital] and I was in a coma for a bit.”

Despite having to learn to walk and talk again – “I’m not sure I fully relearned how to talk,” he jokes – Bradley doesn’t hold a grudge. “It would be very easy for me to feel like a victim, but I think if anything happens to you in life like that, it’s about how you respond.”


  • Name: Gregory Bradley
  • Job: Founder of Blk Box Fitness
  • Age: 35
  • Lives: Belfast
  • Family: Got married in Tuscany, Italy this summer
  • Something we might expect: Non-negotiable each day is to do a training session in the gym or outside
  • Something that might surprise: “I am a huge fan of routines. Also do Wim Hof breathing or meditation and have an ice bath or cold shower each day.”

That philosophy would be tested again just a few years later when his brother Gerry died in a workplace incident on a construction site in Australia, at a time of flux in the company.

“It was not an enjoyable time,” he says. “It was emotionally exhausting.” His brother was “a huge Arsenal fan”, and Blk Box was at the time “a shoo-in” to win the tender to fit out the club’s new gym facility, Bradley says.

“It was a huge project but we had to say to them: ‘Look guys, there is a bit of turbulence going on with the business. We’re going to have to pass up on this.’ So that was a hard one.”

Bradley wound up throwing even more of himself into the business and says he never stopped to think if he needed to take a step back or slow down. “I do truly love what I’m doing,” Bradley says. “There is also a lot of stuff I don’t like doing. I think it’s idealistic for someone to say that you’re living the dream being in business and everything is really easy to do. I think that’s really dangerous advice.”

Recognising that he is a “better leader than a manager”, he took the decision recently to bring in a managing director to run the day-to-day operations.

Saying no to Arsenal proved to be the right decision. “Reputation is a huge asset in business. I think I could have said yes and not delivered on it.” So it was “pretty sweet” for Blk Box to get the call earlier this year to come back and redo the club’s gym, Bradley says. “It was kind of all’s well that ends well.”

So exactly how does a company like Blk Box get to build a gym for Irish Rugby and its new high-performance training facility and what, exactly, does it entail?

“We were probably in a strong position,” he said. “We had a long-term relationship with them and had done Ulster Rugby’s gym and worked with some of the other provinces as well.”

The big jobs actually don’t come by that often. Our sort of average per job would be about £20,000 or £30,000.

Blk Box spent the better part of three years designing the facility with the various coaches and trainers. “You’re managing multiple different stakeholders with different requirements. You had the head of performance; the head of strength and conditioning; men’s, women’s; and sevens. Each coach is like a chef – they all have their own preferences, so you have to be able to provide insights.”

The company may have built its reputation on such prestige jobs – including a couple in World Cup host country Qatar worth seven-figure sums – but its revenues are more diverse.

“The big jobs actually don’t come by that often,” Bradley says. “Our sort of average per job would be about £20,000 or £30,000. Then from an ecommerce point of view – direct to consumer – it would be about £200. I think that’s one of the strengths of the business. We don’t want a single point of focus in one channel.”

Like so many businesses, Blk Box’s ecommerce offering blossomed during the pandemic, Bradley explains. Just before the initial outbreak in early 2020, the company signed an exclusive deal with PureGym, the UK’s biggest gym brand, to fit out their facilities with Blk Box-produced gear. But with gyms closed due to public health restrictions, many of them referred their members to Bradley’s company to buy gear for home workouts.

“We were traditionally a B2B business,” he says. “But all of a sudden, instead of shipping out 200 or 300 orders per week, we were doing that per day.”

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Supply chains have been a particular challenge over the past two years. “Our headquarters is 140,000sq ft, so it’s on the larger side,” Bradley says.

“We’ve experienced steel, gas, electricity price increases of sometimes more than 200 per cent. We still do quite a bit of importing from America and Asia and shipping costs have seen a 400-500 per cent increase, which there’s only so much you can absorb. Thankfully, I think we are starting to see a bit of a correction and normalisation.”

Then there has been the small matter of Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, which has kept the six counties largely within the EU single market.

“We weren’t a fan of it [Brexit] at the start,” he says, “and that’s quite justified, I think. But we are in Northern Ireland and we have been able to benefit from having the best of both worlds.”

I think we have matured a bit and realised it’s probably better to have a slightly smaller size of a bigger pie than all of a small pie.

Blk Box’s biggest client is PureGym, with whom it recently signed a new, eight-figure contract. “They have 180 gyms in Denmark and 30 in Switzerland, so for us to be able to say that we can export across Europe and in the single market, that’s a good competitive advantage for us.”

Bradley has ambitious plans for the company, which he expects to have a relative down year in terms of revenues in 2022 due to supply chain issues, Covid backlogs and delays. But he wants to double Blk Box’s revenues over the next two years, which will likely require an injection of cash from outside.

“My philosophies are evolving,” he says. “I do feel we’ve gotten the business to a stage now where it’s probably diminishing returns by not having investment. So we’re open to it and I think we have matured a bit and realised it’s probably better to have a slightly smaller size of a bigger pie than all of a small pie.”

Ian Curran

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times