A unique physical therapy shop in Central is attracting top executives, and its founder smells further success overseas Banker David Li does it regularly. Civic Exchange founder Christine Loh does it several times a week. And large numbers of Jardines staff are also hooked on being stretched. Not financially - although it does cost $1,000 an hour - but literally, to improve their posture. Modern sedentary living and long hours staring at computer screens have caused a litany of back pain, stiff necks and headaches suffered by office workers, says Stretch founder Chris Watts. For many frazzled executives and several well-known personalities who attend his clinic, 'Active Isolated Stretching' provides an answer to their aches and an expanding business for Mr Watts. What he maintains is a unique brand of manual therapy hails from the United States. It's not pilates or yoga, but was invented by body therapist Aaron Mattes in Florida. Briton Mr Watts, 47, comes to this very physical kind of body work, where clients are literally helped to stretch their taut muscles by therapists from an unlikely background. Initially a cordon bleu chef, he opened Switzerland's and then Berlin's first Mexican restaurants. But, by 1986, he was tired of dealing with unreliable staff - to get reluctant East Germans to work often meant having to drag them out of bed, he recalled - so after a stint doing barrier reef conservation off Belize, he joined his parents in Florida and trained in Active Isolated Stretching with creator Mr Mattes. Inspired by seeing improvements in multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease sufferers, together with relief for muscle and back ailments, Mr Watts decided to go into the stretching business himself. He followed his wife Sylvie to Hong Kong in 1997 and set up solo, cutting overheads by sharing rooms. His main obstacle was that this type of manual therapy is not recognised as mainstream medical treatment and, unlike physiotherapy, does not qualify for health insurance, meaning clients had to stump up the $600 an hour he charged initially out of their own pockets. Management consultants Quicksilver advised him to get a corporate identity and a logo. He set up Stretch in Stanley Street, Central, and hired another therapist, which necessitated advertising to boost business quickly. Grow it did, with half of the clients busy executives who spent far too much time at desks being inactive and going mad with sport at the weekends, he says. The bulk of his clients suffer from compression syndrome caused by the muscles and vertebrae being cramped and squashed by hours of sitting. Sitting exerts seven times the pressure of standing on your lower back, he adds. 'And if your head, which weighs 20lbs, is one inch too far forward, think of the pressure on your neck muscles.' He prefers to market the limited company by co-operating with professionals such as elite tennis players and windsurfing coach Rene Appel. Supplying therapists at big events such as the recent video conference for 1,000 people by motivational guru Anthony Robbins proved highly successful. The Stretch team was on hand when delegates were advised to 'go see their posture therapist'. Stretch found itself swamped. Luckily, Mr Watts had moved to bigger premises in Wyndham Street's Winsome House and increased staff to five therapists. The move cost $300,000, but he is pleased that the rent in Winsome House is only $12 per square foot, compared with the $20 per square foot he says the new Centrium building opposite charges. Mr Watts says he is now booked solid four weeks in advance with his 200 clients. The client base, with many coming two or three times a week, is 60 per cent local and 40 per cent expatriate. He admits they need to be well heeled to stump up the $1,000 an hour he now charges, but adds the less affluent can practice their stretches at home after a few sessions. After eight years in Hong Kong, Stretch is branching out after a client who had 15 sessions in five days suggested opening up in London. The client is now the financial backer for the new venture in Duke Street, not far from the perceived prestige of Harley Street. Set up costs and overheads in the new location are higher than in Hong Kong, to Mr Watts' surprise. His backer is handling the financial arrangements, while Mr Watts will train six therapists and run the new British operation. 'We need six months of capital for cash flow. Rent in Central London is #45,000 [$670,200] a year for 1,200-1,500 square feet, plus there is 18 per cent VAT in the UK. 'So add all that on to your Hong Kong costs and doing business here looks quite reasonable.' But since 30 of his 200 personal clients also have London homes, Mr Watts is sure word of mouth will spread about the business. All he has to do now is appoint a general manager for Hong Kong before the July 1 London opening. He's not worried about being away, believing Stretch has little competition here. 'Your doctor will send you to a sports physio, which you can claim off insurance.' He doesn't consider pilates or other trendy exercise classes as competitors. 'But, in Hong Kong, there are so many ways you can spend money on healthcare,' he admits. 'So we have to have a core identity, which is providing flexibility. We change your posture, you change your life.' The best thing about his method, unlike others such as the Alexander Technique, is that it provides rapid pain relief, he claims. 'It's a fast, dynamic way to open up body structure.' Another reason for his continuing success is his insistence on rigorous standards. Staff must be in peak physical condition to lift and stretch heavy limbs. Image is important. 'They must espouse the values, I know this is important, we are all flying the flag for the business wherever we go around Hong Kong. It's very easy to destroy an image,' he adds. His wife Sylvie vets every written word that leaves the premises for good English. 'It destroys the company's image if you send out poorly spelled emails.' Hearing Mr Watts wax lyrical about the benefits of stretching, one would ask: is it a mission or a business first and foremost? 'If you think you'll make a lot of money, you won't,' he insists. But then, with 500 clients a month, he concedes Stretch makes 'a good profit' and keeps eight staff happy. After London, Dubai is next, with plans to franchise Stretch further afield. 'We're the only people in Asia doing this and there's no one in London or Dubai, so we want to go to these places first.' In the meantime, business keeps growing. Initially, he had two people a day. Last Saturday, five therapists treated eight people each. 'When I started, I never dreamed I'd see 40 clients in one day,' said Mr Watts.