ONE of the region's most famous businessmen is targeting expansion after reporting a sharp rise in pre tax profts at his health club group.  

The annual results for the companies behind the Bannatyne Health Club chain, founded by Dragons' Den star Duncan Bannatyne, showed pre-tax annual profits before exemptions and impairments were up 30 per cent from £8.8m to £11.5m. 

Turnover at the Darlington-based business rose from £91.7m to £92.4m and operating profit before exemptions and impairments was up from £13.3m to £14.7m.

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The group's 170,000-strong membership remained relatively unchanged during the year.

For the first two months of this year, online sales had grown 98 per cent compared to the same period in 2013. The group was also cheered by a 14 per cent rise in new membership for the first two months of 2014 compared to the same period last year.

Mr Bannatyne said: “These fantastic results vindicate our strategy to reduce debt and focus on new ways to deliver exceptional service to members.

"Early post-balance sheet indicators show that the use of internet booking and the introduction of three different levels of health club have had a significant effect on activity and membership growth."

Last month, the entrepreneur agreed a £92m deal to clear his company's bank debts.

The Bannatyne Group sold and agreed a long-term leaseback deal on the ground leases at 39 of its health clubs with M&G Investments.

The cash injection helped to free Mr Bannatyne from the burden of repaying about £10m a year on a loan taken out with Anglo Irish Bank before the lender fell victim to the banking crisis.

The deal has put the company in a position where it can consider acquisitions in the future.

Mr Bannatyne added: “During 2013, paying a modest amount off the debt with Anglo Irish bank had a real impact on the annual interest payments and we were able to achieve real productivity gains with very few redundancies. The result is a stronger business which has the resources to invest and grow in the future.

“At the beginning of this year the business went further and paid off its expensive and cumbersome Anglo Irish loan. This move has already resulted in improved cash flow and liquidity, allowing the company to consider acquisitions in a consolidating market.”

Bannatyne Fitness is the UK’s largest independent health club operator. With 59 sites across the UK under the Bannatyne’s Health Clubs brand, the company has around 170,000 members and employs about 5,000 people.