Faced with unemployment, the answer was to buy a Riverford Organic franchise

After Matt and Jane Falkner moved from London to Devon, following the birth of their daughter, Jane quickly got a job as a chartered surveyor, but 37 year-old Matt, who had been a salesman in the City, was struggling to find a suitable job.

This problem was solved by taking a mortgage on their house and buying the Exeter resale franchise of Riverford Organic, the veg box distributor, of which they had been a customer in London, for Matt to start his own business.

He explains how they came to make this career-changing move.

“In Devon, life was good for about a year,” says Falkner. “I took over the childcare and spent a lot of quality time with my daughter. Then I started to feel the need to do something more with my career. Jane knew I was thinking about running my own business, but we’d never talked about investing in a franchise.

“Jane was actually looking on Riverford’s site to order a veg box when she stumbled across the franchising section.

From customer to investor
“We’d been Riverford customers in London, and used their veg box delivery service for years, so finding out about the opportunity right then was fortuitous. I was genuinely excited about the chance to run my own organic food business, and got in touch with head office. At the time, the nearest franchise for sale was at Exeter – an established territory with 1,800 active customers – and we decided to invest in it.

“We financed the business through some savings and a mortgage on our house, which we’d owned outright, so using existing capital and debt was another big decision we had to make.

“On top of that, I discovered that buying a business from a previous franchisee is more complex than investing in a virgin territory because there are more people involved, and there’s more due diligence required.

“On the plus side, you have a ready-made business that’s already generating revenue and profit through its existing customer base, and when all the paperwork has been sorted out you’re making money from day one.

Fresh furrows
“Since becoming a Riverford franchisee, I’ve had to adapt to a completely different outlook on work and life,” continues Falkner. “As an employee I had a single fixed role in somebody else’s organisation, but now I’m everything to the success of my own business. Every decision is mine and I have to deal with the outcome, whatever it is. As an employee you wear a single hat, but running a business means you wear a number of hats – you’re part accountant, part marketer, part IT and part logistics – there’s a lot to take on board.

“It’s impossible to know exactly how making such a key life change will impact on you, but talking to Riverford’s team in the early stages certainly helped prepare me for the gear shifts from employment to unemployment, and child minding to purchasing and running a fully-established veg box delivery business, Riverford’s staff have been on hand to give me advice when I’ve needed it most. Now I’m through that period, my focus is 100 percent on growing the business.

Marketing for growth
“I’ve been spending a lot of time on customer service to ensure a transparent transition. I’m also organising advertising and marketing campaigns, pushing sales and targeting businesses in the area. I’m already at the stage where I’m looking to bring somebody into the office on a part-time basis to take care of admin and handle calls so I can focus on increasing sales and getting new customers.

“What’s useful is that the other franchisees I speak to, who have got much more experience than me when it comes to knowing which advertising channels work best, give me help and tips to make sure I won’t waste money trying things out. If they tell me that something doesn’t work, I won’t do it. It’s another benefit of being in a franchise network.

Harvesting customers
“To grow this business you really need to get out and do as many shows as possible. It’s fortunate that I enjoy them. They allow me to gain visibility at the local level and push the brand from the front. My predecessor wasn’t attending shows, so I knew there was an area where I could improve on growth and profitability straightaway.

“In a year’s time I’d like to be up three to five per cent on year one, which I think is realistic. Anything above that will be a bonus. Every time you sign somebody new, it’s a real buzz. I aim to get 1,000 new customers in the next year, so if I do 30 shows and acquire 30 people at each, I’ll have almost achieved it and, of course, not all new customers will come from shows, which is even more positive.

“I’m now ready to build on the foundations I’ve got, which means making sure my existing customers are happy, while also working hard to get new ones. We’re making around 800 deliveries a week, which increased at Christmas.

“Being a Riverford franchisee is hard work, but satisfying. I’m working for myself, and I’m my own boss, but I still have the support of an established and recognised network with a wealth of experience, and a strong stance on ethics. I look forward to my new investment coming to fruition,” says Falkner.