Why I chose franchising to launch Ovenu, my oven cleaning business
Making the choice to go down the franchise route to start my oven cleaning business, Ovenu, was more a case of what I didn’t want rather than what I did. So, as convoluted as that might sound, here is some background to add context.
Author: Rik Hellewell, founder and managing director of Ovenu
I left school in 1975 and, following in my maternal grandfather’s footsteps, started work as a mechanical engineering apprentice for a locally based company in Wokingham. This company was, at the time, partly owned by David Brown, he of the ‘DB’ branding in the Aston Martin range of cars.
The company was also heavily involved in the development of the microwave oven and was at the cutting edge of induction heating … a couple of features still prevalent in the modern day kitchen; by a strange quirk of coincidence.
I was directly employed by this company along with over 100 others; all ‘clocking-in and clocking-out’ robotically each day and having tasks dished out to undertake within given time parameters by our supervisors, charge hands or whatever the correct phrase was for lower to middle management at the time.
All employees had a forced tea-break or dinner half hour when a hooter sounded and nothing short of a stampede ensued at the end of the day as the time-stamping clock hit 4.30 and something akin to a rolling Grand Prix start followed very soon after. A metallic tidal wave of Ford Escorts, Cortinas, Vivas, Hillman Minxs and the odd foreign offering regularly laid rubber down the length of Molly Millar’s Lane on exiting the company car park.
It became obvious to me that employees were keen to get away from their place of work.
Don’t get me wrong here, this direct employment model was a decent means to an end for many and those who made it to retirement probably enjoyed getting their ‘token of appreciation’ having spent goodness how long on the treadmill of life in a factory producing what ultimately were some pretty good products.
One of my next very earliest observations at this time wasn’t just the distinct lack of appreciation or additional remuneration for anybody going above and beyond neither in their designated daily duties nor, on the flip side, those putting in the minimum required effort and still getting the same amount of pay in their ‘brown envelope’ at the end of each week. No real performance incentives.
I also used to listen intently and inquisitively to conversations between my peers each year when the topic of annual leave arose and how best to try to manipulate ‘sick holiday’ (back in the day when you could have days off without having to produce a doctor’s note) to run in conjunction so as to get the maximum amount of days off for the minimum use of holiday allowances.
As an apprentice moving between the various departments within the production facility and spending a day a week at college, we were expected to pick up the skill-sets needed and to subsequently produce goods at pretty much the same pace as our peers yet collect less than half the pay at the end of the week. To my mind, this was a fundamentally flawed system,
And with that understanding in mind, I decided to subsidise my paltry apprentice pay by working a few shifts in my local pub in the evenings and working weekends as a labourer for any number of local builders – many of whom doubled-up as customers at the pub.
I soon picked up the concept of customer service whilst working at the pub – “have one yourself” was a very welcome offer when satisfied customers bought another round.
And working as a labourer on a building site wasn’t easy either but it was extremely lucrative by comparison to an apprentice’s wages.
About a year after successfully completing my apprenticeship and having saved enough for a house deposit, I left direct employment – not least for the reasons I’ve jotted here – and joined the ranks of the self-employed.
My first foray was in direct sales … smart vacuum cleaners, double-glazing and thermal shutters. The latter being a somewhat subliminal introduction to the franchise concept – more about that later.
I was quiet successful at selling ‘stuff’ but needed something that was more physical and predominantly work that could be undertaken during the day. An advert that I spotted in-between sales appointments one evening caught my eye …. carpet cleaning.
Before starting the Ovenu business towards the end of 1993 and whilst waiting for a Design Registration to land in the post, I was still running a carpet and upholstery cleaning business – something I had done entirely for myself for a good number of years and, in partnership with others, for many years before that.
These were very successful businesses but businesses that required sub-contracted ‘people power’ in conjunction with machinery to operate them. And, being business to consumer orientated, they also required transport to move both of the above from house to house a few times a day and for at least five days a week.
Regrettably, cars and vans were nowhere near as reliable back in the 1980s and 1990s as they are today so there were often daily breakdowns. These caused inevitable postponements and/or cancellations of bookings and left many office staff in tears following the less than tolerant attitude displayed by many ‘yuppies’ back in the day when apologies were proffered for non-attendance along with fresh appointment options.
So, that was a problem in itself as was the constant wreckage of the equipment being loaned to the workers to undertake their job – you’d never guess the volume of problems encountered with machinery on a Friday afternoon; typically around pub opening times.
Even charging a modest rental fee for the equipment didn’t entirely solve the problems but it did help; as did charging for repairs.
However, the equipment and vehicular frailties paled into almost insignificance when compared to the human element. I can say hand on heart that I have heard or read every possible, probable or plausible by way of excuses to swerve even the concept of work getting done.
The human mind is one very special piece of equipment when it comes to creative thinking. Some of the excuses and reasons given to not work would vary from the feeblest attempt at lying to the most constructive sequence of badly aligned fairy story imaginable. Some left us in stitches of laughter; others enraged at the audacity of the offering let alone the tone and timing of the delivery.
There were many lessons learned and skills acquired from joining the throngs of the self-employed; all of which proved beneficial in the Ovenu business.
‘It was called a franchise’
So here’s where we flick back to selling thermal shutters. This was for a company called Guardia Shutters. Their office at the time was on the Farnham Road in Slough. It was a shared facility with a couple of others, namely Quench – a soft drink vending enterprise owned by a chap called Malcolm Tall and a company named Molly Maid – a domestic cleaning business that Mr Tall had ‘imported’ into the UK and was running it with a lady by the name of Pam Bader. It was called a franchise.
I got talking to Malcolm one day and he explained in lay-terms how the Molly Maid franchise worked in practice – sounded like a decent business model but that’s as far as it went … and for a good few years up to the point of starting my oven cleaning business, Ovenu.
There was some good reading material at the time that plugged a few knowledge gaps, not least an informative book called How To Franchise Your Business by Martin Mendelsohn and David Acheson published by Franchise World.
The idea of starting a business and proving that it was a success seemed very sensible and a decent thing to do. Offering others an opportunity to invest into something that’s been rigorously tried and tested for a few years would then come with trust and credibility.
So, on the face of it, the franchise model could be an OK fit for Ovenu … franchisees would be self-employed business people trading locally under the banner and protective cover of a larger organisation and paying an on-going fee for the rights to do so. What could possibly go wrong?
After receiving our Design Registration for our heated process tanks in 1994 we started to prove the concept for five years before forming Ovenu Franchising Limited and going VAT registered in 1999.
I worked tirelessly with one of my oven cleaning friends and colleague, John Taylor, to get the oven cleaning systems, equipment and processes as near to perfect as we could. The ‘two minds being better than one’ ethos paid great dividends at this time and I’ll be for ever grateful to John for his help at this time before he moved to Somerset to continue working as a Master Builder.
And in a very similar way to Jackie Noble, a good friend of many years standing who worked with me for a while as a co-director following the sad loss of her husband in a road traffic accident. Jackie pulled our first franchise agreement together and we worked together on recruiting franchisee investors into the business for a while.
But there was going to be a bit more to this as the majority of the available information on the topic of franchising was almost exclusively based on the model from the U.S. Now, I’m not saying for one moment that the American model was flawed in any way, shape or form – I just wanted to do things slightly differently – so I did.
Our start-up fee for example, wasn’t made up from lots of different components – it was an all-inclusive price. We needed the UK market to easily see what they were getting in return for their invested money.
Our monthly management fee was fixed. We figured three key points here – point one was to make it plain that the more jobs a franchisee undertook, the more money they kept themselves. The second – preparing profit & loss forecasts was easier as a fixed fee was constant throughout rather than a variable percentage charged by many other franchises at the time. And thirdly – we figured that if all franchisees were entitled to the same amount of help and support at all times then they should all pay the same amount.
And, as an early offering into the franchise sector, the initial agreement term was set at a modest three years as opposed to the ‘norm’ of five years.
Many of the basics however were a good fit – things like the theory of people taking more care of things they own rather than borrow or, as witnessed back in the factory, simply not care less about tools and equipment owned by ‘the company’.
And by having people investing hard earned money into running their own business, maybe they’d look to get good value for money in the first instance and look after their investment – to grow their local business over time to a point where a business could be sold for more money that it originally cost.
Their sole mission then was to invest into the business and spend their time copying the exact ‘blue-print’ business model that we’d perfected over the previous few years. All of the knowledge was in the Operation Manual and the ‘Rules of Engagement’ essentially formed the franchise agreement.
All we had to do, as the franchisors, was to advertise the opportunity and wait for prospect franchisees to get in touch … simples!
Ovenu is one of the leading UK and international domestic oven cleaning and valeting specialist. All cleaning products used by Ovenu are environmentally friendly, bio-degradable and conform to the latest government REACH regulations. Ovenu’s Carbon Remover is also approved by the Vitreous Enamel Association.
The Ovenu valeting process involves dismantling key components of an oven and placing them into design-registered equipment, which uses non-caustic, non-toxic and biodegradable products to clean the oven parts.