The cleaning sector has gone from strength to strength thanks to people living increasingly busy lives. But will it be resilient enough to survive the Brexit fallout?
To say that cleaning businesses have become a force to be reckoned with almost seems like an understatement. Few sectors can boast that they contributed over £24bn to the British economy in 2015 but, according to the British Cleaning Council, the cleaning industry is one of them. And franchises specialising in tidying up people’s houses are now reaping the benefits of the sector’s growth.
However, no industry can rise to prominence if the conditions aren’t right. Fortunately, the market was ripe for disruption back in the 1990s. “A lot of things changed back then,” says Tim Harris, chief executive of Ovenclean, the oven-cleaning franchise. “For starters, people had become very cash-rich but time-poor.” While women might have once been the primary caretakers of British households, this began to change in the second part of the 20th century as more of them joined the workforce. In 1971, about half of female Brits were working, according to the Office of National Statistics; today, the proportion of women in employment has jumped to three-quarters. With more people working, it left families with more money to spend but less time to do things like cooking and making their homes spotless. “As a result a lot of service industries sprang up,” says Harris. “It’s the same thing that saw Domino’s Pizza become popular. And given that cleaning is consistently ranked as Britain’s most hated chore, it’s not surprising that people were quite open to paying someone else to do it.”
Having a solid customer base certainly does wonders for every sector but it wasn’t the only factor that laid the foundation for the residential-cleaning industry’s growth in the 1990s. About the same time, business leaders became aware of how franchising was changing the market across the pond. “We’re always about ten years behind what happens in America,” says Catriona Berry, operations manager at Merry Maids, the home-cleaning franchise. Modern franchising in the US originally took off in the 1950s and by the 1980s it was growing like never before. In 1988 alone, 27,273 new franchised units opened. That’s roughly one every 20 minutes. And as the franchised market grew, people in Blighty began to take notice. “People saw how American businesses worked in the franchising sectors and saw it as an opportunity to get their brands out there,” says Berry. “Many one-man bands that would’ve never been able to grow their companies by themselves realised that it would be much easier having 50 or 60 ambassadors helping them.”
The cleaning sector was particularly well-placed to take advantage of the model. “More and more people want to go into businesses by themselves,” says Berry. “And cleaning franchises provide low-level entry opportunities for low investments.” Another benefit is that franchising minimises the risk of failure inherent in launching a cleaning business alone. “People want a structure instead of having to learn everything from HR to health and safety by themselves,” says Berry. “And buying a franchise offers that because franchisors have already done all the work. It’s a proven model you can simply pick up, run and earn a living with.”
And once established, house-cleaning franchises have proven particularly resistant to changing circumstances. “Everyone ran for cover when the economy took a dive in 2008,” says Freddie Rayner, founder of Time For You, the residential-cleaning franchise. “But I didn’t. Instead we just ramped up our marketing.” And that bet certainly paid off: both Time For You and other cleaning franchises noticed that the recession enabled them to grow their business. “The pressure was on and more people had to go to work, which left us with more clients,” says Rayner. “And surprisingly, people who were living in more modest houses also began using our services. That’s because the people who would’ve normally bought a new house found themselves unable to get a mortgage. Instead, they spent money on things like a new TV and a cleaner instead.”
However, the strength it showed in the face of the recession doesn’t mean that the sector isn't facing some threats. “Brexit will become a bit of a challenge,” says Rayner. “A few years ago it was a novelty to have a cleaner from Eastern Europe. Nowadays it’s common practice because there’s a huge swathe of them in Britain and they do a fantastic job.” In fact, 23% of the workers in the industry were born outside the UK, significantly higher than the national average of 17%, according to the British Cleaning Council. Given the sector’s heavy reliance on foreign talent, it’s hardly surprising that 82% of cleaning organisations want to be able to recruit EU workers after Brexit, according to a survey from Cleaning Matters, the magazine covering the cleaning industry. While it’s still uncertain whether or not free movement of people will cease once the divorce proceedings are finalised, Rayner believes franchises can come out of this challenge squeaky clean by recruiting native parents instead of foreigners. “They’ll be looking for work to do when their kids are growing up,” he says. “Cleaning may not be at the top of their wish list but it’s a job that they can easily fit around school schedules.”
But the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s divorce from the EU isn’t the only hurdle for residential-cleaning franchises to overcome. “The living wage is having a major impact, bigger than Brexit,” says Berry. The national living wage was first introduced in April 2016 and currently means that workers over the age of 25 are entitled to be paid at least £7.50 per hour. While it has meant higher salaries for workers, Berry argues that the national living wage has caused some worries for Britain’s cleaning franchises. “You used to be able define your own rates and tweak them to get the people you wanted,” she says. “Nowadays everyone is fishing in the same pond, making the labour market much more difficult for businesses. And because there is a huge shortage in the unskilled workers, it’s definitely become a candidate’s market.”
Despite Brexit and a more competitive labour market, franchisors still seem bullish about things to come. “The future is bright,” says Berry. “It’s a growing industry. We are seeing double-digit growth at the moment.” And again, this dates back to the changing landscape of the 1990s. As more people have hired someone to clean their house, it has almost become a must-have. “Millennials have grown up with their parents having had cleaners,” she says. “They expect to have a cleaner, someone to do their lawn, clean windows and that sort of thing. That’s what they expect of life.”
So even if there may be some dustups over workers in the future, it’s safe to say that the sector’s franchises will be cleaning up nicely. “It’s a robust sector and I think it will continue to grow,” concludes Rayner.