The family business folding when he was young had a marked influence on Ian Christelow. When he came across the ActionCOACH brand, he knew it would help prevent other companies from meeting the same fate
It’s safe to say that helping companies thrive is close to Ian Christelow’s heart. When he was just a child, the advertising agency his father had founded went under, the memory of which has stuck with Christelow to this day. “Because he didn’t have access to business coaching, he lost his business and we really suffered as a family,” he says. “He lost his job, all of his money and he nearly lost his wife.” For this reason, Christelow, now master licensee of ActionCOACH, the business coaching franchise, has dedicated his life to helping other business owners avoid the same fate. “For me, it’s personal,” he says.
After leaving Chelmsford’s Great Baddow High School, Christelow initially wanted to attend art school. However, the failure of his father’s business years before meant he needed to be bringing money in so he found employment at his local branch of Lloyds. “I absolutely hated it to be honest,” he says. “Finding myself in the machine room processing debits and credits was soul-destroying.” Christelow admits that he may not have tried that hard to conceal his half-hearted attitude: he landed himself in hot water on his first day. “I went into the manager’s office and said: ‘this is crazy – you could get a machine to do this,” he says. “After six months they sacked me.”
Fortunately Christelow’s next job worked out much better: not long after he found a position with Pearson Education working for its Pitman Publishing imprint. “I got a job in an accountancy department and decided to make the most of it, which meant qualifying as a chartered management accountant,” Christelow says. He dedicated his free time to studying chartered accounting in secret and booked leave from work so he could sit his exams, eventually passing with flying colours aged just 21. “When I told them that I had passed my finals, they were like: ‘why didn’t you talk to us about this?’” he recalls. “Then they reimbursed me a load of expenses retroactively and gave me a promotion.”
After Christelow had spent more than a decade working for Pearson imprints, he had a lucky break. “Paula Khan, our chairman at the time, decided to give me and three other people £1m and 12 months to get a new venture off the ground,” he says. “We had absolutely open book on it.” The small team eventually created Direct English, the English language training franchise, and, after a successful pilot out in Milan, sold ten international licences to the business to the tune of $5m. Along the way Christelow picked up valuable experience of the franchise sector. “Through ignorance, we did some things the wrong way,” he says. “But we learnt some really great lessons about how to franchise.”
Unfortunately, after four years, a change in management at the Pearson Group saw the company take things in a new direction. “The new chairman decided that the venture was not core business for the Pearson Group, so they sold it to the Linguapone Group and made me redundant,” Christelow says. “That was really tough because it had been a great experience; I cried my eyes out.” But rather than sitting around feeling sorry for himself, Christelow decided to invest a chunk of his redundancy on a convertible and see the world. “I drove around Spain and Portugal and then spent another four months travelling round Australasia,” he says.
When he returned to the UK, Christelow decided it was time for a change in direction. “I was very clear with myself that I would never go back into a job working for someone else,” he says. Luckily he had something to fall back on. During his last few years at the Pearson Group he had been studying for an MBA; he returned to complete the degree, selecting as many entrepreneurial modules as he could. And this sparked the idea for a new startup. “For my final project, I decided to set up a pleasure flights business and take stag and hen parties over the Blackpool tower in a helicopter,” he says.
But despite his enthusiasm for this new idea, sometimes life has other plans. On a trip down to London to conduct research for his new venture, Christelow stumbled across an ad in the Evening Standard placed by Brad Sugars, the entrepreneur who founded the ActionCOACH brand in Australia. The business coaching franchise was seeking a general manager for the business in the UK and Ireland. “The advert sounded like it described me,” Christelow recalls. “I still remember the headline: it said ‘people wanted with passion, people wanted with heart’.” And the more he thought about the opportunity, the more the idea enticed him. “The call to action was ‘phone this number by 5pm on Friday’,” he recalls. “Curiosity got the better of me and at 4:45pm on the Friday I found myself calling the number.”
Turning up at the group interview, Christelow was a little taken aback: there were 200 candidates going for one position. But after the first stages, which outlined the company and the opportunity, the interviewees were told that they would then need to stand up and make presentations about why they were the right fit for the job. “Half the people left,” he laughs. “I thought ‘great: I’ve only got 99 people to beat now’.” And, as Christelow progressed through the interviews, he only became more adamant that he was the perfect fit for the role. “By the end of that evening, I was so inspired by what I’d heard that if I hadn’t got the job I would have gone on hunger strike outside the office until they gave it to me,” he says.
In the end, it transpired such a protest wouldn’t be necessary: recognising his enthusiasm, ActionCOACH snapped him up. Before long, Christelow was working alongside Sugars and two experienced franchise owners from Australia in a serviced office in Hammersmith selling area development licences for £500,000 a pop. When Christelow was asked to sit in on a ten-day training session for the company’s first four area developers, he was struck by an exercise that required them to write down how they would like their own epitaph to read. “I wrote: ‘Here lies Ian Christelow – because of what he did, every business owner in the UK was aware that there was a cure for the blight threatening businesses’,” he says. “And I decided then and there that I would buy one of those licences.”
However, there was one slight stumbling block: scraping together the money he needed to buy the licence. “I went to the bank and they laughed at me,” Christelow says. “They all turned us down because, at the time, business coaching didn’t exist in the UK.” Not one to take no for an answer, Christelow sold his house and his car, cashed in his life savings and approached his brother Mark, then the treasurer of the Ford Motor Credit Company, to become his co-investor. After carrying out the required due diligence, Mark put up a 50% stake and together they purchased the area licence for East Anglia. “It left me with no car, office, personal money or property,” he says. “But it was such a calling that I just had to take it on.”
Getting the new operation off the ground however still took a lot of work and it took some time for ActionCOACH to get the message out to potential franchise owners. “Nobody knew what a business coach was,” says Christelow. “Initially, our marketing was ‘this is the difference between a business coach and a management consultant’.” After four months, Christelow found his first serious candidate but, after interviewing them, he realised that they didn’t have the best chance of success and decided to refund their franchise fee. “Sometimes fortune favours the brave: two months later, at 9pm on the night before the planes flew off to training, we signed our first franchise agreement,” he says. “And it just snowballed from there.”
Thanks to this success, Christelow was soon able to start expanding his business empire outside of East Anglia. After the licence holder for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire found themselves unable to recruit any coaches in their first two years, Christelow stepped in and offered to by the virgin territory off them. This strategy paid off and soon he was replicating his success in region after region. “Gradually I’ve either bought clean licences for the other territories or bought out the existing area developer,” he says. “We’ve since invested £5m in buying the rights to award the franchise to people across the UK.”
Instrumental in this growth was Julie Wagstaff, now recruitment director at ActionCOACH. She first became involved with the franchise as a coach in a region outside of Christelow’s control but, despite having strong commercial nous, quickly found herself foundering due to a lack of support. “Luckily she had the foresight to pick the phone up and approach an already successful coach for help,” Christelow says. “Within the space of four months, she was banking over £12,000 a month.” As one of the franchise’s rising stars, she approached Christelow with a proposal: she said they should join forces and buy the licence for London. “I said: ‘come to me with a compelling business plan and I’ll meet with you’,” he says. “I thought that was the last I would hear of it: two days later she brought me just that.”
Wagstaff has since proved invaluable in addressing some of the problems faced by franchise owners and, along with Christelow, has helped define the things that truly set ActionCOACH UK apart from the competition. “We now have a fantastic client-generation centre that produces quality leads for the coaches,” Christelow says. Additionally, the franchise offers a money-back guarantee that ensures as long as franchise owners get themselves in front of six qualified prospects a month they will be banking £10,000 of personal client income by month seven. “We’ve only given two refunds in the last 15 years,” says Christelow.
As a result, ActionCOACH has received some serious plaudits for franchise owner satisfaction. In 2012, the franchise received joint runner-up for the Smith & Henderson Best Franchise £25k - £99k award, which is awarded based on surveys of franchise owners. “We always read every line of feedback and it identified a couple of areas that we needed to strengthen,” Christelow says. “Every year after, our score has improved.” It has since achieved fantastic results and has won the award for the last two years. “At the end of last year, we scored 90% overall satisfaction, which is a UK record,” he continues.
And franchise owners are flocking to ActionCOACH thick and fast. “We recruited over 40 last year: we’re on course to recruit 60 this year,” says Christelow. The franchise now has over 150 coaches on its books and shows no sign of letting up: by 2020 the franchise is aiming to have 1,000 coaches and 10,000 businesses signed up to its services. “By the time I’m 60 or 65, I want us to be a household name,” Christelow says. “That will mean us helping 60,000 business owners through a network of 6,000 ActionCOACHes.”
With the failure of his father’s business still fresh in his mind, it’s hardly surprising that Christelow has made it his mission to reduce the human cost that comes with companies going under. “There is a sickness out there that kills nine out of ten businesses and I’ve been lucky enough to have the cure shared with me,” Christelow concludes. “I’ve now got a responsibility to spend the rest of my life making sure that as many business owners as possible know about it.”