To get Dublcheck off the ground, founder Carol Stewart-Gill hit the streets and started knocking on doors. Over two decades later, the cleaning franchise she chairs boasts 120 franchisees across the UK
Building a business empire from scratch isn’t easy. But if you have a degree of tenacity and determination, you can make your dreams a reality. Carol Stewart-Gill, founder and chairwoman of Dublcheck, the cleaning franchise, is living proof of this: with sheer grit and resolve she has created a company that has drawn both adulation and emulation in equal measure.
Like many entrepreneurs, Stewart-Gill found the education system inaccessible – although perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. “I went to a Welsh-speaking school but didn’t speak the language,” she explains. “It was frustrating because I knew I had a lot to give.” Stewart-Gill left education with five O-levels and entered secretarial college; fortunately she has since found that aptitude, rather than academics, are more important in creating commercial success. “I truly believe now – having been what I’ve been through – that it’s not about your qualification set,” she says. “It’s the person that actually creates success.”
But Stewart-Gill didn’t rush out into the world of work: for some time her main focus was being a stay-at-home wife and mother. However, in 1993, a change in life circumstances meant that her family needed an additional income stream. And one of the first ideas that came into Stewart-Gill’s head was commercial cleaning. “I thought ‘blimey, it can’t be that difficult’,” she says. “So out I went, knocked on doors and eventually got my first contract.” Before long, this one contract had multiplied into many more and she realised that she needed to take on some outside help. Franchising seemed the obvious choice.
While the transition from business owner to franchisor can be a tricky one, the fact that Stewart-Gill was still a relative newcomer to the industry meant that she could more easily relate to those she was looking to entice. “You’re singing from the same hymn sheet as people who are going into it,” she says. “Even people that have previously been managing directors can still be nervous because they’re going into an industry that they’re not familiar with.”
This helped her create an attractive model with which to draw in franchisees. But it’s not just a case of building it and assuming they will come; the fledgling franchise needed to start getting the word out. “At the time, we were just a Chester-based operation,” Stewart-Gill says. “So we advertised locally and, before I knew it, we’d got our first franchisee.”
Having taken on its first franchisee to keep up with demand, Dublcheck suddenly found its client numbers exploding. “Once we began franchising, we just kept getting more and more contracts,” says Stewart-Gill. In part, she attributes this to customers liking the fact that they would be dealing with someone who had a direct stake in the business. “We were able to say the person responsible for the cleaning of your office owns their business,” she says. Rather than being handled by an individual who had little reason to do a good job, they knew the team cleaning their office would be being managed by someone with a genuine interest in delivering the best results. “That’s how we stood out from the crowd,” she says.
Inevitably the appetite for its service meant that Dublcheck needed to rapidly scale up its franchise operations. Fortunately, it not only gained some significant traction from featuring in magazines and exhibitions but a slew of word-of-mouth recommendations also helped it to start securing significant organic growth. “We went from a local franchise to a regional and then a national one,” Stewart-Gill says. “It was that kind of expansion.”
Other factors that undoubtedly contributed to Dublcheck’s rapid growth are the wide range of investment options it offers and the fact that it provides a concrete income to franchisees. “They’re guaranteed a certain turnover,” Stewart-Gill says. At the lowest end of the scale, there are packages available for £9,950 that offer a hands-on cleaning business turning over £14,000, whilst, for those with a little more cash in their pockets, a £190,950 investment will put a franchisee at the head of a £500,000-a-year operation.
Part of the reason the investment level is so variable is down to the rather radical way in which Dublcheck structures its opportunities. “We’re not just selling franchisees places within a big territory,” says Stewart-Gill. “We’re actually sourcing contracts for them.” Operating national telesales and field sales teams in-house, Dublcheck allows franchisees to invest based upon how much business they require and guarantees them the exact number of contracts they need to run their franchise. “They can either come back for some more or, alternatively, we run sales courses to train them how to get their own contracts,” she says.
As Stewart-Gill goes on to explain, if Dublcheck concentrates on connecting franchisees with a consistent stream of new customers, then those franchisees can focus on providing the best possible service to their existing ones. And it’s this that formed the inspiration for the company’s name. “It’s a ‘double check’ system,” says Stewart-Gill. “Franchisees check on the needs of the customers; we check on the needs of the franchisee.”
But the support Dublcheck provides doesn’t stop at generating leads for its franchisees. As well as providing a comprehensive training package – covering everything from the practical skills to managing personnel and health and safety – the franchise also provides help with invoicing, credit control and payroll. “The help we offer is second to none,” Stewart-Gill says. “Our franchisees say that they can’t believe how much support they get.”
Stewart-Gill is keen to stress, however, that the assistance Dublcheck provides doesn’t necessarily just follow a prescribed formula. “It’s a very personal approach,” she says. “We’re there at the other end of the phone.” And, just in case a franchisee would rather speak to someone more on their level, Dublcheck also runs a mentorship scheme for franchisees, effectively providing them a buddy who can help guide them through the trials and tribulations of their first year. “You have a mentor who is on a par with you and you can just pick up the phone,” Stewart-Gill says. “It means you’ve got an ally there.”
One of the real benefits of the support provided by Dublcheck head office is that franchisees running smaller operations can keep their outgoings relatively low. “Franchisees can operate from home, which means there aren’t many overheads to start off with,” Stewart-Gill says. However, once a franchise is up and running, it’s relatively trivial for a franchisee to take on more work and scale up their business. “You can purchase more contracts,” she says. “The guys who are running about £500,000 have now got offices of their own.”
Given the strength of Dublcheck’s franchise model, it’s hardly surprising that it’s been a target for imitation. “There have been other people trying to replicate what I’ve done with Dublcheck,” says Stewart-Gill. This less-than-honest competition made things harder for the business for a while and did slightly sour public perceptions of cleaning franchises. Fortunately, Dublcheck has managed to rise above this kind of behaviour and has seen off the pretenders to its throne. “We’ve come through all of that now and they’re no longer in the industry,” says Stewart-Gill. “We’re still here after 22 years.”
Dublcheck has certainly flourished since it was first founded back in the early 1990s: it has amassed 120 franchisees across the UK and netted accolades such as a place on the Sunday Times Fast Track 100. But Dublcheck isn’t the only one receiving recognition: Stewart-Gill herself received the Woman of Achievement award at the North West Achievement Awards.
There’s no doubt in her mind that women becoming high-profile success stories in the franchise sector can help others follow in their footsteps. “I’ve definitely inspired lots of other women to go into business,” says Stewart-Gill. She recalls an event where she had to get up in front of a group of about 100 women from around the world and speak about her experiences in business. “I was as nervous as can be standing up there,” she admits. “After that they were all queueing up and saying: ‘God, that was so inspirational’.”
Both Dublcheck and Stewart-Gill have made their mark on the UK franchise industry over the last few decades and the latter is hoping that this expansion will continue apace. “The system is going wonderfully well in the UK,” says Stewart-Gill. “We’re looking to do the same thing over the next 20 years; just keep growing organically.” But there are also much bigger plans afoot for the cleaning company. “The next step is to have a master franchise and start franchising internationally,” she says.
Guiding the business through this next stage of development is evidently going to involve something of an adjustment for Stewart-Gill. “I’m a grafter,” she says. “I started this business just knocking on doors. But it’s hard to let go of it because Dublcheck’s my baby.” Despite this, she recognises that she has a strong team behind her that she can rely on to handle more of the day-to-day runnings of the business, giving her more time to focus on the strategic direction of the business and enjoy a bit more leisure time. “I’m stepping back a bit,” she says. “That’s my new year’s resolution.”