With its hassle-free service and a touch of tech, David Overton's Optic-Kleer is removing all the friction involved in getting your windscreen repaired
The road ahead hasn’t always been clear for David Overton. “When I was at school I took no interest in my education and walked away with not a lot to show for it,” he says. But whether he’s speaking at conferences or recruiting franchisees for Optic-Kleer UK, the windscreen-repair franchise, he hasn’t allowed his lack of academic qualifications to prevent him from building a thriving business. “I certainly don’t let it get in my way,” he says. “In actual fact, you could say you work it to an advantage because it encourages you to focus on your strengths.”
This approach has certainly stood Overton in good stead, driving him to work his way up the career ladder. After finishing his GCSEs, he spent several years working for his father’s carpet-fitting business. “My dad decided to go in a completely different direction and bought a pub,” he says. “So, of all things, I ended up selling caravans and caravan awnings for a camping company.” Gradually Overton found his way into some slightly more orthodox roles selling cars for Renault, Hyundai, Toyota and Mercedes before eventually becoming general manager of a Ford dealership. “I had control of virtually the whole garage: sales, stock levels, turnover, staffing issues, all sorts of stuff,” he says. “That’s when it all started getting interesting.”
Despite having the kind of gumption one typically associates with entrepreneurs, Overton admits that during this time he wasn’t that concerned about forging out on his own. “Through my professional years, the only ambition that I had was to get the job above me, to get the bigger salary, the better car, the better office,” he says. “That was the drive.” However, as Overton neared the top of the career ladder, he began to realise that all the hard work he was putting in was ultimately just lining someone else’s pockets. He started to crave the opportunity to build something of his own but there was one minor hitch. “I wasn’t in a financial position where I could go and get myself a Ford dealership,” he says. “The only way I could go and work for myself was to get out there and build something of my own.”
Fortunately Overton had already come across the perfect opportunity that would allow him to build a business empire. Having used Optic-Kleer several times, both personally and whilst working for Ford, he could see how innovative the franchise’s model was. “Traditionally, if you had a chip in your windscreen, you would have to phone whichever major glass company your insurance company recommended to you,” says Overton. “Then when you finally got a date to repair it, you’d have to stay in all day.” By contrast, everything about Optic-Kleer’s service is designed to remove these kinds of pain points for customers. With a van-based presence in the carparks of major supermarkets such as Tesco and Morrisons, the franchise can repair motorists’ chipped windscreens while they do their weekly shop and then handle the claim with the insurers on their behalf. “We’re a friction free, one-stop shop: no appointments, turn up, get the job done and go,” Overton says.
Overton reached out and before long was handing over his franchise fee. However, the closest territory that was available was Cambridge and this took some getting used to. “There were a lot of learning curves to understand about the area that I was working in,” he says. “Entering a new area for the first time, I didn’t know the villages, the towns, the routes where people would be, the busy supermarkets.” Building a business in the area was like moving to a new town but fortunately it didn’t take long for Overton orientate himself and put down some roots. “Eventually you become known locally and create a reputation for yourself.”
And with time Overton's diligence started drawing the attention of Eric Howe, Optic-Kleer’s founder. At the time the franchise’s head honcho was regularly having to commute back and forth between Britain and the States and he began to see that this superstar franchisee could help pick up some of the slack. “He was splitting his time between the UK and Texas,” Overton says. “So he asked me to work part-time within the business and help do some bits and pieces for him.” For the next few years, while operating his own franchise Overton also took on the training and mentoring of the franchise’s new recruits. Before long, Howe asked him to step up and take on the role of franchise manager full-time.
It’s safe to say that this was an opportunity that Overton embraced wholeheartedly. “I really got my teeth into the business,” he says. “Applying a lot of the skills that I picked up working in the car industry, I starting getting to grips with how it worked, the business potentials and the financials.” Taking the lead, Overton was soon running all aspects of the franchise, helping manage the British operation when its founder was Stateside. This made him the natural choice when, several years later, Howe announced he was looking for someone to take up the mantle. “He wanted to concentrate on building the Optic-Kleer brand over in America and he could see my passion and drive,” he says. “So he offered me the chance to buy half the business off him and I became a 50% shareholder.”
With memories of being out working a territory fresh in his mind, one of Overton’s first aims as joint owner of Optic-Kleer was to make sure things were structured in the best way for its franchisees. “Being a franchisor sat in a chair in your warm office, it’s easy to forget what it’s like for the people out there in the field working in all weathers,” says Overton. “But having been a franchisee before becoming a franchisor, I had a great understanding of what the guys needed to become profitable.” Looking to utilise this expertise, Overton began to refine the Optic-Kleer model, introducing better organisational infrastructure and forming more robust contracts and relationships with supermarkets. “My focus was on delivering the complete package for all the operators,” he says.
One of the biggest changes Overton made during this time was to the way franchisees book their appearances for the coming weeks. “When I was an operator, I would wake up Monday morning thinking ‘I’ve got nowhere to work today: I’ve not booked anything’,” he says. “We now liaise with the operators, help them plan and book sites so they know exactly where they’re working for the next three months.” Playing a pivotal role in this transition was Overton’s wife Sarah, who left a position as a financial advisor with a well-known high-street bank to help organise the operators’ time. “As Sarah had worked for a PLC, we knew we needed her services,” he says. “She has become vital in supporting the franchise network.”
In light of all the work the couple were putting into Optic-Kleer, it was inevitable that at some point they would look to take on a larger stake in the company and their opportunity finally came in March 2014. “We made an offer to buy the rest of the business and took control of the whole of the UK operation,” Overton says. Effectively separating the two halves of the company, this saw the couple take ownership of Optic-Kleer UK as a distinct entity – although Overton explains that the two businesses still benefit from operating under the same trading name. “For example, [Howe] is opening his first windscreen replacement shop under the Optic-Kleer brand now,” he says. “That’s good for brand synergies backward and forward.”
Since taking full control of the UK business, a key point on Overton’s agenda has been the recruitment of more franchisees. But the franchise still has strict criteria when it comes to taking on new recruits to its network. “Just because someone comes to us and says ‘I want to buy a franchise: here’s my money’, it’s not a given,” says Overton. “Whoever comes in to join us, the one thing we’re really strict about is that they’ve got to like us and we’ve got to like them.” On top of excellent people and communication skills, in Overton’s eyes one of the most important attributes any entrepreneur must possess is get-up-and-go. “They’ve got to realise that working for yourself doesn’t mean you can do what you want, when you want it,” he says. “You’ve got to be a very self-motivated person.”
However, as a potential franchisee has the prerequisite gumption, Optic-Kleer has been refining its support programme to ensure they can hit the ground running. “We used to go through how to repair a windscreen, how to talk to a customer and say ‘this is the way it works and off you go’: that was the basic training package,” says Overton. “That’s evolved now.” Before training even starts, Optic-Kleer ensures that a good business plan is put in place and will sit franchisees down with an accountant who can set them up as a limited company, point them in the right direction to get a business bank account and get them VAT registered. Additionally, the franchise has also negotiated fleet discounts direct with the manufacturer, saving franchisees from having to strike their own deals. “The new franchisee doesn’t have to go in and negotiate fleet discounts for their vehicles,” he says. “They’re already set up: we have everything ready for you.”
When it comes to the training itself, Optic-Kleer has developed a novel approach: putting established franchisees front and centre. “New people coming through get trained by an experienced franchisee to see it really working and how it’s done,” Overton explains. Existing franchisees – such as John Speare, franchisee of Optic-Kleer Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds, Diss and Thetford – divide their time between mending motorists’ windscreens and attending training sessions to help get the next generation up to speed. “He tells his experiences and explains how everything works,” says Overton. “We also put him up in the hotel where they’re staying, so they can sit and talk over a beer in the evening and really get under the skin of the franchise.”
But this isn’t the only innovation that Optic-Kleer is working on: the franchise is also in the process of injecting some serious tech into its service. Not only will customers soon be able to track where Optic-Kleer operators are appearing but they will be able to get text alerts reminding them when an operator is appearing in their local area or informing them if the scheduled location is set to change. Franchisees will also be able to view all their work online and invoice directly through the app. “As far as I’m concerned, everything is an online business now,” Overton says. “By directing customers to where the operator is based that day, it will bring more opportunities for work on concession sites.”
While this project is a significant investment for the franchise, Overton emphasises that he doesn’t want franchisees to have to pay for the privilege of increased access to consumers. “We’re not charging the franchisee any extra for any of the administrative costs that we’re accruing,” he says. “Being an ex-operator, I want this to come at no cost.”
While this may seem like an act of enormous charity, part of the reason for this is that Overton wants franchisees to be able to reap the rewards of their hard work and secure a good return on their investment. “If someone builds up a business over four, five or six years and then sells it then good luck to them,” he says. However there are still plenty of options for Optic-Kleer franchisees to grow their business to the next level. “Once an operator gets their territory up and running, if the area’s big enough and they can find the right person, they can add a second van,” he says. “We’ve got several franchises that have done that and expanded their area.”
And with so many franchisees stepping up, it’s hardly surprising that Optic-Kleer is seeing real success. “We’re aiming to make it a household name,” says Overton. “We are 50% of the way toward national coverage and we’re rapidly taking people on now.” Not only does the franchise already have 50 franchisees out there mending the nation’s windscreens but it has already completed its ten-year growth plan seven years ahead of schedule. “It’s been absolutely amazing,” he concludes. “What a journey.”