With 20 years experience in franchising, Duncan Berry was the natural choice to rule the roost at Bluebird Care after the departure of its co-founders. And now he’s helping its network of 214 franchises bring customers and relatives peace of mind
Whether they’ve taken a nasty fall or are struggling to look after themselves, it’s not always possible to take care of loved ones yourself. However, trusting someone else to do it is a real leap of faith, which is why Duncan Berry, chief operating officer (COO) of Bluebird Care, is committed to helping the franchise bring quality home care to the masses. “People will invariably have guilt and concerns around asking somebody else to come and care for their relatives,” he says. “It’s about reassuring them that this is something that we are experts in.”
And without a doubt, Berry is the man for the job, bringing years of franchising experience to bear in his journey with the company. Even as a youngster growing up in Yorkshire, he showed a certain panache for making money. “I remember at a fairly young age buying a number of postcards and posters from Athena Postcards and managing to sell them to school friends for a profit,” says Berry. “Whether that qualifies as entrepreneurialism or just basically taking advantage of mates I’m not sure.” But, all joking aside, Berry clearly had an aptitude for business: after finishing school, he took a year out to help out at his parents’ business Burton Safe Company, eventually helping to spread it to London and the south-east. “As I became more involved, I was literally out with safes in the back of a car, going round looking to sell them to locksmiths and office-supply companies,” he says. “That’s always rather stuck with me: in whatever you do, sales are paramount.”
However, while Berry had clearly earned his chops when it came to sales, the same could not be said for his schoolwork. “I would love to tell you some fabulous story that I did stunningly well in my A-levels and I had a long list of universities clamouring for me to go to them but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Berry says. “The reality was with the grades I’d gotten, I only had a choice between two.” While Berry’s initial interest was in sport, a conversation with his parents helped convince him that there was a better route available to him. “They said that business was much more likely to help you find a broader basis for future life,” he says. “I saw the sense in that and went to Newcastle Poly to study business.”
On graduating from university in 1996, Berry began looking for work down in London and came across Venture Marketing Group (VMG). Then named Careers in Industry (CII), the publishing and exhibitions company was looking for experienced salespeople to help it grow a new project on the other side of the pond. “Mel Stride, who was the owner, he went to America with a view of setting up a franchise exhibition there on the west coast,” says Berry. “We were literally selling the franchise exhibitions on the phone to Americans we’d never met. That was a fantastic experience.” After helping make this new exhibition a success, Berry returned to the UK and was put in charge of sourcing advertisers for Business Franchise, the company’s franchise title, something that gave him a real crash course on the ins and outs of the industry. “It gave me a great opportunity to go and meet a number of franchisors,” he says. “That helped me get a greater sense for the franchise model and how it works, how franchisors viewed the business and how they wanted to see things grow.”
And this didn’t just give him insight into the industry: bringing him onto the radar of the master franchisee for Cartridge World, it led him to his first opportunity to actually get hands on with a franchise. “They wanted to expand and needed somebody to come in and help with their sales, marketing and franchise development,” he says. “It was a really exciting opportunity to move from one side of franchising to the other.” Initially concentrating on setting the franchise’s marketing plan and guiding prospective franchisees through the process, it was when the UK master franchisee sold the rights back to the franchisor that Berry was given an opportunity to step up as director of European franchising. “Cartridge World wanted to move further into Europe,” he says. “They wanted me to not only to help support strategically the existing master franchisees but also to try and find some new ones.”
Gaining such a grounding in franchising stood Berry in good stead when Choice Hotels Europe came calling, looking for a CEO with a high degree of familiarity with the sector. “It wanted to have somebody in the senior role leading the UK business who’d got franchise experience, rather than hotel experience,” he says. Brought on board to help convert existing hotels to the Choice Hotels brand, Berry found that selling ink and providing people a place to stay were very different franchise propositions. While Choice Hotels’ network numbered just 35 franchisees compared to Cartridge World’s 250, the relative size of each unit meant that the former tended to attract franchisees with grander long-term plans. “It was a very different animal in terms of the investment and return expectations,” he says. “Our focus was on how we could look to support the franchisees’ businesses, make changes where necessary, understand from the franchisees what their frustrations were and what improvements we needed to put in place.”
While his time at Choice Hotels undoubtedly taught Berry a great deal, by 2015 he was ready for something new. “After six years at Choice Hotels, I found myself looking for the next challenge,” Berry says. “Very quickly Bluebird Care came along.” Having sold the company to health franchise giant Caring Brands International in 2013, its co-founders Paul and Lisa Tarsey had stepped away from the day-to-day running of the business and so its new owner was on the hunt for experienced franchising talent to head up its next phase of growth. Joining as Bluebird Care’s new COO, it’s safe to say that Berry had some big shoes to fill.
Prior to founding Bluebird Care, the Tarseys had been working as business development managers but that changed in 2004 when they realised home care was ripe for disruption. “Paul had spotted an opportunity to provide home care but with a far greater customer-service focus and catering to the private market rather than local authorities,” says Berry. In part this was inspired by Tarsey’s familial connection to the Campbells, the family responsible for smashing global speed records on land and water using the legendary Bluebird vehicles – helping to inspire the nascent franchise’s name. “What struck a chord with him was how they went about looking to build a very strong team in order to get Bluebird up to land and water speed records and create these exceptional outcomes,” Berry says. “He thought: ‘here’s an opportunity for a home-care provider to be able to do just that and give exceptional customer service.’”
Without further ado, the Tarseys founded Bluebird Care in Petersfield and quickly established a model that helped the new home-care business stand out from the crowd. Rather than having a cookie-cutter approach to care, the new business focused on individually assessing the wants and needs of customers and trying to deliver on those expectations. “This can be down to how they want their bedclothes buttoned, like their tea or where they want things accessible to them,” Berry says. “But it’s also looking as much as possible to determine which would be the best carer to fit with that customer.”
And this approach proved to be incredibly popular. Seeing significant demand for the new home-care service, the Tarseys began to feel that their success could be easily replicated elsewhere. “There was a recognition that this was something that was nationally relevant; whether you were in the south or the north, this was something that resonated,” says Berry. “So they felt in order to meet demand, they could use franchising to move things on and drive expansion.” Looking to get the word out to prospective franchisees, Bluebird Care initially attended several of the large franchise exhibitions but the Tarseys soon found that the nature of the care industry meant that many prospective franchisees actually found their own way to the franchise. “Because of poor care that they’d experienced personally for family members, prospective franchisees researched opportunities and that led them to Bluebird Care’s door,” Berry says. “And then those people’s success brought even more prospects to the franchise.”
But Bluebird Care’s expanding network hasn’t just been useful in winning over franchisees: having such a committed crew of brand advocates operating at the heart of local communities has proven invaluable in building trust among relatives seeking home care for their loved ones. “It’s hugely important for franchisees to get out in person and involved in local events, in community centres, churches, village halls, standing in the local Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA, Waitrose or wherever it might be,” says Berry. “It’s very much about being proactive within the community and building up relationships.” As franchisees are very much a part of the community they are operating in, they can reinforce positive perceptions of the industry and put a human face on the care customers will receive. “It’s just looking to try and improve the perception of care, which in society can take more of a knock than it deserves,” Berry says. “People don’t get to hear the positive stories, which are there in abundance.”
While communicating these stories confidently takes a special kind of franchisee, this isn’t the only factor that Bluebird Care looks for in franchise candidates. Given that some Bluebird Care franchisees now run operations with around 120 carers, effective management skills are a must. “To get a business to that level, they need to be comfortable in leading teams,” Berry says. “It’s about setting the tone and having the right culture and approach.” And although like any franchise Bluebird Care wants franchisees that are able to follow the system, it's also keen to see candidates that are able to innovate and provide service that goes above and beyond what is outlined in the franchise agreement. “Our ideal franchisee is someone that isn’t scared of making bold decisions and is able communicate why they’re doing these things,” says Berry. “They see opportunities that are relevant to what we provide and are able to see how Bluebird Care can take advantage of them.”
Once the franchise is sure it has found the right franchisee, it is able to provide plenty of support to help new recruits get up to speed. “To begin with, we have a team of quality managers who help them through the application process to get their businesses registered with the relevant regulator,” says Berry. “We then bring them to Petersfield, which takes them through all facets of the business.” Once the new franchisee has been trained on everything from running payroll to recruiting carers, then it’s time for more hands-on, onsite support to help them get to grips with the franchise’s systems. “And that’s something that their business development managers will be able to work closely with them on in the first 12 or 24 months to make sure that they’re really comfortable with knowing where to go for what sort of information,” Berry says.
And Bluebird Care franchisees aren’t the only ones innovating: with increasing competition emerging in the home-care sector, the franchise is well aware that it needs to stay ahead of the crowd. “One thing that differentiates us is how we’re able to adapt,” Berry explains. “We are not looking to stand still.” Not only has the franchise started utilising the PASSsystem, a digital care-management platform produced by everyLIFE Technologies that allows seamless viewing and editing of care records on the go, and developed its own app that provides guides, information and video content for carers but it’s also utilising everyLIFE Technologies’ openPASS, an app that allows relatives to check in and make sure everything’s going well with their family’s care. “If I’m 250 miles away from where Mum lives and the carer’s been in during the afternoon, I can check in on my app and look to see how things have gone,” explains Berry. “So it’s just making sure that while they may be a distance away they’re still able to keep in touch.”
This innovative, forward-looking approach has certainly stood Bluebird Care in good stead during this year’s awards season: not only did the franchise pick up The Franchise Award for Innovation at the workingmums.co.uk Top Franchise Awards and Fiona Williams, its director of operations, take the Inspirational Woman in Franchising Award at the NatWest Encouraging Woman into Franchising Awards but it also recently won the coveted bfa HSBC Franchisor of the Year award. “It’s wonderful to have that recognition and certainly it gives franchisees and their teams a really good pat on the back for all of the effort that they put in,” Berry says. But given the home-care sector sometimes gets unfairly tarnished by reports of poor practice in the care-home industry, Berry feels one of the real benefits of winning these awards is the fact it can help customers have faith that the franchise’s model is up to scratch. “Having been scrutinised by the bfa and the judging panel and held up as being top of the pile really should give everyone that real sense of confidence and reassurance that the Bluebird Care model is tried and tested,” he says.
With a network of 188 franchises in the UK alone and a further 26 in Ireland, it’s clear Bluebird Care has a bright future ahead of it. But Berry is keen to remain pragmatic, rather than chasing pipe dreams. “Some people at the top can get a little carried away with five-year expansion plans or focusing on world domination: you’ve got to be very careful and not get too carried away,” Berry says. “It’s more a case of what are the things in the next 12 or 24 months we need to be planning for, working on and resourcing internally.” One of the big focuses for Bluebird Care’s immediate future is growing its market share within the territories it’s already operating in and this means means bringing as much new blood into the industry as possible. “It’s how can we be looking to make the care sector one that people consider much more of a career they’d like to get involved,” he concludes. “If we can bring more carers in and they can take on more of the demand from customers out there then we’ll be in a far better place.”