Having inherited a family business more than half a century in the making, no one better understands the importance of staying true to where you came from than Ben Dellicompagni
Whether it was folding towels to ensure the Francesco Group brand was on the outside or shampooing people’s hair for tips, some of Ben Dellicompagni’s happiest childhood memories are of working in his father’s salon. “I loved being in the salon and loved the energy of it,” he says. But the smell of conditioner and feel of terrycloth aren’t the only things that have stuck with the now managing director of the franchise: perhaps the most indelible impression Frank Dellicompagni left on his son was the importance of working hard and being self reliant. “As a young man, I saw the blood, sweat and tears that went into building the company,” he says. “Our family had an incredible work ethic. That’s the building blocks of who we are: it's in our DNA.”
This is no hyperbole: the Dellicompagni family has never shied away from hard graft. As a prisoner of war during the second world war, Dellicompagni’s grandfather was billeted to a farm in Staffordshire and impressed the farmer so much that he was invited to come back and work as a labourer. “And he was so enamoured of the English lifestyle and the potential of the education for his children he said yes,” Dellicompagni says. “After being repatriated to Italy, he worked his way across war-torn Europe.” Once he was situated, he sent for his wife and infant son and through his efforts was able to eventually buy his own home. This inevitably had a strong influence on Dellicompagni’s father. “We’re a hard working, immigrant family, so my dad was of course brought up with that work ethic,” Dellicompagni says.
At age 14, Dellicompagni Senior was given the option of either coming to work with his father – who by this time was working in a factory – or learning a trade. He chose the latter. “He’d been brought up in a very rigid catholic family so there weren’t many opportunities for self-expression,” says Dellicompagni. “But he liked fashion and the thought of working in a culture where he could express himself.” Settling on hairdressing, Dellicompagni’s father went to train at a private college before heading over to Italy to refine his skills working under his uncle, a prestigious hairdresser. On his return, he travelled around in a Morris Minor cutting hair until he had enough clients to open a bricks-and-mortar salon. “Nan and Grandad remortgaged their house and helped him get the lease for his first unit,” says Dellicompagni.
By this stage, Vidal Sassoon was making waves in the capital and Swinging London was well under way: Frank Dellicompagni could sense that the country was in the midst of a cultural shift when it came to coiffures. “The fashion moved from women sat in dryers having a shampoo and set to cutting, styling and finishing,” says Dellicompagni. “It was a boom time in the hairdressing industry.” Joined by his brother Peter, Dellicompagni Senior studied at one of Sassoon’s academies and, with the help of several external partners, the brothers grew their portfolio of salons to eight. However, in time their plans diverged from those of their partners and so the entrepreneurs decided to go their own way, taking just one brand with them: the Francesco Group.
Over the next few decades, the Dellicompagnis built the Francesco Group back up to eight salons but by the 1980s they were looking for something to help them accelerate the business’s growth. Fortunately, franchising provided the perfect fuel. “They’d seen franchising come over to the UK and realised it was the key to unleashing the potential of their own people,” he says. Typically a limiting factor for hairdressers is that a salon manager advances so far and then, when they have the required level of expertise, they leave and set up in competition. Switching to a franchise model was a win-win for the Francesco Group because it allowed it to capitalise on this built-in talent pool and at the same time incentivise salon managers to stay in the business. “It worked for us because we had the people to franchise with: we didn’t have to go out and find them,” says Dellicompagni.
Over the following two decades, the Francesco Group doubled in size and the young Dellicompagni graduated from folding towels to finding his own way in the capital. “Living and working in London was a great experience but at times it was a ruthless one,” he says. “I ended up working for some cut-throat companies but all those things that my father had ingrained in me saw me right.” Despite having some bad experiences with media sales companies, Dellicompagni eventually landed a job selling training packages for Video Arts, the e-learning provider, something that he feels taught him invaluable skills for later in his career. “I learnt what it meant to be effective in sales and what a good culture felt like to work in,” he says. “That stood me in good stead.”
By this time, Dellicompagni’s father had stepped down from the business and when Peter announced his intention to follow suit, it wasn’t hard for him to choose his successor. “When it’s a family business, you’re of course really proud of what they’ve achieved,” says Dellicompagni. “To be asked to come and work with them on it, it was absolutely a no-brainer.” After quitting his job in London, Dellicompagni came to learn the ropes from his uncle, serving as the business development manager and helping to hire and develop new franchisees. And when Peter stepped into a chairman role in 2002, Dellicompagni took the helm of Francesco Group. “I can’t sit here and say there was a sea change when I took over,” he says. “It was more a progression of the culture of family and training.”
And it's precisely this culture that Dellicompagni believes has helped set the business apart in what is quite a crowded market. “If I went to my competitors – Rush, Toni & Guy, Saks and Hobbs – and asked them what their point of difference is, they’d all say similar things,” he says. “They’d say: ‘we’ve got a great brand, great imagery, great education and a proven method.’” But while the Francesco Group also has all of these things in its corner, the 50 years it has spent being shaped by the Dellicompagnis has meant that their belief in family now permeates the business at every level. “Anybody from an apprentice to a franchisee can phone me or the director of hairdressing and we’ll be there,” Dellicompagni says. “Because while we own the business as a family, we care.”
Given every franchisee that enters the business is effectively joining the family, inevitably a lot of attention is paid to ensuring they are the right fit. “It’s not just about finding someone who can put money in the till,” says Dellicompagni. “Often we know they’re an owner operator and a good hairdresser: what we need to see is what they’re like with their people.” This is why Francesco Group takes a close look at how franchisees fit in with everyone around them, from the head-office team to their own employees. “We want to get to know them and make sure that they’re absolutely right for us,” he says. “Because getting the leadership and management right is what gives us the longevity.”
However, this isn’t just a one-way street and Francesco Group puts a lot of effort into ensuring it can offer franchisees what they need in return. In light of the fact that opening a bricks-and-mortar salon can be an expensive affair, one of the first areas the franchise offers support is with finance. “If they haven’t got a penny in equity to put up against a loan, we’ll underwrite it for them,” says Dellicompagni. “That’s a 0% loan over five years and it will stay at 0% until the Bank of England’s base rate hits 5%.” Not only this but the franchise provides comprehensive training tailored to each franchisee’s needs: in total it spends £200,000 a year delivering subsidised training to get its recruits up to speed. “We work together with them to give each of them what they need to be truly successful,” he says.
Focusing on leadership and providing comprehensive support has certainly benefited the Francesco Group. But this doesn’t mean that it has been completely impervious to setbacks: as with many other high-street businesses, the recession bit hard for the franchise. “In October 2008, the tap got turned off and suddenly sales dropped,” says Dellicompagni.“From 2009 until 2012 they shrank by between 1% and 2%.” But rather sitting back and licking his wounds, Dellicompagni decided to use this as an opportunity to up the franchise’s game. He began getting stylists trained up as technicians– allowing them to colour as well as cut hair – to help boost productivity and started marketing more aggressively, using direct marketing to increase footfall in salons. “It has sharpened everyone’s pencils,” he says. “We actually grew through the recession and expanded from 29 salons to 39.”
But it hasn’t only been economic pressures that have helped Francesco Group keep its edge: franchisees and staff are also encouraged to demonstrate their prowess by entering hairdressing competitions. “Whether you’re a new apprentice at sixteen or my director of hairdressing who’s been in the game for 20 odd years, you have to put your work under the microscope and prove you are the best,” says Dellicompagni. The franchise has picked up gongs at WELLA Trend Vision 2016, the British Hairdressing Awards 2015 and the British Hairdressing Business Awards 2015; on top of this, it's been nominated for Afro Hairdresser of the Year so many times it's been inducted into the hall of fame. And this has been invaluable in ensuring the franchise remains competitive. “In terms of recruitment and proving our quality, awards are crucial,” Dellicompagni says. “But it also keeps us moving forward: fashion doesn’t stand still.”
However, Francesco Group isn’t only concerned with prestige: one of its biggest priorities is ensuring it reinvests in the local area on which it relies. “We earn our money from the community,” says Dellicompagni. “And no matter how busy or hectic things get, we can’t take from the community and not put something back in.” Over the years the franchise has backed a range of charities. In 2010, Dellicompagni ran two half marathons as part of a wider Francesco Group effort to raise funds for Stafford’s Katharine House Hospice. More recently the team was part of a nine-day cycle ride from Silverstone to the Italian city of Monza that helped raise over £22,000 for charities including Birmingham Children’s Hospital, Cancer Research UK and the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. And this spirit of philanthropy is something Dellicompagni feels is hard-coded into the business. “That’s the moral compass of a family business: you don’t need to even set a formal policy,” says Dellicompagni. “It just happens that way.”
This commitment to giving something back isn’t distracting from Francesco Group’s core goals though: Dellicompagni has some grand plans for the future of the franchise. “We’ve settled down the acquisition of our southern group, rebranding it from Scissors to Francesco Group,” he says. “FG is set to grow by two salons a year and so is the southern division, so we’re looking at four salons a year.” But despite this, Dellicompagni doesn’t want to get bogged down in the numbers: more important is maintaining the business’s reputation for quality, something that will be bolstered by the recent opening of a new training academy in Poole. “It’s not about a number of salons for us,” he says. “It’s about achieving a level of sustainable growth.”
And regardless of where the next few decades takes the Francesco Group, you can be sure that family will remain at its core. “My personal ambition is to hand over a franchise that has stayed true to its values,” he says. Dellicompagni is nowhere near ready top relinquish the reins just yet but when he does, preserving the legacy his father created with the Francesco Group will be his top priority. “Whatever the future holds, it will remain a high-quality organisation with high-quality franchisees that has that culture of family and care intact,” he says.