Having some serious entrepreneurial credentials may have helped, but this franchisor says her parents had the most influence on her professional trajectory
Shaping startups during the height of the dotcom boom and building brands for FTSE 250 firms certainly gave Sussanne Chambers the experience she needed to grow HomeXperts into an award-winning estate and lettings franchise. But in her mind, there’s no doubt that her parents played the most significant role setting her on that path. Her father in particular proved to be a real source of inspiration: the recipient of a Queen’s Award for Technical Innovation, he invented both the first piece of microelectronics to be installed in a car and the first pacemaker implant, which forms the basis of the model still used to this day. “My father taught me I could achieve whatever I wanted in life,” Chambers says. “He always encouraged me to strive and to really believe in myself.”
Despite this, as a child Chambers wasn’t particularly enamoured of the academic life, something in no small part down to the abolition of the grammar school system the year before she was due to begin high school. “Because of the new system, I couldn’t go to the school I wanted to attend,” she says. Instead Chambers threw herself into the world of work: she held three paper rounds up until she left school at 16, at which point she moved into retail, coming to carry out the marketing for two independent stores.
But it was when she entered the newspaper industry that she really found her niche. “For the first time, I was part of a high-performing team working with like-minded people,” she says. “I loved creating something new, seeing my work in print every week.” Working her way up through the ranks of a local news organisation, she soon helped launch a new title covering Dudley in the west Midlands before stepping up to become group marketing manager and overseeing 16 titles. “From there, I moved to a national brand, started working on trade titles and eventually became the youngest publisher within my sector,” she says.
A significant change in direction came for Chambers after the business she founded to provide synchronised editorial to free TV magazines merged with the Press Association. “I was headhunted for a sales director role at a young, fast-growing insurance company,” says Chambers. When the business was subsequently acquired by the FTSE 250 insurance provider Helphire in 1997, Chambers was tasked with setting up a new sales team for Angel Assistance, one of its insurance products. “I learnt so much while working there,” she says. “Even though the company was growing so fast, it became clear culture and atmosphere really was key in getting the most out of the team.”
But Chambers wasn’t only learning on the job: overcoming her previous distaste for academia, she began studying for her business and finance HND in the evenings after work before going on to do a full degree. Never one to do things by half measures, during her final year she also decided to study for an Institute of Marketing diploma. “It was quite challenging,” she says. “While I was attending university three nights a week and studying for my diploma, I was pregnant with my first child.” Having only a brief respite to give birth to her son, Chambers was soon back to the books but thankfully all that hard work paid off when she passed her assessments with flying colours. “I loved it: I actually won the national award for the best strategic exam from the Chartered Institute or Marketing,” she says.
Clearly picking up on this indefatigable spirit, in 2000 Goal PLC, a scrappy e-learning enterprise, sought her out to help build its sales and customer-support team prior to its floatation on AIM that April. “By that time, I’d established myself as a startup specialist,” she says. “It was brilliant fun: setting up the company, starting from a single sheet of paper.”
However, while building a tech-based business at the height of the dotcom boom was an exciting journey, getting people living in the era of dialup modems to see how tuition could be integrated with tech wasn’t easy. “It was challenging getting people to understand the online offering and how it would really benefit the education of children,” Chambers says. “Today it’s a model that we just take for granted.”
Having helped grow her team at Goal PLC to 35 employees, a break from the frenetic pace of startup life came when Chambers’ husband was offered a job on the Hawaiian island of Maui. “It was a really lovely: my four-year-old son and I had such fun playing on the beach each day,” she says. Initially, Chambers had planned to stay home with her son on their return to the UK but she saw a vacancy for a sales director just up the road at BizzEnergy, the independent energy supplier. Given many of her previous roles had involved a long commute to places like Bristol, Bath or London, she knew she couldn’t pass up the chance of a job closer to her family and applied. “Instead of getting the director of sales job, they offered me director of marketing and asked me to create a new brand for the company,” she says.
Over the course of the next seven years, Chambers helped grow BizzEnergy from a startup to a business with a turnover of over £180m, which she feels was an invaluable experience. “I was really lucky to be working with an energetic, exciting, high-performing board that had a real can-do attitude,” she says. “They empowered me to make decisions and live with the consequences of the choices I made.” Without a doubt, Chambers believes that helping to grow these kinds of businesses imparted many of the skills she would need to eventually build one of her own, in part because working at a startup encourages people to become generalists. “There’s rarely a cluster of staff to help you in the early days, so frequently if you want a job doing you just have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself,” she says.
But while these roles were the perfect primer on how to grow a startup, it was actually a side interest that finally gave Chambers the impetus to start something new. “My husband and I became prolific investors and my passion for property was ignited,” she says “Basically I stopped buying shoes and started buying houses as a hobby.”
However, when building her property portfolio, she began to become frustrated with the poor level of service she’d often receive from estate agents. Fortunately, while she and her husband were looking for a holiday home in the US, they came into contact with a very different kind of agent. “They did everything they could to make the transaction as smooth and stress free as possible,” she says. “I started to think ‘why can’t I get a great service like this from my estate agent in the UK?’”
Eager to create an agency with a different approach, in 2009 Chambers began sizing up the UK competition, as well as looking further afield to agencies in the States, Canada and Australia. “Without any estate-agency experience, I dissected the traditional model,” she says. “I found many practices were designed for the benefit of the agent and not the customer.” Armed with this insight, Chambers spent the next nine months establishing a model that turned this tactic on its head. “Putting things back together, I created something much more customer-centric,” she says.
Franchising would be key to this new approach, which is why it was built into the company’s very foundations. “HomeXperts was intended as a business in a box from the start,” says Chambers. “There were no legacy systems, no workarounds: everything was designed specifically for franchisees.” The fact that the business had to deal with few of the problems associated with converting to a franchise model later in a company’s life meant that beginning to build a network for the franchise was quite straightforward.
To begin with, HomeXperts took a slow and steady approach when it came to bringing on board new franchisees. “Our acquisition strategy was to recruit people who understood we were a young, growing franchise that was changing and developing,” Chambers says. Beginning with its own website and quickly supplementing this with advertising on franchise portals, HomeXperts began to bring in a steady stream of franchisees. And before long it began to get attention from other areas, turning this trickle into a torrent. “Because the model was really exciting, we started to get some really great coverage in both the regional and national press,” she says. “That really helped promote the brand.”
Having been greeted by such overwhelming interest, it was important for HomeXperts to be able to form a clear picture of the kind of franchisees it was looking to recruit. “Our franchisees come from all walks of life, from those with estate and lettings agency experience to people with no experience at all,” Chambers says.
While many of the industry specific skills can be taught, in Chambers’ eyes perhaps the most important characteristics for a prospective franchisee to have are a determination to deliver a great level of service and a positive attitude. “I always say that this is not a property business: it’s a people business,” she says. “We’re looking for franchisees who want to make a difference by helping people with the biggest purchase of their lives.”
As long as franchisees have this tenacity, HomeXperts’ comprehensive training programme can help take them the rest of the way. “It’s packed from day one to the end,” says Chambers. After a pre-training day that runs the franchisee through the things they’ll need to do to set up their business, they attend a two-week intensive training academy blending theory, role-play and practical elements. And this support continues once the franchisee opens their franchise, with monthly mentoring, quarterly franchise meetings and annual business reviews – not to mention an award-winning online operations manual that holds over 1,000 training documents and over 300 webinars and videos. “It’s updated every day by a dedicated team member and it’s a living work of art,” she says.
And it’s perhaps this that truly sets HomeXperts apart from the competition: its commitment to training people who work under its brand. “We’re the first franchise to include National Federation of Property Professional qualifications as part of our franchise package, which really gives our franchisees the commercial advantage,” Chambers says. However, franchisees aren’t the only ones expected to adhere to this standard: Chambers herself has taken these exams, as well as joining a whole host of industry bodies such as the National Association of Estate Agents and the Association of Residential Letting Agents. “The industry is always changing and keeping ahead of those changes is part of how we support our franchisees,” she says.
But this isn’t all that’s changed: whilst Chambers was once responsible for overseeing everything from writing policies to creating marketing plans, she’s now freer to focus on the long-term goals of the business. “These days I have a great team of talented people to fulfil those roles,” she says. “My job now is looking at the strategic direction of the company.” However there’s one area where Chambers still maintains a hands-on approach: she insists on meeting every potential franchisee personally to make sure they pass muster. “I’m so passionate about recruiting the right people to the HomeXperts brand, I’m still involved in every recruitment decision we make,” she says.
Certainly this approach seems to paying dividends, with awards and plaudits being showered both on HomeXperts and its founder. Not only did Chambers get the gong for Female Franchisor of the Year at this year’s NatWest EWIF awards but her franchise has been named The Sunday Times’ Best Estate Agency Franchise three years in a row and Best Letting Agency Franchise two years running. “These awards are hard to win and even harder to maintain – just doing what you did the year before is nowhere near enough to win next time,” she says. “So being recognised consistently for three years shows how we’re continuing to invest in the brand.”
And the numbers seem to back up the judges’ faith in the brand. Not only is HomeXperts on target to have 50 franchisees across England and Wales by the close of 2016 but it’s proving a smash with consumers, with 100% of its customers saying they would recommend it to family and friends. “Our franchisees nationally get over 80% of their business from recommendations,” says Chambers. “Which says it all really.” As for the future of the business, Chambers is intending to kick the franchise into a new phase of growth by courting a whole new demographic of franchisee. “Next year, we plan to double the size of the business,” she says. “As well as startups, we’re also recruiting established estate and lettings agencies.”
But no matter how it scales, Chambers is insistent that it will retain the values that have helped it achieve such recognition. “HomeXperts is so much more than a brand,” she concludes. “It’s a representation of the talented team of caring individuals who transformed a business model into a way of life for our franchisees.”