Despite losing several businesses in the wake of 9/11, with Platinum Property Partners and Platinum Business Partners Steve Bolton has built a business empire with firm foundations
Even before Steve Bolton founded Platinum Property Partners and Platinum Business Partners, the property investment and e-commerce franchises, entrepreneurialism and property have long played a significant role in his life. Aged just eight, he was introduced to the stock market by his father, a former Lancashire miner turned professional footballer. “He gave me this little black book and he said ‘right, pick ten stocks’,” says Bolton. “It fascinated me that you could have the same amount of money, put it into something and see it go up or go down.” While he admits most of the stocks he picked dropped or went bust, this interest in investing and speculating was cemented at age 11 when his parents bought a block of flats to rent out as a house in multiple occupations (HMO). “Seeing them take that entrepreneurial leap and invest their life savings in a property business had quite a forming effect on my entrepreneurial career,” Bolton says.
Despite this intellectual curiosity, Bolton didn’t exactly thrive in the education system. “I did fairly well at primary school and junior school: I was very sporty and quite bright,” he says. “But as soon as I went to secondary school, I hated it.” Seeing few practical applications for the things he was being taught, Bolton began to feel increasingly constrained by academic life. Moreover, being written off by some of his teachers left him plagued with doubts about his future. “My educational experience didn’t just mean I didn’t learn a great deal,” says Bolton. “Being told ‘you’ll never amount to anything, you’ll never go anywhere’ damaged my self-confidence.”
In light of this, it’s not surprising that Bolton decided to leave school and enter the world of work. “The good thing is that my parents encouraged me to get on with it,” he says. “My dad said: ‘You’re on your own – you’ll have a roof over your head but as soon as you leave school there’s no money.” After a fairly inauspicious start working in a greasy spoon on Bournemouth seafront and stacking shelves in a supermarket, Bolton got his first big break when a woman in his mother’s hair salon revealed she was on the hunt for someone to help out at her outdoor pursuits centre down in Lyme Regis. “I had an interview after she had her hair cut and literally the next day I packed my bags,” he says.
Before long, the short-term position had become a two-year apprenticeship and Bolton quickly began rising through the ranks, eventually finding himself responsible for building out the activity department at the age of 19. “I was almost what they call an intrapreneur,” he says. “At the time, they were only doing a couple of outdoor pursuits and I grew that whole division to the point that it was generating really significant income.” By this time other players in the industry were clearly starting to sit up and take notice: in 1992, Bolton was headhunted to build a new national outdoor pursuits centre, something he took to with gusto. “I built that right from the ground up, which gave me a taste of starting a business,” he says.
Having whet his entrepreneurial appetite, Bolton found himself hungry for more. “I got fed up of working for somebody else and not getting very well paid for it,” he says. “I wanted the excitement and the challenge of running my own company.” However, there was one slight drawback: Bolton didn’t have a new business concept in his back pocket waiting to go. Fortunately, Ropes Course Development, a novel company that had built a high and low rope course, caught his eye and intrigued he decided to pen a letter to its founder Nick Moriarty to see whether he fancied entering into a partnership. “Like franchisees, I found somebody else who had already gone through that pain of starting something and went into business with him,” he says. “We met for dinner, shook hands on a deal and started working together the following week.”
Working with a graphic designer, Bolton set about creating brochures for the new rope-course construction business and began emailing them out to a database of activity centres. And soon the company was receiving a flurry of enquiries from outdoor pursuits brands around the UK eager for courses of their own. “There was a real market for them: people were looking for something that was new and innovative in outdoor pursuits,” he says. “Now you see rope courses everywhere but back in the day they were probably as rare as vegetarian snow tigers.”
But while providing rope-based recreation for consumers proved lucrative, it was when Bolton noticed all the large corporates clustered around Wokefield Park in Reading that a new opportunity presented itself. “It was like a permanent training centre for big companies like British Airways and Rank Xerox,” he says. “And alongside their management training, they were looking for other things to do.” Realising that a high and low rope course would provide a great venue for company awaydays and team-building exercises, the entrepreneurs reached out to large corporates to see if they wanted to partner up on a new venture dubbed Vision Development Training. “We got a very long lease for two acres of woodland and a lake south of Reading, built the facility and started doing training and leadership development for big blue chip companies,” he says.
By 2001, both Ropes Course Developments and Vision Development Training were riding high. However, later that year, the September 11 attacks threw the world into chaos and this had a devastating on Bolton’s businesses. “Companies would just phone us up and say: ‘The stock market’s shut down in America and there’s a war on terror so we’ve been told to cut our budgets’,” he says. In isolation, this may have been a storm that the companies could have weathered. However, when it was coupled with the outbreak of foot and mouth – which prevented construction crews from accessing rural sites – both businesses began to falter. “It was a double whammy really,” Bolton says. “We had to put the construction business into voluntary liquidation and, after some major cost-cutting and downsizing, the management training centre was a shadow of its former self.”
Admitting that this “knocked [him] for six”, Bolton was now faced with the prospect of rebuilding his business empire from the ground up. “When the companies failed, I had to go back to basics,” he says. “The world was giving me some fairly harsh feedback, which was ‘those business models don’t work anymore’.” Thus began some serious soul-searching: sitting down with a piece of paper, Bolton started mapping his aims and goals and looking for opportunities that would offer more stable returns. Before long he started to think about the block of flats his parents had owned and began to see that building an HMO portfolio could fulfil all his requirements. “Because I’d nearly lost everything, I didn’t want to take any more risks,” he says. “And I’d seen property create a lot of wealth for my parents.”
Over a period of three years, Bolton built up a portfolio of 20 properties worth roughly £6m – which would be a comfortable nest egg by anyone’s standards. “If I just wanted to stay small, then I would have had my pension and income sorted for life,” he says. But while it would have been easy to keep investing his capital in additional properties, by this time Bolton had begun to coach others on making smart property investments and realised this was where his true passion lay. And when his accountant suggested that he franchise his property business, he could see this would offer the perfect opportunity to once again flex his entrepreneurial muscles. “Immediately it resonated with me because franchising is safe, it’s successful, it’s proven,” Bolton says. “And for me it worked really well because at its core franchising is a training, mentoring and development business.”
Dubbed Platinum Property Partners, there was some serious interest in this new business from potential franchisees right from the off, with eight signing up at its launch. “They had been clients of mine that said ‘this is great: the model works but we want and need more support,” says Bolton. “I said ‘well why don’t you join the franchise?’” More soon followed and before long the franchise was pulling in enough money to add new strands to its franchisee acquisition strategy. “As budgets grew, we started to do exhibitions, magazines and online advertising,” he says. “But our number one source of business for many years has been referrals: happy partners referring new ones.”
Part of the reason that Platinum Property Partners enjoys such good word of mouth comes down to its founder’s commitment to coaching franchisees, something that was born from one of his first training sessions. “Initial feedback on the instruction provided was off the charts but when I went back to them over the next three to six months, not one of them had bought a single property,” Bolton says. “I never ran another course like that again because I just thought ‘I can’t do that ethically’.” Wanting to provide greater success for his franchisees, Bolton hit on one of the franchise’s most fundamental principles: using intensive bootcamps, one-to-one mentoring and ongoing support to deliver the highest franchisee satisfaction possible. “Now 94% of our partners say we’ve met or exceeded their financial expectations after two years,” he says. “That’s what’s made us stand apart in the industry.”
But while Platinum Property Partners has received plenty of attention from potential franchisees, it's become clear that not everybody can afford the £300,000 required to buy a property investment franchise. “Our vision is to help as many people as possible gain greater wealth, health and happiness,” says Bolton. “But nine out of ten enquiries we receive don’t meet our financial criteria.” Recognising that he needed to create a more affordable franchise offering to cater to franchisees on a budget, Bolton began to look for other industries that would benefit from the Platinum approach. And seeing the disruption taking place in the retail sector, he began to realise the time was ripe for a franchise to capitalise on the increasing dominance of e-commerce. “We’re going through a revolution where everything we were buying in the real world we’re now buying online,” he says. “That transition is never going to happen again in history.”
Branded Platinum Business Partners, Bolton’s new venture helps franchisees become budding Jeff Bezoses and makes online marketplace selling a breeze. “It’s a retail business but with Amazon doing the hard work of acquiring the customers, storing the product and shipping it out,” he says. Rather than handling products themselves, franchisees can purchase white-label goods online, get them decked out with their branding, shipped to warehouses and listed on Amazon – all without having to lay a single finger on the merchandise. “You’re selling products you’ve never touched to people you’ll never meet all around the world,” he says. “That’s the essence of it.”
And with the addition of this new franchise, the Platinum brand is reaching new heights. First of all, Platinum Property Partners is going from strength to strength, bringing in £36m a year in gross rental income. “We’ve got about 250 partners that own over £250m of property and we’re adding around £10m to the portfolio every quarter,” Bolton says. And although at just 11 months old Platinum Business Partners is a comparatively young company, it’s growing up fast. “We’ve got about 85 partners currently, selling about 300 different product lines,” he says. “And that’s growing at a rate between five and ten new partners a month.”
However, Bolton has no intention of stopping there: he has some grand plans for the future of the franchise. “I want us to have more brands,” he says. “We currently have two: I can see us having three, four, five or more franchises so we can help more people across a different range of industries.” Additionally, taking a leaf out of the book of partnerships like John Lewis, Bolton is also looking for ways to give franchisees more of a stake in the business itself. “We haven’t got a fixed date on it yet but I’ve always had a vision to have the company owned by partners so it becomes a bit more like a cooperative,” he says. “That’s probably the big one we’re working on over the next three years.”
Not only will this mean that franchisees will have a direct stake in the business they’re helping to build but it will create an engaged network where every party is committed to helping others succeed. “What we try to do is create very supportive communities where everybody’s working together and helping each other,” he says. While it’s important for franchisees to be able to learn from more experienced members of the network, Bolton also emphasises that it’s just as important for them to go the extra mile to assist and support others. “Everybody should go through their experience at Platinum reaching a hand up asking for help,” he concludes. “But they should also reach a hand down and help other people.”