When former professional footballer David Batch first set up the Premier Education Group, he could scarcely have known that in 20 years it would become one of blighty’s largest franchise brands
One thing becomes apparent after spending only a short time with David Batch: he has a genuine passion for education. “Learning is brilliant,” he says. “I had a Mandarin lesson this morning: about my fourth or fifth. Then I was listening to the audiobook of Peter Guber’s Tell to Win as I was driving down here.” Batch certainly doesn’t shy away from gathering new knowledge, so it’s hardly surprising that he now sits at the helm of the Premier Education Group, a national sports-coaching and education brand with 84 franchisees and 987 coaches and tutors around the UK.
Despite this love of learning, when Batch was attending school in rural Norfolk, it was perhaps the extra-curricular activities he undertook that had the largest impact on the man he would become. “The kind of stuff I learnt at school was a little bit more about life,” he says. Without a doubt, Batch demonstrated considerable entrepreneurial flair: at the age of 13 he set up a company with friends, selling everything from pens to breadboards at an “unbelievable profit margin” at Christmas fairs. “We even used to copy tapes off the ZX Spectrum: we’d record them, then go and sell them for a fiver in school,” he says. “I always had a bit of a thing about buying, selling and making things happen.”
Wheeling and dealing weren’t his only loves however: after leaving school at 15, Batch got to exercise his passion for the pitch. “I played for Cambridge United Football Club for a couple of years,” he says. “I became captain of the youth team and then of the reserve team.” Within a few years, Batch had decided to make the move into coaching and secure his license. But given that UEFA ran separate courses for the general public and for professionals, he suddenly found himself rubbing shoulders with famous managers and seasoned global stars. “In some cases, I was doing sessions with international footballers that were twice my age and having to tell them what to do,” he says. “So it was quite daunting.”
Becoming the youngest UEFA-A-qualified coach in the world at just 20, Batch soon started running his own coaching business before selling it to focus on coaching professionally full-time. But when he decided to drop in on one of his fellow entrepreneurs from his school days, he began to realise something was missing. “I spent the day with him in his office in Bristol, doing all of the things that a small, one-man band would do and I just felt really jealous,” he says. “It was much more exciting: I realised it was what I wanted to do.”
Although Batch acknowledges that working in professional football sounds glamorous, he found he wasn’t able to innovate as much as he’d like. “Doing that particular role we were always trying to push new learning, push new barriers,” says Batch. Whether it was emphasising the importance of stretching and warm downs, encouraging the use of carbohydrate drinks or educating players about loading, Batch dedicated a lot of time to introducing new ideas that at the time weren’t even being considered by the coaching industry. And he began to think that starting something up of his own would allow him to forge his own path. “Whilst I was trying to be a bit innovative, that still wasn’t enough,” he says. “That day in Bristol, I found myself thinking ‘I need to do this’.”
Before too long, Batch had formulated a loose plan. “In the summer of 1999, I intended to run some holiday football courses and then leave my job in full-time football straight after with a load of cash behind me,” he says. However, things didn’t quite go to plan: despite the fact that the board had offered Batch a new three-year contract when it was due to be renewed, a clash of wills led his manager to renege on this promise. In light of this, Batch was forced to move up his plans and ploughed his £5,000 payoff into building the business. “That was three or four months before the summer, so it was an ideal time to get cracking,” he says. “Within a few weeks of launching that summer, we had about 50 or so holiday courses set up already.”
Getting the word out to kids and parents didn’t prove to be much of a struggle: in fact before long Batch found himself with more customers than he could handle. “We used to go and visit a lot of schools, showcase what we did and then get fliers into the hands of children to take home,” Batch says. Each day, he’d return home to find several hundred bookings on his answering machine, which would all have to be pushed through by hand that evening. “Then about midnight or 1am, I’d go to bed and do it all again the next day,” he says.
Clearly taking on more staff had to be a priority. Fortunately, Batch had the perfect candidates in mind: Karl Fox and Jonathan Mills. “They were two really good players who used to play for me and left the club not long after I did,” he says. “So I asked them to come and help run some football courses during the summer.” Once the season was over, Batch wanted to keep Fox and Mills on but had a slight predicament: he didn’t have the funds to pay full-time staff, particularly given the reduced demand for out of school coaching. “I had to come up with slightly different products that they could deliver during term time and pay me for the rights,” he says.
And this is how Premier Sports found its way into franchising. But to begin with it adopted a fairly organic approach to its expansion. “We didn’t ever actively recruit anyone: they came from the coach pool and friends of friends,” says Batch. And even without an aggressive franchisee-acquisition drive, by 2007 Premier Sport accrued 20 franchisees. However, some systemic issues had arisen that seemed likely to limit the franchise’s growth if they went unaddressed: at this stage, very few of the businesses processes were automated and Batch was still very much dependent on leading his own classes to make a living. “I was running the business with a one-man-band, small-business mentality,” he says. “It wasn’t until that point, seven years in, that I started to change our approach.”
By this stage, Batch had begun to realise that there was no reason that Premier Sport’s model had to be constrained solely to coaching football. “Having the core skills around delivering a certain thing, whether that’s football, basketball or rugby, that’s irrelevant really,” he says. “What is far more important is stuff like control of a group, how you teach, how the kids learn.” But it was Mel Lusty, a franchise expert recommended by several banks and franchise consultants, who helped Batch see that by building systems and technology into the model, it could easily be used to teach more than just sport. “We thought ‘if we can go from coaching football to coaching multiple sports, why can’t we sell multiple different activities to schools?’” he recalls.
Thus Premier Performing Arts and The Golden Mile – brands dedicated to drama and fitness respectively – were born, joining Premier Sports under the banner of the Premier Education Group. Given that the kind of teaching offered by a sports coach differs wildly to that of a performing arts tutor, one might be forgiven for thinking that each franchise would require significantly different kinds of franchisees. However, nothing could be further from the truth. “Whether we’re deploying a sports coach or a performing arts tutor, it doesn’t matter,” Batch says. “It’s about the franchisee’s relationship with the customer as well as their ability to build their business and team.”
One thing that did need to change though was Premier Education Group’s approach to inducting new franchisees. Initially the franchise was putting new franchisees through one solid block of training that lasted for weeks on end. “After a while we realised that what we were doing wasn’t actually particularly effective,” says Batch. “We were putting a lot of information into somebody’s head, some of which they weren’t going to need for another 12, 15 or 18 months.” Since then the franchise has scaled down its induction period, instead concentrating on providing targeted training in the flesh and online at the precise point in their journey that franchisees require it. “Learning has become much more personal as time’s gone on,” he says. “We can also assess the online learning to make sure they’ve understood it and if they haven’t the system kicks in with more training. So it’s much more bespoke and measurable.”
In Batch’s eyes this approach to training gives the Premier Education Group an edge over the competition. But this is far from the only factor that’s made its model such a success. First of all, Batch believes that the franchise’s underlying technology gives it an advantage when so many in the industry are still reliant on blunt tools like consumer-satisfaction surveys. “Our systems allow us to record everything, which makes all of our coaching and tutoring measurable,” he says. “Now when we go to stakeholders like the government, we can press a button and they can see right away the impact we’re having.” Secondly, Batch maintains that having a well-defined set of guiding principles helps the Premier Education Group provide the highest level of service to kids and schools. “We try and live by our core values,” he says. “There’s lot in there about problem solving, being innovative and creative: all of those things contribute to what we do now.”
Perhaps the biggest reflection of this ethical stance is Premier Education Group’s commitment to giving back to the communities in which it operates. “The nature of the business we work in means we’re embedded in the local area,” says Batch. “It’s important that we appreciate that and support those local communities.” Not only has the franchise launched individual initiatives to give back to local schools, for example pledging £150,000 of professional sports coaching to 1,000 schools in 2012, but it has also helped children who may have otherwise been expelled by using physical activity to influence their behaviour. “We’ve now even got coaches working for us that started off as kids 15 years ago on our courses,” he says. “So it’s going full circle.”
And these kids aren’t the only ones who have undergone a stark transformation over the last couple of decades: Batch himself has changed considerably during this time. “I’ve literally gone from doing everything, including painting the office, cleaning the office and answering the phone, right the way through to now solely focusing on strategy,” he says. With a chief operating officer now handling much of the day-to-day running of the franchise, Batch has been freed up to develop new initiatives and programmes to add to the Premier Education Group’s portfolio. “It’s my job to get anything that will complement and enhance what we do and that fits our core values to a point where it’s ready to be dropped into the business,” he says. “Then I’m on to the next thing.”
This will certainly stand the Premier Education Group in good stead as it continues to grow. “Premier Sport alone has now got 123 territories across the UK and we’re at about 70% market penetration,” Batch says. “In the next two or three years, we expect to be at our maximum.” In light of this, Premier Education Group is not only expanding abroad into China, India, the US, Australia and eastern Europe in the early half of 2017 but it is also looking to add new facets to its business, including new programmes for franchisees and a non-franchised education brand. Additionally, it’s starting to focus on ensuring each franchisee gets the most out of its territory. “Our mantra is ‘accelerate the growth, rather than simply supporting it,” he says. “So we’re actively pushing each territory’s business.”
When asking Batch whether he has any other plans for his own future, he’s characteristically frank. “I don’t ever want to leave the business,” he says. “Why would I?” As it enters a whole new stage of its growth, there’s more for the founder to sink his teeth into than ever before. “The long and short of it is, I really enjoy and I’m really passionate about what we do,” he says. “As long as I’ve got value to bring to the company then I will continue to do that.”