Tired with corporate life, married couple Lynne and Dave Lister joined forces with their son Christian to launch family business X-Press Legal Services, which exceeded their wildest dreams as they now approach full franchise capacity
Not every business owner who turns their company into a franchise has extensive knowledge of the industry. In fact, many are only happy to admit they fell into franchising accidentally but this wasn’t the case for Lynne Lister, who 20 years ago worked in franchise journalism for a decade. “In ten years I’d met some great people and made lifelong friendships but as a career I really wanted to do my own thing,” she says.
However, the thought of launching a franchise wasn’t on her agenda at all – she simply sought a better work-life balance to be around husband Dave and their three children.
With Lynne an editor, Dave had an extensive financial background in the motoring industry. “I finally ended up working as a trainer and consultant for a warranty division of Ford Motor Company,” he details. “Then I got to 44 and decided if we were ever going to do anything for ourselves, that was the time to do it.” With the same desire as his wife, Dave was keen to work with his family. “I didn’t want to build a big business, I didn’t want to dominate the world, I didn’t want to dominate the sector – I just wanted to have a nice life and work in a small local business with Lynne and my kids.”
The final piece of the puzzle to get the ball rolling came in the form of their son Christian, who was working away in logistics. When he returned to the family home in Warrington, it became apparent he too wanted to break free of the shackles of a nine-to-five to become his own boss alongside his parents. “With Christian back at home it gave us a sounding board,” says Lynne. “And we basically started on the dining room table.” Sharing their dreams with a friend, who happened to be a solicitor, the concept for X-Press Legal Services was forged.
But what exactly is X-Press Legal Services? “Bloody wonderful,” laughs Lynne, offering a succinct explanation. Effectively, it’s the middleman between consumers and solicitors during the property-buying process. The service X-Press provides is to examine the necessary historical checks on homes being purchased to ensure everything is up to scratch. “We’re in an extremely niche sector,” details Dave. “We tilt ourselves towards conveyancing practices [and] we’re in a market that’s absolutely rock solid. No matter what the political arena is, people need to move house.”
Like the Men in Black, Lynne adds most people aren’t even aware of services like X-Press. “Even the house-buying public that have bought and sold houses for quite a long time wouldn’t know companies like us exist because they assume the solicitor does it all,” she says, emphasising Dave’s point about being niche. “We’re a service to the conveyancer and solicitor but the ultimate end goal is to support the house-buying public.”
After launching in 2000, X-Press Legal Services was in more demand than the family knew what to do with, which saw them racing up and down the country and Lynne admits that was somewhat down to “naivety.” “When you’re a search agent, it sounds simplistic that I’ll deal with a solicitor and my local council,” she opines. “So I may on any given day need to get out to Liverpool or Manchester [and] pretty much the northwest. But actually that’s not the way people buy houses and certainly not over the past 20 years.” Indeed, many of the people X-Press was working with also lived in London, which meant properties could be purchased in the capital or indeed areas further out like Brighton or Oxford. “We were being pulled from pillar to post,” says Lynne. “It was a case of Dave getting in his car at silly o’clock in the morning to do a search.”
By the fourth business year, the two other Lister children had joined X-Press but it didn’t stop the logistical nightmare they faced. “It got to a point of [us saying] ‘If we’re really going to be serious about this, we need to be able to provide a service that the clients can rely on,’” Lynne reasons. That’s where the franchising discussion came into the mix but Lynne was hesitant as she’d recently left the sector. “I think my reluctance [to] go back into franchising was because I knew, having spoken with many franchisors over the years, it’s not an easy job,” she reasons. “It’s a lot of responsibility. You’re dealing with people’s life savings and inheritances and you’ve got to be absolutely sure that what you’re offering will give them a return.”
While Dave notes most franchises divide up locations based on postcodes, X-Press issues territories based on the local authorities nationwide as they’re where property search data is obtained. “There are 368 local authorities in England and Wales and that’s how we build our franchise areas,” he says. “Before we franchised, the five family members plus two admin people were covering 368 local authorities and we were totally freaked out. We knew we couldn’t sustain it and that’s why we needed to do something pretty quickly.”
Having considered all their options, Lynne eventually agreed franchising would be the best choice and the family began building their model. “It’s a bit like McDonald’s – it doesn’t matter if you buy in Bournemouth or in Burton, it’s 30 chips, not 29 or 31, that’s the formula,” she says. “And that’s where we were coming from, we thought we have to have a quality standard no matter where in the country the search is being done.” Seeking the very best franchise consultant, lawyer and bfa support in 2004, the franchise offering was launched 18 months later in October 2005 and the first intake in February 2006 saw X-Press bring in five franchisees.
The family had experienced a solid start as franchisors and were already well on track for their goal of eight franchisees within two years. “We went in quite cautious really,” Lynne says. “Then we ended up with about 20 [franchisees] in two years.” Showcasing the range of people that the network has attracted, it includes an optician, ex-undertaker, structural engineer, ex-police inspector and an astrophysicist – all of whom are process-driven and possess attention to detail. “I’m happy to say all our originals are still with us, so we did something right,” adds Lynne, laughing.
With the head office business set up by the Listers still running alongside the 24 franchisees X-Press has today, this structure has been key to the way the franchise operates. “You can’t come to my table and tell me how tough the market is because I know,” says Lynne. “I’ve got my team here and we’re doing it every single day, just the same as you. We understand the market, we know what’s going on. I’ve spoke to a few franchisors recently and that seems to have changed. The general mood of franchising seems to have changed. But that’s our model and will continue to be.” With the head office branch covering the M62 corridor, ticking off the likes of Liverpool and Manchester, she notes that its activity keeps the franchisor relevant.
On top of a determination to continue operating under its own steam, X-Press also encourages collaboration across the network through an inter-trading system that allows franchises to share search requests. “We could have one of our own solicitors here in the northwest easily on any given day instruct us for a property in Brighton, Cornwall or Northumberland,” says Dave. “And what we did is invest heavily into a case management system that connects all of our branches in real-time so if we receive an instruction for a property in Cornwall, the system automatically sends that to our Cornwall office and they do the work, send it back to us fully completed and we send it on to our client. He defines that process as “the glue that holds us together”. To that end, each branch has their own local work as well as jobs received via the inter-trading system, while training complements the stream of jobs as it’s “open ended,” according to Dave. “Even the guys who came on right at the beginning still interact with us virtually on a daily basis because we’re updating each other in real-time,” he says. “There is no cut-off point for any of that. It’s constant support 24/7.”
While X-Press hasn’t gone on the hunt for new franchisees for a few years, the time is right to open its doors for newcomers once more. The key reason for postponing the search was to ensure the technological side of the business was ready. “Our technology going back about four years was okay but we knew it wasn’t going to satisfy the market going forward so we’ve invested £750,000 into cloud-based systems now. And it helps us to pick up new clients all the time.” Clearly excited about the next stage of the growth, the Listers are looking for eight more franchisees and that will be the network at full maturity. “We know that it’s eight [franchisees we want] and we’re not into squeezing another one into another small pocket – we’re not interested in that type of business model,” Dave insists. Absolutely determined never to lose sight of why they started, he concludes: “We don’t ever want to let go of the family feel – we’re not corporate people. We’ve done corporate life and we’ve left that behind.”