After working with the likes of Coca-Cola to then recognise an American trend yet to crack the UK, Johnny Pearce and Tom Stringer launched Oltco, the resin driveway franchise
Like anything in life, a change of circumstances can prompt you to rethink your outlook and how you approach life. This was the case for Johnny Pearce. Having made a living in business development, sales and marketing for much of his career, he’d clocked up hours for some household names. “I worked for St Austell Brewery and with some big nationals – Coca-Cola, Hennessy, Pepsi – and I absolutely loved the role and everything about it but I very much wanted to create something myself,” says Pearce. “I wanted to create a lifestyle within the area I live in.” This was driven by his desire to secure a better work-life balance and he found a kindred spirit in friend Tom Stringer who had a similar mindset.
It was about ten years ago that the pair decided to join forces. “We were already good friends and the decision was actually made in a hot tub believe it or not,” laughs Pearce. “We were having a chat and it wasn’t so much the business side of things, it was more of how Tom and I saw the world in terms of what we wanted to achieve.” Believing they needed a firm reason behind their goals, the answer was simple. “We very much wanted to create something where we spent a lot of time with our families. So we didn’t want to be working 11-hour days, on the weekends and not picking up the kids from school – we wanted to be a part of everything,” stresses Pearce. While they wanted to “make good money” from their venture, family time was clearly crucial as was their desire to enjoy what they were doing, which paved the way for the pair to team up on Cornwall-set Oltco, the resin-based gravel specialist laying down the foundations of exquisite driveways, paths, patios, car parks, swimming pools and balconies across the UK.
Launched 15 years ago, founding director Stringer brought Pearce into the fold in 2011. “I bought into Oltco nearly ten years ago with Tom who is my business partner [and] who very much had the same ethos and ethics as myself – it just seemed like the perfect match,” says Pearce. And there was no doubt he was joining a business with foundations as strong as its driveways. “The company has been going for about 15 years now, with the ethos of feeling good about the work we do and the decisions we make, so it’s a very much a feel-good company,” says Pearce.
The appeal of resin-based gravel specifically is that the materials are durable as well as cost-effective. A seemingly mainstream sector in America, there was the chance to capitalise on the hype with Oltco in the UK. “It’s a very scalable model for us to use and there was a huge gap in the market,” says Pearce. “Over in the States it’s an industry that’s really booming and the majority of flooring over there is resin. It was a natural thing for us to bring that across the UK and expand it where we’re from.”
Using Stringer’s parents’ basement as a place to work from in the early days, they did whatever it took financially to push forward. “In the beginning it was very much hand to mouth,” Pearce recalls. “We had overdrafts with banks, we used credit cards, credit with suppliers. But now, as we’ve grown, we’re in a much stronger position than we were which is great.” And with the business doing so well, the pair came to the conclusion that franchising would be the way to level up the business.
Pearce and Stringer started discussing franchising roughly three years ago. With some experience of the sector, Stringer “realised that to develop a franchise it needs to work for the franchisee,” details Pearce. While they’d considered launching a model in the past, none of the ideas were moved from the drawing board. “About three years ago we were looking at bringing the operation over to America and we brought a consultant in and one of the ideas was ‘Why don’t you franchise and do it that way?’” Pearce recalls. “We thought long and hard and [believed] we could probably drop one of our offices in every single town of the country and it would work. Just in Cornwall alone we generate over £1m in business, with a population of 500,000. So we were like ‘Why are we making all this effort, why don’t we just do this really, really well on our own doorstep?’” Agreeing on the plan of attack, the duo has taken their time to ensure anyone brought into the mix fits the bill. In keeping with that, a pilot franchise has been running for more than a year and a half.
For Pearce, a people person, he was keen to embrace the franchisor role with both hands in order to show the inbound members of the network the ropes. “What I’ve found is that when I have been mentoring my staff and building people up and getting them where I want them to be, I’ve really enjoyed that,” he says. In terms of what they look for, Pearce says fledgling franchisees’ financials must be up to scratch and they need to possess the right personality. “It’s not necessarily that they have to be really good with driveways or anything like that – we just want them to be a good person and someone who we’re going to enjoy working with,” he details.
When Pearce was looking for prospective network members, he was advised to seek the counsel of Nick Carnes, a franchise consultant who was described as “the best in the business.” Carnes helped them set up all the necessary regulatory processes but there was more to it than that. “We got on so much and, it’s only the second time he’s done it, he’s actually wanted to come on board with the business,” details Pearce, revealing that Carnes now serves as Oltco’s franchise director and is in charge of recruitment. “We’ve had 100 [franchise] enquiries and he’s narrowed it down to this team of two [whose] calibre I was so impressed [by] – their backgrounds are incredible,” Pearce says.
With driveway installations part of the training, in theory and practical forms, the Oltco team will typically provide support to franchisees over the first two fittings but this can go on for longer if necessary. The other element of the training is to help the franchisee perfect the sales systems and processes. “The key to it isn’t how you install the driveway, it’s how you close the deal,” says Pearce.
Although franchising has been in pilot phase for 18 months now, Oltco is actively looking to grow the network and get the word out there – but there’s no rush. “We only have one [franchise] running at the moment,” Pearce explains. “We’re completely at its infancy but this has been through getting it all right. We’re only just starting to market it, so we’re at a really exciting time.”
Looking at where he sees the business going in the next year, Pearce concludes: “I’d be happy to have one really good person because I feel that a really good operator could be turning over a huge amount of money or we could have ten not doing it very well. I’m concentrating on the calibre, not quantity [of franchisees].”