After having his heart touched by Seniors Helping Seniors, the American care franchise, Christian Wilse brought it into the UK and now embarks on achieving scale
The US and the UK are similar but, demonstrated by things like elevator and lift, candy and sweets, Donald Trump and Theresa May, there are subtle differences. Further evidence was apparent when bringing Seniors Helping Seniors, the care franchise, across the pond into Britain as the model disrupted the sector, according to Christian Wilse, master franchisee of Seniors Helping Seniors UK.
Before setting off on his caring crusade, Wilse worked in sales for almost 40 years adopting various “fancy titles” across the media arena. “It was a completely different world from what I’m running today,” he says. “The focus is different but much more rewarding than chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” This sentiment clearly demonstrates what Seniors Helping Seniors means to him.
Interestingly, Wilse respected his elders long before the franchise was on his radar. When running businesses as a 30-something, he recognised people in their fifties have more knowledge by default, which he felt made them valuable employees. “They’re experts by experience,” he reasons.
As the years passed and Wilse continued achieving success for others, he and wife Sally, whose background is in social work, wanted to create something for themselves. “Sally came home with an in-flight magazine with a Seniors Helping Seniors ad in it,” says Wilse.
On where his career was at the time, he adds: “I’d passed the age of 50 and was consulting FTSE companies, delivering media reports to boards. It was informative but boring.” Despite that workplace dreariness, the ad didn’t immediately leap off the page at him as a new path to walk down but a couple of months later he revisited it and found himself ringing the US. “I spoke with the founder,” he says. “Speaking to her touched my heart and my soul. She’d worked for Mother Teresa for 14 years, so she has an in-depth understanding of how important it is to give and do good.”
A series of visits to the US to meet Kiran Yocom, founder of Seniors Helping Seniors, to assess the model and the UK market potential, as well as to be assessed himself, and Wilse won approval to open in Britain in 2013. Positive feedback from those in the market, including existing care franchises such as Home Instead, gave him the courage to push forward with the launch.
Interestingly, the US business was built on the basis of offering care through companionship on an emotional level, such as going out for lunch or helping with chores. However, the introduction of Obamacare meant physical care had to be introduced, which Wilse elected to avoid with the UK launch to differentiate the business from existing British care operators that focus on customer cleaning, dressing and so on. “It became clear it was a waste of resources to do personal care because 99% of care agencies in this country do,” he explains. “After a long meeting with the Care Quality Commission (CQC), we found if we didn’t deliver personal care, we could focus on wellbeing of people in a completely different way with no box-ticking, while being fully legal. It seemed nobody had contemplated that.”
The business nurtures the connections between worker and customer as staff are usually aged over 45 – tying in well with Wilse’s long-held philosophy on older workers. “Older workers want and need work like this and families and elderly people want to have care they can afford and enjoy so they can stay in their own homes for as long as possible.” To ensure compliance, a member of the Seniors Helping Seniors UK team is a CQC inspector, so the staff know what they can and can’t do. As a result, they’re not on the CQC’s scope because they don’t need to touch people with the intention of “handling” anyone outside the realms of affection in the form of a hug, for example.
Being the company’s first overseas operator also meant he had to demonstrate some diplomacy and flexibility. “We were the first international franchise for the Americans,” says Wilse. “It was then for us to explore how it would fit in the UK. There was give and take in the beginning – even though there’s a format to follow, which I’ve done, there are things we’ve adjusted as we go along.” For example, in addition to removing the personal care element of the business, the website style and preferences in the US and Europe differ, so that’s something Wilse had to account for too. “There are some things you have to change if you take a concept from abroad, even though you have the recipe for success,” he adds, explaining the past five years have seen the operation stabilised and refined.
Seniors Helpers Seniors UK was first set up in Kent based on Wilse living there. Since then, it’s attracted two additional franchisees operating in Harrow and Pinner and Surrey across Guildford, Woking and Godalming. “We haven’t promoted the franchise offer very much,” admits Wilse. That’s set to change now as the company is ramping up to spread the word with an additional three franchisees desired in 2018. In terms of how they’re supported, he says: “We speak with franchisees a minimum of once a month but we’re open to them any time. In the beginning there’s lots of communication but you get more confident in what you do. Things discussed can be about employing people, I can go to meetings with them or give references to charities and organisations that can help.”
Given the Kent base of operations, the primary focus is on the south and southeast of England initially but that’s not to say prospects from further afield are unwelcome. Explaining the criteria for franchisees, Wilse says: “They have to have the right heart. A lot of people ask how much they can make when they call up, which doesn’t sit well with me. So to find those people takes longer.”
In terms of other challenges that the franchise has been met with, the healthcare environment seemingly needed to be adapted further to support businesses more appropriately and it was through standing firm that Seniors Helping Seniors UK made change. “Signposting was a challenge,” says Wilse. “Many GPs in the beginning said we couldn’t put leaflets and posters in surgeries because we have a service we charge for.
So we challenged that, took it to the top in the NHS and it became clear there was no reason they should say no. Today, all 60 GP surgeries in our area accept our leaflets and so on.”
Seniors Helping Seniors UK now has five years under its belt and with the US counterpart running for 20 years at this point with 300 franchises across America, it’s clear that the business proposition has the stamina to keep on going. “After our due diligence, we developed a ten-year and 20-year plan for ourselves,” says Wilse. “We are halfway through the first plan and having established the trust and built the brand in the UK, we aim to be countrywide as soon as possible.”