Rik Hellewell, owner of Ovenu, the oven-cleaning franchise, has successfully managed to expand his UK operation into international waters, despite being clawed by copycats along the way
Whether it’s the morning after a house party where frozen pizzas have been on the menu or the evening following the Sunday roast dinner you’ve lovingly prepared, there’s never an enjoyable time to clean a grease-caked oven. And no matter how long you spend scrubbing, it never really is enough to make it shine – but that was revolutionised in the early 90s. Enter Ovenu, the oven cleaning franchise launched by Rik Hellewell, who rightly believed that if people are willing to pay to get their barbecues and windows cleaned, why not ovens?
Little did Hellewell know that what started as a conversation between he and his friend in 1993 would turn into an international franchise. Having worked at a carpet and upholstery-cleaning business before, Hellewell envisioned a better system. “I wanted it to be more reputable and reliable from a consumer’s perspective,” he says.
By running the pilot scheme in Wokingham himself, Hellewell says he’s now acquainted with “every facet of the oven-cleaning business.” Always considering franchising as a part of his business plan, he took his time to test the waters and cleaned hundreds of ovens before he kickstarted the franchise model. The founder believed, to be able to make a mark in the franchise sector, the business had to be tried and proven to be profitable. “Not just the operational side but the advertising, marketing and the promotion needed was tried for not just five weeks or five months but five years before recruiting franchisees,” Hellewell recalls.
However, back then in 1999 he found that successful franchise models to take inspiration from were few and far between. So when he started recruiting franchisees, the challenges faced were different from present day. For instance, he says at the time the business began: “The internet was unheard of.” So given the lack of options then, a wide variety today which we take for granted, the franchisee recruitment process was limited to advertising through traditional media and flyers.
But the internet wouldn’t necessarily have been leveraged had it been around anyway as the oven-cleaning captain doesn't seem to be the biggest fan of technology. “What has tech brought?” he says. “A confusing amount of different options. In my opinion the internet has really muddied the waters. In many respects it has made it more complicated. When it comes to advertising, people are spoilt for choice.” It’s true that the woes of information overload is no secret. And he points to the easy access to fake news across the web as he rages: "Trump is right when he says there is so much bullshit on the web.”
Aside from the challenge of cutting through the noise to secure franchisees and consumers alike, Hellewell also warns of “parasite franchises”. The so-called parasites are those that jump into a niche forged by an existing franchisor as soon as they see the money-making opportunity it has. “These copycat franchises are dangerous because the people running them haven't got a clue,” he says. Speaking about having his fingers burnt, Hellewell refers to someone who wanted to work alongside Ovenu, only to snatch the franchisor’s strategies and data as they went at it alone with a rival offering with only 18 months worth experience. “They are getting mugged off,” he adds of the franchisees joining copycats.
Even though marketing and copycats presented Ovenu its share of challenges, the franchise still managed to get a global standing. Having spread its wings to the US, Australia and New Zealand, surprisingly it wasn’t originally part of the plan for Hellewell. “It was an organic growth after we grew in the UK,” he says. He adds that an American businessman saw their advert in a UK magazine and due to the dearth of a similar product in the US, consequentially invested in the franchise in 2005. However, the US franchisee wanted to specialise in barbecues but since Ovenu's forte lies in cleaning ovens, negotiations led them to withdraw from the franchise agreement but they continue to be associated with the brand by using the same products. And despite the conflict Hellewell still maintains a healthy working relationship with the company. He says: “The lesson I learnt from that was if you sit down, communicate and resolve your differences, you will still end up with something profitable for both parties. Sometimes half a loaf is better than none.”
Unlike the US, the brand entered Australian soil when a couple from Down Under was impressed by getting the ovens in their Jersey restaurant cleaned by an Ovenu franchisee and hence took the franchise back home with them in 2006 after selling their eatery. And distance is no trouble either as Hellewell keeps international franchisees close. “I go to Australia once every 18 months,” he explains. “They have a proper system in place there and a trained person representing in every state. I sometimes turn up at their annual conference and meet their franchisees as well.”
Considering the franchises are spread out, you may think business expansion would be challenging but Hellewell says: "It is a lot easier than it seems. Let them know that you have your eyes on them. Make sure your master franchisee in other countries has the same systems in place as we have in the UK.” The key is communication, he believes, as the right training can save everyone involved thousands of pounds. And with communication in mind, to avoid barriers such as language during global growth, Hellewell adds: “It’s better to start where English is more prevalent.”
Although franchising can act as a catalyst for a business when going global, he admits: "It might not be right for every business.” But he adds that having franchisees are better than employing a bunch of employees. “My franchisees now are my eyes and ears on the road,” he says. “I have got some really valuable info from them. Some of the best ideas we have implemented over the years have come from our franchisees.” For instance on more than one occasion they’ve suggested changes in the products being used, which in turn saved a lot of money for the whole business.
It stands to reason that every franchisor thinks their model is the best in the game but Hellewell disagrees. “In time it becomes evident that things could always be better,” he says. With that in mind, he claims continued research and development in every company’s specific industry is essential: “Manufacturers keep changing the oven linings and parts and we keep our products suitable for those.”
With the US and Australia ticked off, Hellewell is now receiving enquiries from prospective franchisees in Canada and South Africa. “They found our brand due to our online presence which continues to grow,” he says., making it clear technology may not seem that much of a villain as he previously thought.
With 93 franchisees in the UK, 37 in Australia and New Zealand and 200 associate businesses in the US, it’s definitely getting hot in the kitchen for Ovenu but Hellewell remains cool as he says: “As long as people continue to be meat eaters and make a mess in their appliances, the company is fine.”