12 years after the founders of Business Doctors first met for a pint, the franchise is set to remedy corporate bugs around the world
Establishing a prosperous international franchise requires oodles of effort. Whether it’s building an effective business model or signing up your first franchisees, the best companies are the ones that take the time to get the recipe just right. Which is why Matthew Levington is tired of listening to startup success stories from Silicon Valley. “You hear a lot about these high-tech businesses that become solvent within three years of being founded,” he says. “People forget that companies like Snapchat account for maybe 0.00001% of businesses. The rest of us make our companies successful through strong foundations, gradual growth and lots of resilience.”
Given that Levington is the co-founder of Business Doctors, the business consultancy franchise with a presence on three continents and an eye on a fourth, it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about accomplishing corporate success. And if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that having the right people by your side is everything. It was over a quiet pint in 2004 that Levington met the person who’d prove essential for Business Doctors’ future endeavours: his co-founder Rod Davies.
At the time, Davies was working as the group sales and marketing director at the CCA Group, the investment banking firm, while Levington was finishing his first year as a freelance business consultant advising SMEs. When they met, they were both on the hunt for new opportunities and identified a growing demand for small-business consultants. “The big four didn’t really communicate well with the market,” says Levington. “And the government programme kicking about at the time only sent out someone to signpost the business rather than provide any effective intervention.”
Responding to the demand, the pair launched Business Doctors and adopted a more holistic approach to business support. “We don’t just fix problems by sticking plasters over things,” says Levington. “We actually help owners to take a step back, realise what their ambitions are and get the business to work for them, rather than the other way around.”
And with their eyes firmly set on future expansion from the get-go, the pair quickly identified which business model would best help them grow. “We intended to franchise Business Doctors from day one,” says Levington. “We knew that the individuals we needed to help us grow wouldn’t be the kind of people who would simply be satisfied working for me and Rod.”
However, it would take until 2008 before Business Doctors signed up its first franchisee, as the founders wanted to ensure that the business model would really work. “You can’t franchise a business that doesn’t have a proven record of success,” says Levington. “That’s what franchisees buy into, so there’s no room for mistakes.”
So in order to safeguard the success of the business, the pair embarked on four years of trial and error to put together a winning recipe. “We made lots of mistakes and went down lots of blind alleys,” he says. “It was a rollercoaster but by the end of it we had created a business model that was sustainable, effective, profitable and, most importantly, enjoyable.”
Having proved itself as a corporate tour de force, Business Doctors embarked on the process of becoming a franchise and hired a consultancy to help them out. “We needed that expertise because even though we understood franchising, we weren’t experienced franchisors by any means,” says Levington.
Recognising the importance of establishing the franchise the right way, the pair set out to become a bfa member from day one. To get the word out to budding franchisees, the company also invested in a new recruitment process and a marketing push to spread the word. Given all the elements involved in getting the new franchise model off the ground, it’s hardly surprising that the process didn’t come cheap. “We were both leant £100,000 to do it,” says Levington. And while borrowing from the bank and a funder from Liverpool came with the inherent risk of not being able to pay back the money, the founders didn’t hesitate go all in. “If you want to do it properly you need to stick your neck out,” says Levington.
And the gamble certainly paid off. By offering franchisees training and ongoing support, Business Doctors kept growing the network anqd in 2014 it began to look for its first international franchisee.
Levington explains that the process was kicked off by the fact that Business Doctors began to receive a lot of enquires from aspiring South African franchisees wondering if the company would bring its model across the country.
Looking to capitalise on this interest, the co-founders reached out to a consultant in the country to help them find a master franchisee. But that proved easier said than done. “They actually didn’t find anyone for us,” says Levingon. “Or, rather, the people they put forward weren’t good enough.”
While a strong business acumen is vital for all their franchisees, it’s doubly so for international master franchisees because they can’t rely on the support services that Business Doctors could supply in Britain. “You have to build everything from scratch and adjust to the market conditions,” says Levington.
Additionally, they felt that the candidates put forward by the consultancy lacked another factor essential for any international franchisee: trustworthiness. “It’s like asking someone to babysit your children,” he says. “Trusting someone with your brand is a massive consideration and especially so on the international stage because things that go wrong in a different country can easily damage the UK business. Brand protection is everything.”
When they eventually found someone who fit the bill, it wasn’t through the consultancy. Instead, their chosen candidate Steve Sutton had accidentally stumbled upon the Business Doctors’ site when he was thinking about setting up a similar business. Intrigued by the concept, he ended up applying to become the master franchisee for South Africa.
Wanting to assure themselves of his ethical and professional competence, the franchisors made a point of getting to know their candidate intimately. “We introduced him to our friends and families and met his as well,” says Levington. This was an approach they had used before to recruit franchisees in the UK and would later use to vet candidates in other countries. “When we went to India, we probably met over 200 of our franchisee’s family members and friends,” says Levington.
Having satisfied themselves that Sutton’s professionalism was just what the doctor ordered, the franchisors signed up Sutton as their first international franchisee in 2014. Since then, the South African master franchisee has helped Business Doctors set up 14 franchises across South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana.
While Sutton was the first international franchisee, he wasn’t the last. Having expanded its global reach by signing up new master franchisees in Ireland, Malta, India and United Arab Emirates this year, Business Doctors may soon recruit its first franchisee from across the pond. “We jumped through all the hoops to become a legally accredited franchisor in the US,” says Levington. But even though the legal footwork is done and dusted, there is still one thing missing. “We haven’t found a partner yet,” he says. “But we have everything in place to push the button when we do.”
When asked about the future of Business Doctors, Levington says that the co-founders will focus on growing the 40-franchisee-strong UK network by continuing to supply SMEs with high-quality services. “But if we meet the right people with the right approach, then we are certainly open to approaches from abroad,” he says.
Looking back on the 12 years since that first pub visit kicked off what would prove an international success, Levington says that it’s certainly been a rewarding, enlightening and challenging journey.
And for any franchisor who may still be dreaming of fast-tracking their success like some San Francisco startups, he has a few concluding words of advice. “There is no magic wand,” he says. “You don’t make money by selling franchises but by having successful franchisees. In order to reach that point you have to go through the journey that we have.”