Not content with a distribution network spanning half the world, the kitchen and bathroom brand is now on a serious franchising drive in the UK
Whilst convenience is great, it’s always nice to have furniture and fittings with some heritage. And Mobalpa, the kitchen and bathroom design franchise, has that in spades.
The Fournier Group – the umbrella organisation that owns Mobalpa UK – was originally created by Eugène Fournier when he founded a cabinet-making workshop in the French Alpine town of Annecy. “Originally they were doing everything in wood, so they were more craftsmen,” says Cyril Raberin, franchise director and general manager at Mobalpa UK. Fournier’s sons Marcel and Paul Fournier eventually inherited the company and, in 1948, they created the brand Mobalpa – a contraction of the French words for ‘furniture of the Alps’ – along with its bespoke wardrobe factory.
And Mobalpa certainly created a splash in the French market. “In France – and I think in Europe – we were really the first to create fitted kitchens,” Raberin says. To start with, Mobalpa focused largely on distribution and sold through third party stockists but before long it had built up a head of steam and began to grow its own portfolio of corporate stores. “With the success of the sales side of things, we created our own exclusive network, which now stands at more than 280 stores,” he adds.
In terms of the international market, Mobalpa has typically focused on distribution, covering an impressive territory that ranges from Kazakhstan, China and Russia to the United States and Canada. “Altogether, we cover 20 countries outside the UK and we’ve got maybe 100 contract accounts,” says Raberin.
Originally, Mobalpa entered the UK market on this same basis and for the best part of three decades the majority of its contracts were held with independent retailers. But when the financial crash hit, it realised that being so reliant on independent outlets didn’t offer sufficient security. “That’s not really a long-term strategy,” Raberin says.
Mobalpa thought that establishing its own network overseas would give it a firmer footing – and franchising seemed to offer the best route to achieve this. However, it also realised that spreading its resources too thin across multiple markets would only undermine the quality of its offering. “We really needed to invest everything that we could not only to better deliver goods to our partners but also to deliver the required knowhow and experience,” Raberin says. Outside of France, its top two markets had proven to be the UK and Flemish Belgium, making these the obvious regions to focus on. “We reduced the number of targets so that we could invest heavily in these markets,” he says.
Whilst Mobalpa had been operating in the UK for some time as a distributor, some of the peculiarities of the market meant it needed to tweak its model before it was ready to franchise. “The UK is far ahead in terms of digital marketing compared to other countries so we had to change our retail methods, promotions, communications and websites,” says Raberin.
Another key difference is that, particularly in the south of UK, there tends to be more of a focus on premium products, requiring Mobalpa to place a higher focus on quality in its showrooms. “We also had to increase the quality of the way we display the kitchens and design and dress our shops,” he says.
In light of this, the franchise decided to run a pilot, opening its first store in Warrington in mid-2012 to help iron out any potential creases. “It helped us adapt what needs to be adapted in terms of concepts,” Raberin says. “And it proved it was working so we then started to search for more franchisees.” Before long the enquiries were flowing in thick and fast; 2014 saw Mobalpa open showrooms in Richmond and Pinner, whilst in 2015 new stores opened in Chelsea, Islington and Wimbledon.
So what is it about Mobalpa that makes it so attractive to franchisees and customers alike? First of all, nearly seven decades after it was first founded, Mobalpa still manufactures all of its products itself. “All the manufacturing is based here in the French Alps,” says Raberin. “We’ve got four different factories in a radius of around ten miles.” Each factory produces something different, so while one takes care of worktops, the others produce bathroom, living and kitchen unit ranges. And this is one of the things that Raberin believes gives Mobalpa the edge. “Purely down to the fact that we’re alone in our neck of the woods, we tend to manufacture everything, including the lacquer,” he says. “That gives us an advantage in terms of quality and lead time.”
Another thing that makes Mobalpa so attractive is the fact that it involves customers far more in the creative process. “A lot of professionals would take the brief, work on their own and then present to the customer,” says Raberin. “We involve the customer 100% in the actual design of the kitchen.” After establishing the customer’s specific requirements, the sales designer will do some sketches before putting them into Mobalpa’s 3D CAD software. Once there has been an on-site measurement to make sure there are no issues, the designs are sent to Mobalpa’s factories for production and the franchisee will organise the fitting.
As one can probably appreciate, managing a process like this means that a franchise needs a special combination of aptitudes. “They need to be happy to be there, be able to sell, manage their team and develop their skills, as well as limit staff turnover,” Raberin says. Effective management is one of the key indicators of success that Mobalpa has identified; when its year-end results are released, those franchisees with the strongest management skills are invariably those who are achieving the best results. “When they’re under-performing, it’s always due to lack of management,” he adds.
Fortunately, Mobalpa provides plenty of training to help get its franchisees up to speed. Franchisees begin with a 15-day period of e-learning guided by Mobalpa’s area sales manager, followed by five and a half weeks in a training school in France split between the sales, design and CAD processes. And once a franchisee is in store, the training is followed up by visits from sales coaches, the Mobalpa UK technical director, a business developer and Raberin himself, who train them up on the technicalities of the job, solve potential issues and put in place key processes and reporting systems. “There is a massive investment in terms of human resources to give them all the chance to start quickly,” says Raberin.
And this looks set to pay off for Mobalpa UK. “We’re on a trend of opening three shops a year,” he adds. “From next year, we’ll set ourselves a target of four to five.” In terms of locations, the franchise is focusing on Greater London, as well as the corridor of cities between Chester and Hull that includes Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. But Raberin is keen to stress that they aren’t focusing on targets at the expense of creating an effective network. “We don’t want to open just for sake of it,” he concludes. “We want to open shops with the right people, help them set up as quick as possible and make them succeed.”