With a UK network of 60 franchises under its belt, Pitman Training is now taking its popular programmes to new climes
There can’t be many franchises with as rich a history as Pitman Training. Its roots can be traced back to 1837 when Sir Isaac Pitman devised the form of shorthand that is still used by secretaries and journalists today. “Our history really permeates everything that we do,” says Andrew Walters, franchise sales director at Pitman Training. “If you ask people of a certain generation, it’s a brand that’s very well known to them.”
Over the course of 180 years, the company has grown to become one of the leading providers of office-skills training in the UK, lending support on everything from IT to bookkeeping. As well as delivering courses and seminars from one of its many training centres, it offers opportunities for distance and blended learning so that people can study in their own time. “We are taking the heart of what the business was when it was created and making sure that it’s relevant to what people really need,” says Walters.
Pitman is also an established player in the British franchising sector with a network spanning 60 franchises. “Education is actually quite a nice thing from a franchise point of view because the one thing you really want is consistency of quality,” says Walters. “By its inherent nature, the franchise model allows us to replicate things.”
Suffice to say, Walters believes the quality of Pitman’s training helps set it apart. “We are in a sector where there’s an awful lot of very good competitors but it is also a market with a quite a lot of poor training providers,” he says. “We want to offer something quality that actually gets people back into work or helps them find a new career.”
This means Pitman’s franchisees are cut from a slightly different cloth to those who have invested in a more traditional franchise. “There are a lot of really good franchises that you can make a lot of money from, whereas with Pitman our people really have their heart set on helping people improve their lives,” he adds.
All of this set Pitman up nicely for its international expansion, which Walters has been leading for the past five years. Upon joining the company in 2011, he saw a brand that was well-equipped to replicate its UK success overseas. “I felt we were sat on something that could really be quite special because British education has such an amazing reputation overseas,” he says. “It is probably one of the UK’s best exports.”
Technically, it’s not Pitman’s first foray into international markets. As the British Empire expanded throughout the 19th century, Pitman’s shorthand went with it. This meant the company didn’t have to start from scratch when it came to rolling out its other training products. “The Pitman brand is still known so widely across the Commonwealth so I didn’t really feel that we needed to go in and hit new markets,” says Walters. “It was more about reintroducing ourselves to those markets.”
Not only has Pitman secured partners in Mauritius and Nigeria but its also taking its first steps into the Indian and Malaysian markets. And with other countries including the Cayman Islands and Palestine under its belt, it’s fair to say Pitman is targeting countries that other franchises wouldn’t tend to look at straight away. “The most demand we get is from the developing world, which is desperate for education and desperate for British education because it’s still perceived to be the highest quality,” says Walters. “Most of the developed markets are ones where education and training is something they’re very good at and where there are already a lot of established businesses.”
Of course, the benefit to this approach is that Pitman can get first mover advantage in a number of countries. Walters uses the example of Palestine, where Pitman introduced its English language training back in 2014. “It is now the biggest market for us outside of the UK,” he says. “We have the potential to work with every university, offering our English language course to tens of thousands of students. It’s a market where nobody has come in and done that before, which means we can go in and be a market leader quite quickly.”
However, Pitman’s success in new markets hasn’t come as a result of duplicating its UK model. Like any franchise taking its first steps overseas, it has had to slightly adapt its offering when encountering new cultures. “You can’t just take your UK business model, jam it in there and assume that it’s going to work perfectly,” says Walters. “There has to be that flexibility and willingness to look at the market, understand it and refine it while maintaining the heart of what you’ve already got.”
One region where Pitman has had to tweak its model is the Middle East, where people have different preferences when it comes to learning. “With the vast majority of our learning in UK, the student takes responsibility for it themselves,” he says. “In the Middle East, they’re more used to a teacher-based model where there’s someone at the front telling them what to do. So in some ways, we have had to adapt our approach in those markets to allow for the fact that the learning experience is slightly different.”
This flexibility also extends to the way that Pitman manages its international development. While it has sold a master licence for Ireland – where there are now 14 franchises – other countries require an alternative approach. “We are looking to expand into Malaysia this year and, rather than a master franchise model, we are probably looking at a direct licensing model,” says Walters. “This means we will be providing the service, systems and support to universities and colleges rather than a local franchisee.”
Pitman’s international footprint is still quite small but its certainly set itself on the right course. “There are lots of challenges, there is lots of potential and in many ways we are early on in our journey,” says Walters. “We have seen some success but there’s a massive amount more that we can do.”
The company is looking to launch 17 franchises in Russia over the next three years and 75 franchises in India within the space of five years. Beyond that, the focus is on the big English-speaking markets of Australia, Canada and the USA. However, Walters stresses that Pitman won’t be entering those markets until it’s absolutely ready to do so. “I almost want us to iron out the kinks, learn the model and refine it for each market before we get to the ones that we really want,” he says. “You don’t want to cut yourself out of a big market early on.”
Either way, Walters has big hopes for Pitman going forward. “I am very hopeful about where we will be in five years’ time,” he concludes. “I think we will have a very different business and a very exciting business.”