Few business owners were helped by the 2008 financial crisis like Mark Chenery, franchisee at Northwood Lancaster. And his continued success saw him branch into dual-branding this July after acquiring a rival – a feat most franchises wouldn’t allow – which sees his franchise in its best shape yet. Considering his previous job nearly killed him, that’s saying something.
Before joining Northwood, Chenery ran a picturesque country inn sporting a golf course and eight rooms for a decade. Although it conjures up an image of a fantastical retreat, he felt the job’s indulgences would one day take his life. “It encouraged lots of things that would eventually lead to me dying, I felt, due to massive weight gain and a love of alcohol, food and cigarettes,” he says.”
Being located just outside Stonyhurst College meant business was unrelentingly booming with 18-year-old students once the bell rang. And when tenants wanted to crack open a bottle or two, Chenery pulled up a stool whatever the hour. “The downside was that I was up at six every morning and went to bed at three the next morning,” he reveals. “And if anyone wanted to stay up drinking, I would always oblige them that.” A healthy work-life balance wasn’t even on the horizon.
But he threw in the towel when he found himself weighing 20 stones. Swapping his hectic workload for a year of playing golf he was very susceptible when a friend proposed entering a business partnership. Although initially unsure what kind of business they’d develop, Chenery’s experience of letting out rooms at his inn led the pair to the late Nick Cooper, then-managing director at Northwood, at a franchise exhibition in Manchester. “You kind of go for a franchise because you want someone to hold your hand,” he says. “I knew a vast amount about the licence trade, I knew a little bit about lettings and selling commercial leases. I just wanted someone to direct me on what’s right and what’s not.”
However, after jetting off to Southampton to sit down with Andy Goodson, then-owner of Northwood, sparks flew when an argument erupted between Goodson and Chenery’s business partner. “I don’t know where the row came from but they went at each other, so we flew back up north,” he recalls. Although, feeling at home with Northwood, it wasn’t long before he booked a flight back. For better or for worse, his friend lost his passport while heading down for round two and once Chenery was ready to seal the deal after a solo meeting without a grudge match taking place, the pair parted ways.
Having worked for himself, Chenery hadn’t been told what to do since his school days, so when Northwood’s training came around he described it in a way a student may think of their lessons. “Some of it was pretty interesting,” he says. “Some of it perhaps could have been done better at the time but it wasn’t gruelling.” It only got better though. “I think we were office number 50 to open for Northwood,” he recalls. “As it was progressing over time, the training certainly improved.”
The landlord-turned-newbie franchisee borrowed £100,000 and splashed out £50,000 from his personal pot for the venture. And when the summer of 2007 rolled around, he was ready for action – only to find the town of Lancaster wasn’t. “It’s like anything when you open any new business: you kind of open your doors and people don’t flood in to start with,” he says. “There are a lot of evenings spent at your desk thinking ‘have I just squandered £150,000?'” But with funds on the line, he was quick to remedy the lack of footfall.
Pouring his own cash into radio advertisements was Chenery’s strategy but while “the business came pretty quick” after three months of it, nothing could have prepared him for the silver lining of the 2008 recession. Renting rocketed nationwide when customers lost confidence in buying property outright. And thanks to Chenery’s focus on lettings for sustainable income, Northwood Lancaster was riding high off the recession’s shockwaves. “We just pushed and pushed on lettings while everybody else ignored them,” he says. “So we went from zero to a lot pretty quickly in the first couple of years of the recession.” Chenery had certainly tapped into a gold mine other estate agents were clamouring for once houses stopped selling but the competitors were too late. “We’d stolen the march from most of them,” he declares.
Creative thinking worked in the favour of Chenery then and still does. Acquiring Fisher Wrathall, the estate agency, this summer with the help of Northwood added a new sales focus to Northwood Lancaster’s lettings. “Acquisitions are quite a big thing at the moment because the market’s pretty static,” he says. “Buying out somebody else gave us a prestige sales brand.”
The takeover was made simpler thanks to Northwood’s experienced legal aid. After all, court dates with unruly tenants is routine when it comes to lettings. “I’d never taken anyone to court in my life before I started doing this for a job and now it seems relatively commonplace,” explains Chenery. So a franchisor’s help couldn’t be more appreciated in this industry. “Certainly, in the current market where legislation is constantly evolving in lettings, we’re in a fortunate position that we get updated constantly as a franchise, so we’re always legally compliant.”
Looking back, Northwood has been more than a welcome change from Chenery’s countless hours behind the bar. “Work-life balance is 100% better than what I used to do,” he opines. “Now, normally I’m home for tea-time to go and see my partner and child and I can drop the boy off at school in the mornings.”
Mastering sales through Fisher Wrathall is the next frontier. “The lettings with what we’ve acquired probably makes us the biggest agent in town by some way now,” he concludes. And for that he thanks his loyal team. “You can’t run a business without having good staff.””