Franchisee turned franchisor is no April fool

After 23 years as a franchisee of the UK's first ever domestic cleaning franchise, Poppies, Chris Wootton proudly took over as franchisor on 1 April 2018.

Franchisee turned franchisor is no April fool

After 23 years as a franchisee of the UK’s first ever domestic cleaning franchise, Poppies, Chris Wootton proudly took over as franchisor on 1 April 2018. As the brand approaches its 40th birthday, Chris reflects on his own journey into the world of franchising, his long-awaited buyout of the franchise and his ambitious plans for the future.

“I originally trained as a manufacturing engineer and my first ‘proper job’ was with Jaguar Cars in Coventry,” he recalls. In the early 90s Chris joined forces with two friends to launch a small IT business, “when floppy discs and dot matrix printers were cutting edge!” As the new year dawned in 1996, Chris knew that he needed a change of direction as the partnership was no longer viable. He thought long and hard about how to remain self-employed, without partners but with support. Ever methodical, he conducted a personal SWOT analysis which soon led him to his franchising epiphany. “I did a personal audit; considering what I had done and what I hadn’t done, where I was proficient and where I knew my own skills were lacking. Right down to what I enjoyed and didn’t because, if I was going to start something new and make a new life for myself, I wanted to feel enriched by it. I quickly realised that all the things that I didn’t want to do, or didn’t like, would be things that would be done for me if I bought a franchise! It’s that old cliché of working for yourself but not by yourself; I wanted to be independent but have someone I could talk to about my business.”

At the time, Chris knew of only one franchise – Poppies of Wirral. “I’d worked [with Poppies] for some time providing IT services. I’d seen that it was a franchise and I knew it was profitable. What’s more, they always seemed to be having fun… so I got in touch.” On meeting Poppies founder, Sue Rorstad, and discovering she lived in a village called Wootton Fitzpaine, Chris admits that fate played a hand in his decision to buy a territory. “Everything aligned – I just paid and got on with it! On 1 April 1996, Poppies West Lancashire and Sefton was born. But all was not plain sailing and Chris struggled to adapt. It took three weeks to land his first client but with the enormous help of his franchisor he rallied and grew his outlet to be the biggest in the network.

Over the years, Sue and Chris became great friends. Sue even taught her protégée how to fly a hot air balloon. Both pilots then flew Poppies branded balloons at many events over subsequent years, much to the delight of the network, its staff and customers. This cherished friendship eventually led to the Poppies succession plan and, in 2012, the brand’s founder felt ready to begin her move into retirement. “Sue was my franchisor, my mentor and my dear friend. I became the ‘franchisor under training’ (a ballooning phrase), it was all part of her succession plan,” explains Chris. “And then, finally, she sent me the letter I’d been waiting for – how much she wanted for the business.”

Discussions continued for a number of months until, tragically, Sue fell ill and was quickly consumed with her battle against cancer. Chris helped out; keeping an eye on the business operations and taking on ever more responsibility – effectively increasing the value of the business to his own detriment – but the time was simply not right to hold tough negotiations. As Sue became increasingly determined to beat her cancer, letting go of the business she had founded three decades earlier became something she felt would mean accepting defeat. Sadly, Sue lost her battle in 2015 and Poppies was inherited by her immediate family. Probate would continue for a further three years, during which time there was no possibility that the business could change hands. Finally, on 1 April 2018, Chris was able to buy the business – 22 years to the day since he opened his own territory and 38 years to the day since the business was born. Fate it would seem, played its hand once again.

Chris’ first act as owner was to reinstate Poppies as a member of the British Franchise Association. A founding member of the association, Poppies had enjoyed membership throughout the 80s and early 90s. “When we applied for membership and accreditation last year we joined as associate member, as any ‘new’ member must, but in what has become the fastest membership progression in history, with our 22 franchisees and close to 40-year heritage, Poppies was awarded full member status just 10 days later. A very proud day indeed.”

Crucially, Chris retains ownership of his West Lancashire franchise – a distinct USP for the brand and an ongoing benefit for both his fellow franchisees and the next generation of Poppies franchise owners. “I’ve seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve been able to use my experience to fill the gaps that I saw as a franchisee. In actual fact, the last eighteen months have been spent developing the brand ready for its next phase of life. The goal wasn’t to instantly recruit franchisees but rather to invest in the business and create the best possible environment for all franchisees to succeed. That time has now come.”

As a franchisee, Chris knows only too well that Poppies has a strong team culture. But since his takeover of the brand, fellow franchisees have rallied round like never before to help reenergise the business. Together with their new leader, the network has helped to develop innovative business systems, a customised technology platform and an intricate support infrastructure to benefit new franchisees as they are welcomed into the fold. As well as updates to internal systems and technological advancements – including a bespoke App for franchise staff and clients – Poppies have firmly planted themselves in the 21st century with a fresh new look. “We may be approaching our 40th birthday and be the oldest cleaning franchise in the UK, but we’re every inch the modern, professional brand,” says Chris. The refreshed Poppies branding, whilst still instantly recognisable thanks to its vibrant red blooms, now reflects the prestige of the company. Franchisees old and new will also reap the benefits of an updated website, marketing collateral and a social media presence, all of which have been strategically redesigned with target audiences firmly in mind.

The first Poppies franchise was piloted in 1983, launched in 1984 and remains open. Today, the 22-stong franchise network cleans over 6000 homes every month across the length and breadth of the UK and boasts an impressive turnover of more than £5million. As franchisor, Chris is looking to break the mould and support both lifestyle, single and multi-territory ’empire-builder’ options to meet demand. One thing’s for sure, with an industry worth £4.7billion in the palms of its hands, Poppies is ready to take 2020 by storm.

“My aim is to double to size of the network in the next four years; welcoming new franchisees from all walks of life, each with their own individual aspirations, into the business. Poppies is a truly home-grown business, designed and built in the UK – I’m excited to be the one who is relaunching the opportunity.”

Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj