How Sarah Richardson built a business with pedigree with Petpals

Sarah Richardson thought earning a living caring for cats and dogs was too good to be true but, 14 years after launching her Petpals franchise, she's become one of the network's top performers

How Sarah Richardson built a business with pedigree with Petpals

Like many 11-year-old girls, Sarah Richardson dreamed of owning a pony. But unlike most 11-year-olds, she got her pony by presenting a well-researched business plan, complete with costings for feed and potential savings that could be made – to her parents. “My dad was so taken aback by how detailed my plan was that he gave in,” she recalls. And so stables were installed and a pony was chosen to join her guinea pig as the second family pet.”

Five years later, this flair for business led to her working as a clerical apprentice at British Steel and pursuing a degree in business. After graduating, she went on to get a position as a trainee business analyst at a mail-order company, working her way up for 18 years to become a senior executive. “I loved everything about my job,” she says. “I got to learn about every aspect of the business, from marketing to buying.” However, when competition from online retailers started to threaten the mail-order industry, the company went though a difficult period and Richardson found herself ready for a change. “I was constantly having to restructure my team and make people redundant, which became a bit soul destroying,” she says. “I started asking myself what I was good at and what I really wanted to do.””

Richardson convinced her employer to make her redundant and actively started looking for new opportunities. And when her financial advisor suggested she consider franchising, Richardson began combing through case studies on the bfa’s website. One stood out in particular. “When I came across Petpals on the bfa’s website I had an instant feeling in my gut that it was right for me,” she says. “It seemed too good to be true: I could spend all day with animals and build a business at the same time.” Given that she’d been too busy to have a pet dog and was still getting over the death of her cat, for Richardson the cat- and dog-sitting franchise seemed like the ideal solution.

But savvy businesswoman that she is, Richardson did her homework before making a commitment. She sent off for an information pack, signed up to an introduction to franchising course run by the bfa and, acting on the organisation’s advice, made a concerted effort to look into other franchises and compare the figures. “After doing everything by the book, I was more convinced than ever that, with the right training from the franchisor, I could build a viable business that would eventually leave me with a saleable asset,” she says. “I approached it as a head decision but in my heart of hearts I knew Petpals was the one.” With her due diligence process completed, Richardson used her redundancy money to become the company’s franchisee in Stockport – and the 18th in its network.”

From the start, Richardson has received extensive support from her franchisor. And as luck would have it, her first few client enquiries started appearing while she was still in the midst of her induction training. “That meant the franchisor was able to walk me through everything step by step, from setting prices to fulfilling orders,” she says. What’s more, the franchisor came to Stockport to help her set up her office and accompany her on her first dog-walking job. The help continued after that, with monthly and then annual check-ins with an appointed operations support manager to make sure things were on track.”

It wasn’t long after launching that Richardson got a sense that she was going to be very busy soon. Other than her online listing on the Petpals website and putting up a few posters locally, she didn’t have to invest a huge amount of time in marketing her business, as word-of-mouth referrals from happy clients did the job for her and enquires started pouring in. “It was obvious that the business was going to grow quickly so within about a year I’d started to employ staff,” she says. “Besides, I knew from the start that I wanted to run it as a managed franchise and be able to take a step back.” “

Hiring staff presented a new set of challenges though. “Employing people has been the hardest aspect of the franchise because, for whatever reason, people can let you down,” she says. “It can be tough when you’re already up against it and people are not where they should be.” There have been many a time when Richardson has had to fight fires by shuffling shifts but has always tried to ensure her clients never got wind of any staffing shortages she might have had. Thankfully, things have become easier over time as the franchisee discovered what it takes to attract the right people and keep them motivated. “The key is to learn what’s really driving people to work for you,” she says. “I’ve now got employees who have been with us for a long time, so I must be doing something right.”

And 14 years on from launching her franchise, not only has Richardson found a work-life balance that suits her but she’s grown the business as much as she’s comfortable with. “I don’t want to grow any more than this so it’s really about maintenance,” she says. This means she’s got a bit more time to give back and has now taken on the role of being the operations support manager for the northern region, visiting other franchisees to check in on their progress and using her experience to help them. That’s not to say she’s averse to learning something herself from newer franchisees though. “Whenever I get the chance to meet all the franchisees in our network I inevitably come away thinking ‘I might try that’,” she says. “Franchisees all follow the same standards but we have our own ways of doing things and there’s always something new to learn.””

Maria Barr
Maria Barr