How venturing into franchising left Rob Simpson far from flushed

Having taken over a Drain Doctor franchise, Rob Simpson's first two years as a franchisee were filled with a sense of panic. But thanks to support from the network and the franchisor he's turned the hard work into a successful business

How venturing into franchising left Rob Simpson far from flushed

Sam and Rob Simpson has together made a success out of their franchise.

By the time the financial crisis rolled in, Rob Simpson already knew he’d eventually be fired. “I’d been with the Yellow Pages for 13 years and knew I needed to make a change because the golden pension was still 18 years away and I could see the writing on the wall,” he says. And what the signs told him was that the company would soon fall prey to the same technological tide having already washed away the profits of high street retailers. Online was the future. Paper guides were the past. Recognising this, the company was changing and with that transformation came the risk of Simpson losing his job. “The way I saw it I had four options: stay and eventually be made redundant, emigrate, go into London and make a lot of money but not see my family or I could start my own business,” he says.”

Fortunately, Simpson would soon have an opportunity to opt for option D when he met up with one of his clients, the franchisee for Drain Doctor East Anglia, the plumbing and drainage franchise. “He told me he wanted to sell the business because he’d had a health scare,” Simpson recalls. Recognising the opportunity, he asked his wife Sam Simpson what she thought about buying the franchisee’s three territories. “She told me to get the books and to do my due diligence,” Simpson says. “So we looked through the figures and agreed on a price. It took about six months for it all to go through but then we could walk through the doors as the new owners on November 9 2009.” Ever since, his wife’s support has proved pivotal in the company’s success.

Branching out on your own is always a challenge and it wouldn’t take long before Simpson felt the pressure. “The first two years were all panic stations because we’d taken on a lot of debt to buy the business and we had to meet those payments, the salary commitments and so on and we’d never run a business before,” he says. To ease the transition, the previous owner stayed on for a month to help out. But even though that was a huge help, it meant Simpson only received one week of training at the company’s head office instead of the customary two. “Quite frankly, I think eight out of ten businesses in those circumstances would’ve gone bust,” he says.”

Nevertheless, having the old owner on board made it a lot easier for him to get his head around the business and to reach out to the company’s clients. “I went and visited them all to introduce myself and to talk about the service that they’d had in the past and how it had met their expectations,” he says. “I didn’t try to sell them anything but just said that there was a new name above the door.” While most were enthusiastic about the new owner, a few decided to take their business elsewhere. “With any business you win some and you lose some,” Simpson shrugs. “But I then started knocking on doors and introduced myself to new clients. I kept filling the bucket on top even though there was a hole leaking in the bottom.”

A pivotal moment came when he began thinking about how to grow the business more effectively. “We had to find customers that were likely to use us on multiple sites regularly,” he says. “The obvious ones were councils, schools, council houses and corporate buildings and so on.” But to do that he needed to ensure he and his staff had all the necessary accreditation, which is why he invested both time and money to get those in place. “Then we were in a position where we could talk to councils when the next tender came up,” he says. That way he successfully managed to get on top of the business and even expand it by buying a fourth territory in Norwich in 2013.”

Key to this success was utilising the network as much as he could. “I made a point out of attending any training session, reunion and convention that were available,” he says. And when he was there, he made sure to make friends with other franchisees in the network and to learn from them. Even more importantly, he knew he could trust their advice. “Normally when you start up a business of your own the other people you speak with are your competitors who don’t want you to do well so they may give you bad advice,” he says. “But in a franchise network everybody wants you to do well because if you do, then the entire network benefits.”

This support became even better once Dwyer Group, the multi-brand franchisor and the original owner of Drain Doctor, bought back the franchise in 2015. Simpson certainly noticed the difference. “There was a lot more professionalism, dynamism and future thinking,” he says. For instance, the old-new owner has since reacquiring the business established a new CRM system, started building a new website and introduced corporate franchise consultants to help franchisees grow through training and advice. “We never had that before,” Simpson says. “You literally just did your business and only phoned if you needed help whereas now it’s far more professional and it’s really geared towards helping people grow their business.” With this support on hand, he successfully grew the business by 40% in 2017 and plans to grow an additional 25% in 2018.”

When asked about if he made the right choice in picking option D, he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s been very good for me and my family,” he says. “It’s given me the ability now, a few years in, to have a very nice work-life balance where we’ve put a management structure in place so I can work on my business rather than in my business.” So despite the company’s name, it has left him anything but drained.”

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson