Running a restaurant and being a bobby on the beat might seem like two polar opposite career choices but McDonald’s franchisee Jane Blackwell is evidence to the contrary. Having joined the police force in south Wales aged just 21, Blackwell went on to have a successful nine-year career. And during her stint as a constable she realised what she loved most about the job: meeting people and being a part of the community.
Wanting to spend more of her time focusing on being part of the local neighbourhood, Blackwell left the force and, after honing her business skills as a Post Office franchisee,”started hunting for a new business opportunity. And there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that it would be another franchise. “I wanted something I could step into that came with a structure and allowed me to be out there meeting people,” she says. As Britain was recovering from a recession, Blackwell decided to focus on food service, figuring that it would be one of the most resilient sectors.
Over the course of a year, Blackwell threw herself into her search for the right franchise, doing online research, attending every exhibition going and talking to as many franchisees from the food space she could get hold of. One name stood out, one she was already more than familiar with: McDonald’s. “Because it had a reputation for being a family brand and I’d been to McDonald’s with my kids, I trusted it,” she says. Blackwell was also drawn to the brand’s reputation for consistency: whether you’re in a McDonald’s in Banbury or Bangkok you know what to expect. “It’s all about systems and processes, which appealed to me because I’m a very systematic person.”
After plucking up the courage to apply online, Blackwell was delighted when she was asked in for an initial meeting. But she was also somewhat intimidated by the golden arches and everything they stood for. “I was just a woman from a small village in south Wales and it was this massive brand so I was really nervous,” she recalls. “I kept thinking about all the other applicants and how much more corporate experience they probably had.”
But as she progressed through the application process, Blackwell’s confidence grew and, in 2011, she officially became a McDonald’s franchisee. However, the hard work was just beginning. Blackwell was offered a location in Banbury in Oxfordshire, which meant uprooting her entire family from their lives in Wales. “Relocating was definitely the hardest part,” she admits. “If you’re considering buying a franchise you should realise that it may involve moving so you need to ask yourself if you’re really prepared to do that.”
Even after moving day had been and gone, there was still plenty of hard graft ahead. The next step was an intensive, nine-month induction that immersed Blackwell into every aspect of what makes a McDonald’s franchise operate like clockwork. Joining an outlet that was already up and running, she was right there in the thick of it, making fries, serving customers and cleaning toilets. “It was a thrill putting on the famous cap but it was also really demanding: everyone worked so quickly and I didn’t want to slow them down,” she says.
When she was finally ready to set her cap aside, Blackwell began building up her own team and launched her restaurant in Banbury. “I was like a deer in headlights,” she says of her first day. But she got into the groove of things soon enough: within six months the franchisee had broken a string of sales records, some of which hadn’t been touched in 17 years. And Blackwell reveals that her secret weapon was her team. For this reason, she makes a point of being a hands-on franchisee, being present during shifts and checking in to see how people are doing.””It’s important to invest in people and help them feel like the owner has their back,” she says. “You can’t treat people like they’re just a number.”
But this isn’t the only area Blackwell uses the personal touch: as well as investing in her people, the franchisee has thrown herself into community initiatives. “People see us as a local business now and they know me personally,” she says. Blackwell has sponsored the local children’s football team, is a member of the Banbury and District Chamber of Commerce and is especially committed to supporting other women through her work with Banbury Women in Business. “Women can be reluctant to put themselves forward but I’m always saying: ‘come on ladies’,” she says.
And these community links came in handy when Blackwell embarked on her next big challenge: opening a second restaurant in Banbury and recruiting 70 people in a town that had very low unemployment rates. “I used every trick in the book, including placing ads in the local paper, attending job fairs and flyering,” she says. “I basically became a recruitment consultant.” Blackwell’s standing in the community helped her create massive awareness for her recruitment drive and in 2015 she was able to open her second restaurant with a full team behind her.
This new restaurant was also one of the first in the UK to be kitted out with McDonald’s new self-serve kiosks, which allow customers to view digital menus and pay with their smartphone. And though it took some adjustment for her customers, Blackwell welcomes the franchise’s investment in tech. “People want more digital experiences and McDonald’s is moving with the times,” she says.
In fact, whether it’s a new ordering system or a new burger, Blackwell has total faith in the franchise’s research and development team. “I trust that they’ve thought through and tested any changes, so while I might give feedback if something wasn’t proving popular I would never refuse to implement it,” she says. And since one of the things that attracted her to the franchise was its famed consistency, it’s not surprising that she’s staunchly against franchisees thinking they can rip up the rulebook. “That’s when you’re going to start seeing cracks appear and it would be detrimental to everyone,” she says. “We have to move forward together.”
And with two restaurants under her belt, Blackwell’s not stopping there. “I’d love to open new restaurants and build up a team under me,” she says. And of course she plans to continue playing a role in the community and keep being an advocate for women in business. “That will never change,” she says. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my working life.”