Talking to Mike Goddard, the founder, executive chairman and CEO of Belvoir Lettings, you get the sense that he could master anything he turns his mind to. He’s certainly worn many hats in his life, whether they be CEO, RAF wing commander, property developer or world-class triathlete. From building an award-winning lettings business to smashing a world record, Goddard knows what it takes to reach the top. “Drive, enthusiasm, energy, passion, a degree of risk-taking,” he says. “If you bring all of those together, you can succeed at anything.”
Goddard’s story began in West Sussex. He grew up near the coast and attended a traditional grammar school before going on to study chemical engineering at Swansea. But he never put his degree to use: shortly after he graduated he decided to do some voluntary service in Kenya. And a year out eventually became seven: Goddard did briefly return to Britain but only to pick up a post-graduate certificate in education, before heading back to Africa to work with the ministry of overseas development.
It was whilst out in Kenya that Goddard got to exercise one of his greatest passions. “I have always been a runner, right back to running for my university,” he says. “My mountaineering and running exploits were quite extensive.” This is something of an understatement: during his time in Africa he completed ten ascents of Kilimanjaro and 46 ascents of Mount Kenya, respectively the highest and the second highest mountains in Africa. “Probably my biggest claim to fame is breaking the world record for running up Mount Kenya and back,” he says. It took Goddard just four hours and 38 minutes to travel to the summit at 16,500 feet and back again. “I wouldn’t do it these days,” he laughs.
When he finally did return from Africa, Goddard was faced with a decision: he was offered two different positions, one working as a chemistry teacher at Bedford School and the other serving in the Royal Airforce (RAF). “I took the commission in the Royal Airforce because it paid me £200 a year more,” he says. “Money was quite important, even in those days.” Thus began a 17-year career in the education branch of the RAF, during which time he worked his way up from pilot officer – through flying officer, flight lieutenant and squadron leader – to wing commander.
By 1995, Goddard was 45 and beginning to feel that it was time for a change of pace. “I thought there was more to life than working in the Royal Airforce for the next ten years,” he says. Gradually as he’d worked his way up the ranks, his role had become less focused on education and increasingly bogged down in admin, leaving him longing for something more hands-on. So he and his wife Stephanie started to look for a new opportunity. “We wanted to be in control of our own destiny; we thought running a business was the way forward,” Goddard says.
Looking around, Goddard quickly realised there was one industry in dire need of disruption: lettings. “At the time, buy-to-let wasn’t an expression,” he recalls. “Lettings was a bit of a dirty word: it was something you did if you couldn’t afford to buy.” There were few big brands in the lettings space and Goddard was convinced there was room for someone with a different approach.
Building a franchise network is easier said than done but this encounter also helped Goddard realise he had an enormous asset at his disposal: a huge pool of ex-military personnel who, like himself, would have been looking for new careers on their return to civilian life. “I made great efforts to speak to the military, to go to their resettlement courses, to advertise in their resettlement magazines,” says Goddard. “I put myself forward as a trustworthy, respectful, ethical, ex-airforce officer.” Before long, Belvoir had a network of 12 ex-military franchisees and was ready to start achieving some serious growth.
Growing its network from there has required Belvoir to give its franchisees a little extra. One of the ways in which it’s been able to attract interest is by providing comprehensive support for those that buy into the franchise. Out of the gate, Belvoir provides its franchisees access to business development managers and a team of auditors to help build their business in the early months. “Gradually, as we wean them off of that, we visit them once or twice a year but we also have a whole host of staff ready to answer their queries,” he says.
Another factor that has been fundamental to Belvoir’s growth has been an ability to set itself apart from the competition. “We have differentiated ourselves with integrity, strong ethics and a very strict adherence to a recognised brand,” Goddard says. Brand is very important to Belvoir but Goddard stresses that it’s not just about logos, trademarked colours or marketing slogans. Just as important has been building a position of trust with customers and establishing a reputation as a specialist in lettings. “We believe in a very high-quality service,” Goddard says. “And we try to instill that throughout our whole network.”
Something else that has undoubtedly given Belvoir a good deal of credibility as a franchise is its founder’s profile within the sector – Goddard is a former chairman of the British Franchise Association (bfa). Having already served a short tenure as the bfa’s director, Goddard was invited by director general Brian Smart to fill the role of chairman in April 2008. “It was very daunting,” says Goddard. “But being an owner-founder, people could relate to me and I could give them the benefit of my experience, having been there myself.” And he evidently proved popular in the position; the bfa bent the rules to keep hold of him. “Normally you only have a two-year tenure and then you have to stop; they asked me to stay on for a third,” he says.
And the bfa isn’t the only body that has sought out Goddard’s expertise; in 2010, he was also invited to join the board of the Property Ombudsman. “At the time, the Property Ombudsman scheme was very orientated toward sales agents and, as lettings was growing, they wanted somebody who had deep lettings experience,” Goddard explains. This made the founder of Belvoir the natural choice to bring an infusion of additional expertise.