Getting physical: the realities of buying a hands-on franchise

Whether it's cleaning bins or pulling pints, some franchisees find that they need to be prepared to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. So can you hack it?

Getting physical: the realities of buying a hands-on franchise

It was midnight on week two of running her first Marston’s pub franchise – the Wheatsheaf in West Hull – and Victoria Cooke was exhausted. Not only had she been up since the crack of dawn to meet the delivery lorry but she’d also been the on-duty manager throughout the day. To add to her duties, she’d ended up stepping in to act as head chef, commis chef and pot washer all rolled into one when her chef moved on. But such is the franchisee life. Of course most franchisees need to have a certain level of business acumen to successfully take a proven concept and make it work in their area. But for labour-intensive businesses in sectors like food retail, cleaning or care, they should also be prepared for some serious physical exertion.

This is especially true if a franchisee is keen to play a hands-on role in their business. For example, when she first bought her Marston’s franchise, Cooke was determined that she would be highly involved so that things were done her way. This meant that for the first year at least, she often worked long hours and wore multiple hats. It was a physically challenging period. “Getting a lot less than seven hours sleep became the norm and coffee became my best friend,” she says. “People always say how nice it must be your own boss – and it is – but make no mistake: it’s hard work. I’d been a waitress before but had never experienced anything quite like this: I’d be absolutely exhausted at the end of a week from being on my feet and speaking to customers.” And unlike office-based franchises or being employed, you don’t always have the luxury of scheduled breaks or weekends off. “You eat and sleep when you can,” Cooke adds.

Not all franchisees plan to get this drawn in though. Some may have an existing portfolio or prefer to let trained staff deliver the service to the customer, while they focus on other aspects like marketing, finance and strategy. But even if that’s the case, they should be able to get stuck in if need be. Daniel Browne, general manager at VIP Bin Cleaning, the franchise that services both commercial and domestic bins, has noticed an increasing number of applications from business-minded franchisees who intend to hire cleaners. However, if they think they’ll never come anywhere near a whiffy bin they’ve got another thing coming. “Staff go on holidays or get sick and clients sometimes have last-minute demands: they should always bear in mind that they might have to do some of the work themselves,” he says. “If you’re not prepared to put your wetgear on and get out there you probably shouldn’t be thinking of buying this type of franchise.”

So whether you plan to be hands-on or off, there are certain types of franchising models that require a basic level of fitness. “While we don’t base our decision on appearances – which can be deceiving – if an applicant was very overweight we’d have some serious concerns about whether they’d have the stamina to do the job,” says Louise Harris, franchise director at Wilkins Chimney Sweep. This isn’t about being a ripped gym bunny or being able to run marathons. But if you come from a corporate background where you do an average of 4,000 steps a day, you have to be able to cope with an upsurge in your daily activity levels: for example, a Wilkins Chimney Sweep franchisee can easily clock up 20,000 a day. “We don’t mind if you’re a bit tubby but you do have to have decent core and hand strength to be able to operate the equipment and of course you can’t have any underlying physical medical issues,” she adds.

This means that to make sure the right people are coming forward, franchisors need to be clear about the realities of the work. “Most of the cleaning jobs are about maintenance but some bins will be in a terrible state – that’s why the customer needs you to clean them in the first place,” says Browne. “We explain that openly to prospective franchisees, giving them the worst-case scenario of how bad it can be so we can gauge their reaction.” This isn’t for the squeamish. VIP Bin Cleaning knows it has nothing to hide and wants people to join its family knowing all the facts, so it also encourages people to shadow existing franchisees and see them at work before making a decision. If a franchisor is being cagey about allowing you to do this, it’s worth asking why.

But there’s only so much the franchisor can do: the onus is largely on the prospective franchisee to be realistic about their own abilities and how involved they’d want to be. “Many people who first approach us haven’t ever done a physically demanding job before so it’s important they understand just how exhausted they’ll be,” says Harris. “The trouble is, they often treat the process like a one-way job interview: they try to say all the right things and convince themselves they can do it. Then their partner will ring up and tell us the real story or we’ll discover that they have arthritis. It’s so important to ask yourself if you’re capable of doing the job today and for the duration of the agreement because there are no refunds in franchising.”

That being said, while some people are naturally drawn to either sedentary or physical work, a person’s fitness isn’t set in stone and many franchisees can build it up over time. In fact, a prospective Wilkins Chimney Sweep franchisee who’s medically classed as overweight is currently on a diet and fitness regimen to get healthy enough to buy a franchise. Besides, Harris thinks there are more important factors than your current fitness level. “We place a higher premium on business acumen, communications skills and, most importantly, attitude,” she says. “The rest can be taught and developed.”

And while franchisees should at least be capable of doing the hands-on tasks, if they prefer the business side of things there are ways to minimise the physical toil. At VIP Bin Cleaning, automation is allowing many cleaners to ease up on the most gruelling aspects of the business to focus on customer relationships. As for Wilkins Chimney Sweep, after a minimum of one year spent sweeping chimneys and understanding how to get the job done right, franchisees have the option of training up someone else to do it. And after her first year on the job, Marston’s franchisee Victoria Cooke was able to start delegating more work to other managers and no longer does stints in the kitchen. But by first walking in the shoes of your employee, you’re more likely to earn their respect. “My staff know that I would never ask them to do something that I couldn’t do,” says Cooke.

Maria Barr
Maria Barr