Frachisor Profile: Touch Up Guys

By Business Franchise Magazine

This article appeared in Issue 3#3 (March/April 2009) of Business Franchise Australia & New Zealand


Having recently celebrated 18 years of business and its 300th franchisee induction, the Touch Up Guys plan to secure the US market and support local charities. Donna Bennett investigates a family business that has become the largest mobile paint and bumper repair franchise in Australia and New Zealand.

Back in 1990, Fred Hawken answered a simple but enticing newspaper advertisement to the effect: ‘Earn $2,000 a week working on motor cars. No experience necessary. Ring now’. Making the call, he discovered it was a franchise for sale, providing on-site paintwork repair to cars at motor vehicle dealerships.

Fred bought the franchise and, although it quickly became a very busy, successful business, the franchisor turned out to be unscrupulous and the franchise system failed. Around the same time, Boyd Starkey had bought a sister-franchise. Whereas Fred’s business provided paintwork repairs only, Boyd’s specialised in repairing plastic bumpers.

When both franchised businesses failed, Fred and Boyd taught one another their trades, connected both services and teamed up to form a new paintwork and bumper repair business. Fred’s wife Cheryl was the brains behind the clever name ‘Touch up guys’, apparently having thought of it one night in bed!

Glen Hawken, Franchise Development Manager of Touch up guys, is also Fred and Cheryl’s son. glen admits his father’s first franchise experience was unfortunate: “It’s one of those worst case scenario franchises that duped a lot of people. What Dad bought was really a façade. It came with no real training and it basically had crooks running it. They brought a concept from America, but it was completely untested and unsupported.”

Glen recalls his father having a desire to one day have five vans on the road that all looked the same: “That grand plan came and went, as it was surpassed quite quickly. They had no real idea of what franchising was. People would just come up to them and say, ‘that’s really interesting, will you teach me how to do that?’ Around 1993, they sold their run and went into full-time franchising.”

Fred and Boyd were ideal candidates as franchisors, having been franchisees who had made long term commitments to a franchisor that had failed in its obligations. Glen continues, “The reality of what Dad and Boyd learnt very quickly, was how not to be a franchisor.

“When you change tact and become an actual franchisor, you know the types of things you don’t want to mimic. The fact that they were franchisees to start with made a big difference in the culture of what type of franchisor they wanted to be.

“The first thing they really did was go on an education path. They went to every franchising seminar and conference that they could find. In around 1994-95, they went on the road to seven franchise expos a year and we put on 20+ franchises a year for those two years.

“And that cycle was very similar to what we’re coming up to now, in terms of the economic times. In 1993-94, the news was reporting redundancies - many companies were putting people off. It really sent a flood of enquiries from people who didn’t want to risk going back into employment and becoming redundant again.

“I’m very confident, as are a lot of other franchisors, that there will be more franchising enquiries this year than we have seen for a long, long time, particularly with the likes of high unemployment and the mining industry decline.”

In the earliest days, Touch up guys did not have an official training centre. glen explains, “The franchisees would come and work with Dad and Boyd in the vans during the day. Then at night they’d do theory in terms of paint and repairs, and all the material in the manual. Then the franchisees would go to bed, and Dad and Boyd would go out to the garage and start fitting out the vans. They’d work until the early hours of the morning, then get up and do it all again.”

From those initial days, glen says the work ethic was set in stone: “Which is good and bad as a second generation person in the organisation! From a family’s point of view, there’s a balancing act required, to be able to grow a business to a much bigger size and also keep your family together. Conversations around the Christmas table eventually return to work!”

Glen’s eldest brother Paul has worked at Touch up guys Head Office since 1997. As Training Manager, the 40-year-old is also responsible for franchise sales and recruitment. Therefore, Paul is often the first point of contact for new and prospective franchisees.

“Paul came on board as the main paint trainer; his background is as a manual arts teacher (woodwork, metalwork, graphic design)”, explains glen. “Mum and Dad were keen on getting a trainer and obviously having that teaching background, Paul was able to utilise those skills. He’s more the hands-on guy and I’m more the business/computer person.”

Glen joined Touch up guys in 1998, after studying for his Bachelor of Business (Computers) for three years. He worked for a computer software development house for another four years. Although glen had a passion for computers, ultimately that type of work was not rewarding.

“I lost the ability to get job satisfaction working in software. At one stage, we developed a product for over 12 months before a customer saw it – the feedback and encouragement just isn’t there. And I became obsessed: I was working 100 hours some weeks and that was just not a healthy way to be.”

Disillusioned with software, glen answered his parents’ request for administration assistance for Touch up guys. “Mum still ran things out of a cash book situation”, explains glen. “She ran it very well and knew every cent, but I was bringing them into the computer age.

“When I first came on board in 1998, nobody had computers within Touch up guys. The paint company who we drew our paint system from ran their database off microfiche. We would go and look at the compliance plate and it would tell us a code of a particular car. Then we would look up that code and it would give us a recipe for all the different tinters to choose from, to make up the exact colour.”

In 1998, that paint company warned Touch up guys they were being computerised and that microfiche would be unavailable in the future. “Traditionally”, says glen, “people hate change and many scoffed at that and said ‘no they’ll never get rid of microfiche’. Primarily I drove that quite hard to forewarn them that these things weren’t going to go away. Within three years, every franchisee had a laptop in their van.

“We focused on a very simple sort of machine, with some basic functions. It didn’t need to be a hugely expensive asset because people with paint and thinners on their hands needed to use it.”

Now, says glen, the computer system can match over 55,000 automotive colours on-site: “That’s a bit of a ‘wow’ factor that people find of interest.”

When asked about similarities with his father, glen admits there is a connection: “Dad’s definitely a ‘tinkerer’. He’ll get into anything hands-on; I’m more of a gadgets person, which is probably the same thing, just in a different generation.”

With parents that have worked together most of their lives, glen insists his mother was just as heavily involved in the business as his father. “Although she never got ‘on the tools’, she was certainly at every seminar and organised a lot of the public relations events with the franchisees. She used to cater the meals for all of the franchisees when they were in training; she stood on the franchise expo stands and sold franchises as well. She was very hands-on as a franchisor, just not in relation to the actual painting of vehicles.”

Now in their early 60s, glen’s parents have earned their backseat roles in the business. Although Fred retired three years ago, he is still a regular at Head Office. glen explains, “Even though he’s officially retired on paper, Dad still comes in and helps with van fit-outs and the hands-on stuff. That’s what he really enjoys doing.”

A couple of years ago, the Hawkens bought Boyd’s share of Touch up guys. As glen points out, Boyd held the company together for a long period of time: “He’d had 15 years of service with the company. A very selfless man, he gave 100% everyday. I can’t speak highly enough of Boyd; he literally got us to where we were without a doubt.

“He was a mechanic at heart, a self-taught one. He and Dad had a lot of synergy there in terms of both being very hands-on guys, but both having a real interest in cars and obviously applying that to make money.” The Hawken family is still in regular contact with Boyd who lives nearby the franchise’s Head Office in Burleigh, QLD.

With around 140+ franchisees across Australia and New Zealand, the Touch up guys have recently launched a fresh business model, with new franchisees enjoying a much closer working relationship with the franchisor.

Perhaps surprisingly, 90% of the current franchisees had no prior industry experience. Glen confirms, “In terms of previous experience, about a dozen franchisees were from the industry.”

Glen explains that some franchisees, who have worked previously in the paint and panel industry, struggle to come to terms with the downgrading or change of skills. He explains, “Say you were a house painter and all of a sudden somebody came along and taught you how to paint picture frames; it’s a much smaller, much more focused type business, so you’ve got to unlearn bad habits and re-learn new ones to really focus your skills.

“You’ve got to become more particular but added to that, you’ve obviously got to learn a whole set of business skills like customer service. Traditionally, people from a trade background don’t often have as much exposure to customer service aspects.”

Glen goes on, “We tend to look for people who have some sort of customer service history, particularly sales. They just have to have some sort of experience in exposure to the public and what that’s like, in terms of happy and unhappy customers. Then obviously we look for somebody with handson experience.

“Given the two different aspects, I would always take the customer service skills over the hands-on experience. I think hands-on skills can be taught as long as somebody’s willing to learn; whereas customer service and the ability to sell oneself quite often are inherent as opposed to learnt.

“If you have the best spray painter in the world but they haven’t been able to work the front counter, then they’ve got no hope in dealing with a customer base that demands service and likes a friendly face and a conversation. If you’re compromising on those aspects, then you are going to have a less than happy representation out there of your brand.”

Maintaining physical fitness, glen plays tennis regularly: “I’ve actually been playing with the same guys on a Monday night for 20+ years. Occasionally I play golf but I’m not very good at that! I probably don’t have a lot of hobbies outside of work – work is my hobby.”

Glen admits he is still working on a work/life balance: “given that it’s a family business, quite often it’s more of a commitment to your own expectation or trying to follow someone else’s example, than it is to watch the clock.”

He goes on, “When you have your own business, the reality of it is you either treat it as a job or you treat it as a business. Once you have the mind shift that it is your own and things change if you change them or improve if you partake in that, then it’s a powerful feeling. It doesn’t always work but it doesn’t stop you trying either - you can’t switch off.”

With a mini-office set up at home, Glen’s 60-70 hours a week often includes working in the evenings. However, he has the luxury of spending quality time with his 10 and 6-year old children: “I take them to school every day. They’re only 500m from here – we’re in an industrial area near the school. That’s actually the same school I went to, which is good.”

He appreciates how precious time is with his kids, “You blink and they grow. Certainly when I’m away we always keep in contact with the video over the internet and stuff like that. My wife tends to take a leading role in their upbringing because I’m going to be away a little bit more travelling overseas, trying to set up the uS operation.”

Indeed, Touch up guys has been diligently working at taking on the American market, “As exciting as that sounds, it is a daily task. You’re not just launched over there all of a sudden; it takes such a long time to do it properly.”

The 35-year-old prefers five year business plans over 10-15 year projections. In this regard, at the end of 2007, Touch up guys locked themselves away for a week. Glen explains, “We had some people come in to help us decipher where we are and where we’re going, and that helped us structure a five year strategic plan.

“The ultimate long term goal for us is to be in the top 10 ‘most admired franchises in the world’. And that was a pretty high goal but the word ‘admired’ was the primary part of that. We’re looking to focus on our charitable aspects to best use this business and brand to ensure we’re very much returning to the communities in which each franchise exists.”

Glen explains the desire is to develop this into the culture at Touch up guys: “We want to make sure that it’s done correctly and sustainably. I want it intrinsically built into the franchise, from the time each franchisee first hears about us.”

It is also a major personal objective for glen, “That for me is a long term goal. I like the thought of money but if somebody came and gave me $10,000, I wouldn’t particularly know what to do with it, in terms of being frivolous.”

Glen very much looks at those who have already done what he and Touch up guys want to achieve. He has been particularly inspired by meeting other Australian business operators who are giving of their time, experience and networking circles, in order to facilitate effective charitable projects overseas.

He sums it up, “I know of people that have done these projects in the past where they really focus on local communities. To be honest, our long term goal is the ability to get to a stage where we can help other people. It sounds corny but that’s the reality.”