Jim's secrets to success

Jim Penman, Founder, Jim's Group

This article appears in the November/December 2013 issue of Business Franchise Australia & New Zealand


I’ve made countless mistakes in my business career, and my character flaws are legion. Yet when I look over a business that began with a $24 start-up to becoming Australia’s largest service franchise network, there is one principle that was correct from the beginning. I was always passionate about customers.

I can still remember the horror I felt, decades ago, when through a bookkeeping mistake, I failed to service and thus lost two of my regular clients. It was not the loss of income that mattered, because I had as much work as I could handle, but the  sense of guilt for letting my clients down. In mowing a lawn, I was always looking to do that little bit more. For example, in the early days when edging was done with a wheel, I used to edge first and then run the left side of the mower down the  mower strip to create a really clean edge. It always bugged me that where grass met a retaining wall or tree, there was always that annoying fringe with no possible option (doing it with shears was just too much work for the benefit). One day, and this  was in the 1970’s, I walked into my local mower shop and saw a strange looking gadget on the floor. It was a long pole, with a handle in the middle, a small engine on one end, and a strange looking fixture with a piece of nylon cord sticking out at the other. It was a brush-cutter, one of the first ever imported into Australia, and I had never seen anything like it.

I asked the owner what it was for, and he demonstrated. At last, I saw the solution to my annoying furry edges. Although I didn’t have much money and it cost more than a lawnmower, I bought it on the spot. Thus, I became one of the first contractors in Australia to own a brushcutter.

Edging was such a fetish with me that my contractors said they could go into a street and tell which lawns I had mown, simply from the quality of the edges. To me, a single blade of grass over a cut edge is like a giant red boil on a beautiful face –  ugly, and impossible to ignore. If this seems exaggerated and unreasonable, well it is! It’s an entirely emotional reaction far beyond any immediate financial benefit and yet, it is exactly this passion that has reduced our complaint rate by 98 per cent since pre-franchise days.

Being successful as a franchisee starts a long time before you begin working in your franchise. It starts when you begin thinking about whether to go into business at all. Because while a good franchise system can improve your chances of success, the only real guarantee is your own hard work and business sense. In general, the more successful you have been in previous employment or in business, the more likely you will be to succeed as a franchisee. We find that managers and sales people tend  to be especially successful, but any job that requires self-discipline and the ability to work independently is a good background.

Then it’s a matter of choosing the right type of business. People often ask me which Jim’s division they should go into, and I always ask them: “What do you like doing?”

I became a mowing contractor because I love the outdoors: trees, grass, sunshine and rain, the lot. Others prefer the indoors, or like driving, or want the robust physical challenges of working with trees or building fences. Potential income should always be secondary. You’ll do best at what you most enjoy.

Thirdly, (and this really counts) is to choose the right system and here there is one key principle: do your homework! I’m astonished at people who make decisions involving tens of thousands of dollars and years of their life without spending a few dozen hours on research. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. Check out all the companies in your chosen industry, and ask: “What makes them the best?”

Most importantly, get a list of all their current franchisees, with direct contact numbers, and speak to as many as possible. This should be handed over without even the need for a deposit. Failure to do so is a breach of the law, and highly suspicious. A good franchisor will welcome you phoning their people. A poor one will try not to hand over the list, or restrict it to a few chosen favourites. We have found the best franchisees tend to do intensive and careful research, involving competitors and extensive contact with our own people. I often say, when talking to franchisees at induction training, that I wish I could have a time machine and attend our course when first starting out in business more than three decades ago. In the beginning I  made so many and serious mistakes, including (for example) being immensely proud of having all my quotes accepted in my first month of full time business. I was even more proud that clients commonly gave me extra money for a job well done.  Looking back now I realise I was quoting far too low, and could have earned several hundred dollars more per week. This would have made an immense difference to my quite desperate financial situation at the time.

Other hard earned lessons included the techniques for picking up wet grass clean, tricks for getting round trees fast, efficient use of grass bags, brush-cutter technique, systems of navigation, mower maintenance principles, and much more.

I spent fifteen years in the field and was a hugely successful contractor, giving it up only just before launching our franchising system in 1989. But then I started having regular meetings with franchisees, and immediately found a huge urge to get back out again. It wasn’t that I had too much time on my hands, it was finding out how much better my business could have been run using all the new ideas that were being shared around.

Even today I am learning lessons which would make me a better and more successful contractor. For example, one of the keys to success in a service business is offering clients extra services. It makes for happier customers, more income, and a better hourly rate, and yet often we refrain from asking for fear clients may find us too ‘pushy’. So here’s a simple idea: simply mention to the client something you have done or intend to do. For example, you apologise to a client for being grubby because you’ve just cleared someone’s gutters (the client you are speaking to has leaves poking over the edge of theirs). This is something I didn’t think of during fifteen years in the field, or for fifteen years after that, and yet it’s one technique among many we now teach all new franchisees. Once in business there is one key principle that counts more than everything else: look after your customers. This should be a matter of emotion and deep-seated principle, rather than simply of logic. The second principle of our Jim’s Group values states that we are ‘passionate’ about customer service (our first principle is service to franchisees). This means that we look after customers well because this is a matter of our pride and integrity and sense of identity.

Nothing in the world can totally guarantee success, but if someone has the right level of ability, chooses a good franchise with a style of work that suits them, offers great customer service and is willing to follow the system, their chances are pretty good!

Jim’s Group is Australia’s largest service franchise network. It was founded as Jim’s Mowing in 1989 by Jim Penman, and now involves more than 3200 franchisees across 30 divisions including Jim’s Cleaning, Jim’s Antenna’s, Jim’s Test & Tag, Jim’s  Car Wash, Jim’s Dog Wash and Jim’s Bookkeeping. Jim’s Group operates nationally and internationally in New Zealand, the UK and Canada.

Phone: 131 546
Web: www.jims.net