Women In Franchising: Katherine Sampson - Healthy Habits

By Wendy Laursen

This article appeared in Issue 1#3 (Mar/Apr 2007) of Business Franchise Australia & New Zealand

SUCCESS with a smile

Katherine Sampson, founder and managing director of the gourmet sandwich franchise Healthy Habits, has moved from behind the counter to the forefront of Australian business and she’s done it with a smile.

Sandwiches are big business – each year around 450 million sandwiches are sold and the forecast is good as the health and lifestyle market in Australia grows. Yet, until recently, the sandwich industry has been a fragmented affair.

Katherine’s Healthy Habits franchise has become Australia’s first national sandwich bar brand. The stores feature a colourful smiley faces brand and promote healthy tips such as “laugh out loud”, “stop and smell the roses”, and “get fresh with someone”.

Under Katherine’s leadership there are now 23 Healthy Habits stores, 18 of which are franchised, making gourmet sandwiches in five states. Another ten franchises are currently in the process of being set up and will open during 2007.

Katherine left school at 16 years of age and married at 19, imagining she would be a stay-at-home mum. Her plans changed after her marriage ended and, as a single mum, she needed an income and flexible working hours. She started work making sandwiches and then bought her first sandwich bar at age 27.

Without realising it, she had taken the first step in the building of a business empire. Between 1992 and 2004, Katherine ran a growing number of sandwich shops herself. She was passionate about providing healthy food and keen to succeed but had no  previous business experience.

“When I had four stores I would completely run and manage the stores from behind the counter, never once looking at a budget or a forecast,” she said.

Katherine completed TAFE courses, and attended workshops and seminars of increasing depth to build up her business knowledge.

Her dedication and enthusiasm led to success after success. With three stores doing well she found she wasn’t challenged enough, but with the opening of her fourth store she was under a lot of pressure and finding it difficult to manage the stores as they grew.

“So I looked and thought, do I go backwards and perhaps sell one or two stores or do I go forwards and franchise?’” she said.

Katherine had two business coaches in the early days and business mentor Rod Young from DC Strategy was a key agent in giving her the confidence to franchise guiding her through the process. According to Katherine, reading books and attending generic business courses were no substitute for what he provided.

“Firstly, I don’t think I would have had the time to read, and secondly, I probably wouldn’t have gained the knowledge as well as from someone who has got the experience and who can actually talk you through your own business,” said Katherine.

Together they worked through the technicalities and the brand development that led to the adoption of the smiley face brand for Healthy Habits. Katherine reasoned that when you eat healthy food, you feel good and when you feel good, you smile.

“I realised that the original logo I had wasn’t a brand, but purely a logo. It wasn’t  something that people would connect to. The beauty of a brand is its actually something that people want to be part of,” said Katherine. “Now I have a brand because every piece of material that is part of Healthy Habits links into that brand.”

Katherine has achieved over 800 percent growth since 2004 and deliberately slowed down at the end of 2006 in order to regroup and re-examine the business. Having the infrastructure to keep pace with the growth has not been a problem.

“I’ve always staffed before the curve,” she said. “If you don’t have a team and you don’t prepare for growth, then what happens is you don’t grow properly and you have to keep chasing your tail in order to fix the problems that you’ve left behind. We didn’t do that, we planned very carefully.”

There have been many challenges along the way, the biggest one being getting finance from banks.

“I’m often quoted as saying the banks didn’t want to lend to a single white female with two kids and that’s true,” said Katherine who was able to borrow against the equity in her home for the first two stores and part of the third. “For the fourth they wouldn’t give me a cent for so it was very difficult and I had to borrow money from my parents.”

Keeping a good team around her has also been a challenge but Katherine is very pleased with the people she has working with her now and values the role they have played in making the business successful.

Her franchisee partners are all as passionate about healthy living as she is. Many of them, like her, are able to balance the responsibilities of raising children with the desire to run a successful business. Their success has been one of the greatest highlights for Katherine.

“I’ll never forget the day my first franchise store opened. I got really emotional when I walked up to it, because it was my vision and my dream and someone else believed in it enough to want to be part of it. It was a really special day for me.”

It is an experience that Katherine has now enjoyed many times and one that is likely to continue in the future. Her ten year goal is to have 100 stores operating across Australia.

Katherine has been a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards for three years running and Healthy Habits has been named as the fourth fastest growing franchise in Australia in January’s BRW magazine, Hot Franchises edition.

Katherine enjoys the public prominence that media coverage of her business achievements has brought. Now a role model for other women in business, Katherine is a regular public speaker and business mentor.

“It’s not about the success; it is about giving people the tools to make a difference in their lives,” she said. “I really feel that what you put out, you get back. I don’t expect to get back from people I mentor but I know that if I mentor someone, someone else will help me somewhere.”