Last Updated: 11-September-2020
Interview with Ben Brookes, Managing Director, Agency Express
Name: Ben Brookes
Name of franchise: Agency Express
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I’ve worked with Agency Express now for 13 years, joining way back in 2007. Starting in an operational capacity, I got involved in franchising to help our then incumbent with maternity cover – over 10 years and 150 franchisees later I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. Before Agency Express I cut my teeth in the property industry at Rightmove and enjoyed many operational roles in a variety of settings.
Outside of the office I’m a country boy at heart, and enjoy living in rural Norfolk with my wife, two children and two dogs. At weekends (if I’m not working) I’m most likely to be found fixing cars or riding motorbikes.
Can you tell us about Agency Express’ franchise journey?
Agency Express began in 1998. Always envisaged as a franchise company, we were born out of the need for a daily repeat sign management service for estate agents and letting agents. Our Founder & Chairman, Steve Watson recognised from his many years in estate agency that the industry was desperate for a single solution for the thousands of for sale and to let boards that are erected every day.
Franchising enabled us to expand quickly, whilst ensuring we maintained the personal and professional service the clients needed. With the financial and professional investment from each and every franchisee, we successfully gown into one of the most mature franchises in the UK.
What have been the company’s biggest achievements/successes to date so far?
That depends how you judge success. Winning “Franchisor of the Year” in 2015 was definitely a high point for the head office team – beating some serious competition to the title was a watershed moment highlighting their hard work and dedication to the franchisees.
Achieving a sole supplier arrangement with the UK’s largest estate agent probably the most important moment for the franchise network, ensuring consistent ongoing business for over 100 franchisees in the process.
For me personally, it was probably the release of Signmaster3 and the Operators App – the culmination of years of hard work, testing and collaborative effort from franchisees and HQ team alike offering a truly unique product to our customers.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
Like all other businesses in the UK, COVID-19 has tested not only the business model, but more importantly the faith and commitment our franchisees have in the Management Team. Thankfully through careful management and clear processes outlined we were able to reopen safely, and I’m proud to say had our busiest month ever in July 2020.
Like all franchise businesses we have experienced a variety of hurdles over the years – complex IT roll outs, disruptive storms, illness & injury, and the odd disgruntled competitor. The key to our success has always been to focus on ‘solutions not problems’, which each member of the HQ team and the franchise network ready to take ownership of the hurdle, and achieve the best possible outcome for the customer.
What marketing/promotional tools do you use to grow your franchise?
With 118 franchisees currently, our focus shifted from ‘Greenfield’ franchisees to ‘Resale’ franchisees some years ago. This means we are looking for prospective franchisees who are looking for an established business to build upon.
We find franchise exhibitions very useful for finding new franchisees, as well as online portal platforms and business resale sites.
My favourite type of new franchisee though is a referral from an existing franchisee within the network – a true indicator we are doing something right!
What differentiates Agency Express from the competition?
SignMaster3, our online business management system is often what draws people to us. From route planning to stock management Signmaster3 makes the process of producing complex work lists as simple as possible.
Secondly, we have already secured national business from the top ten estate agents in the UK – many with sole supplier arrangements, helping to make the process of starting a new business that much easier.
Beyond that, we are easily the biggest company in our sector, judged by any metric. When agents think ‘boards’ they think ‘Agency Express’ and that brand recognition is so important for anyone considering a franchise.
What’s the ideal franchisee profile for Agency Express?
Never an easy question to answer! We’ve had franchisees from all walks of life – from Milkman to Stockbrokers, and from Sales Managers to Warehouse Operators. There is no right background; its all about the individual.
First and foremost, I look for someone who I can work with. When awarding a franchise agreement, I have to know that I can build a positive working relationship with that individual for the next ten years.
Next is the correct work ethic. I look for people who are enthusiastic and can’t wait to throw the duvet off in the morning. I also want to see diligence and an attention to detail; the business plan often highlights those who have done their research and are coming into the business with their eyes open.
Finally, a sense of humour; whilst it’s not a necessity, it certainly makes a individual more relatable and more likely to warm to their customers.
What changes have you seen in your industry over recent years? And how have you adapted to them?
As with most industries, tech focussed change has been most prominent, but also the need to transparency and communication to be top notch. SignMaster3 allows our franchisees to keep their agents abreast of exactly what they are doing each day, what issues have arisen and when work has been completed. IT even offers them the ability to upload pictures of the work they have completed.
System integration has also been key to our success – allowing SignMaster3 to talk directly to the customers software has reduced ordering times, and reduced human error. It also means boards are up as soon as humanly possible!
What does the future hold for Agency Express?
Currently we service over 60% of the UK market, which means we still have 48% to secure. Our focus now is making our existing franchisees as profitable and successful as possible, with a dedicated business development team to help them achieve their goals.
We have just launched into Northern Ireland, and look forward to our continued expansion on the island of Ireland.
Finally plans are underway for SignMaster4, but that’s a little way off yet…
What advice would you give to someone considering franchising their business?
Take your time. No franchisor worth their salt should ever apply any pressure to you to make a decision at any stage in the process.
Develop a system to whittle down the 900+ opportunities in the UK to 3 or 4 that fulfil your basic requirements – can you afford it? Will it provide you with a suitable income? Can you see yourself in the day to day role? Is an opportunity available in your area?
Meet with the franchisor either virtually or physically, ideally more than once. Build a list of questions to ask that re generic across all opportunities you are interested in, and a further list that is specific to that business.
Talk with their franchisees – make sure they are not selected for you and ask for a selection at different points in their career. Ask them the same questions you asked the Franchisor and look for parity in the answers.
Read the franchise agreement and take it to a franchising solicitor for their approval. Ensure you understand its contents and are comfortable to what you are agreeing to.
Seek advice from those in the know – start with the British Franchise Association and complete their prospective franchisee course. Attend seminars, exhibitions, online forums and don’t be afraid to speak to people. Speak to solicitors, accountants, and independent advisors - we are a friendly community and always happy to talk about the world of franchising.
Finally, unless you are 100% sure, don’t proceed. No opportunity has ever been so good that you couldn’t take the time to ensure it is right for you.
If you had to do it all again, what would you do differently?
I would do more training – involve myself earlier in the wider franchise community and the fantastic learning opportunities that are out there for professionals and prospective franchisees alike. The bfa is the lynchpin of this and everyone should be making the most of what they offer.
Otherwise I’d invest earlier in our technology. This was a turning point for us, and a few years earlier would have seen us reaching our current position much sooner.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t change a thing. I love what I do and have enjoyed every minute!