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Mike Sneddon
O’brien's Irish Sandwich Bar

Mike Sneddon was no newcomer to franchising when he opened his first O'Briens Irish Sandwich Bar outlet at 52 South Bridge in Edinburgh, back in March 1999. Perhaps it was his seven years experience with Shell and latterly BP, where he operated two garage franchises, which enabled him to forge ahead and develop his O'Briens business rapidly but, most importantly, successfully.

Talking about his first liaison with O'Briens, Mike said: "I had hunted for a good franchising opportunity for quite some time and a move away from garages, as the future there was unsure, margins were depleting and, on top of this, one of my two BP licenses was coming to an end. It was a natural time to make a move."

"Basically I was out to find a franchise opportunity that was as recession-proof as possible. And what better place to look than at the National Franchise Show where the pick of the crop could be found under the one roof? When I travelled to the 1998 show in Birmingham, I went with an open mind, visiting the stands of a number of retail based franchises, particularly in the fast food sector. But when I met with the O'Briens' team, they literally stood out a mile from the others.

"I was very impressed with what was a young operation then, its people, the simple concept and the obvious success of existing franchisees. Compared with the others, start up costs were extremely low. It proved to be the exciting recipe for success I'd been pursuing all along"

With the O'Brien's concept of fresh, made-to-order thick bread sandwiches and speciality coffees already proving extremely popular in the west of Scotland, Mike's plans were to mirror the success in Edinburgh. But as the first franchisee to open in the east coast, Mike had to reinforce the brand as early as possible and work at establishing the name and reputation around Edinburgh.

From the very beginning, it was his plan to quickly develop three outlets in the Capital. So within only a matter of months of opening his first at South Bridge, Mike launched his second just a short walk away at Forrest Road. To ensure he found a desirable third location, he bided his time until a unit within the city's sought-after Princes Mall came onto the market. He opened up an excellent site there in early 2001.

But to open three outlets in such quick succession takes some skillful planning.

"The cash involved in setting up each outlet was quite high," said Mike. "Although it was more of a struggle between the second and third outlets, Princes Mall was too good an opportunity to miss. I had to be prepared to borrow more money."

"I felt the overall standards slipped briefly during this period, so I stood back, took stock and put a proper management structure in place to cope with the increase in workload. It was imperative to consolidate and get all the businesses working to the same standard as soon as possible."

When Mike began at South Bridge he had seven employees to offer the full O'Briens package of take-away, sit-in and outside catering services. He now employs a young team of more than 20 staff, including a general manager and individual store managers, across his three outlets. His own role solely focuses on management issues.

"Having two young children myself, I equate my O'Briens experience to looking after the family," said Mike. "It's just like having 20 children to watch over! But I delegate much more work now as there is no time to have direct daily input into each store. Therefore, it is imperative that I maintain a good solid management team and core group of employees."

Part of Mike's success can be attributed to his experience in running more than one garage franchise before joining O'Briens.

As Mike says himself: "There's something to be said for coming on board with your eyes wide open to franchising. Often franchisees have to begin by running what is very much a hands-on operation, making it difficult for them to let go and delegate when the time is right.

"I have been very fortunate in keeping one particular member of staff for more than seven years. Kathy Haggarty, who is my General Manager, has helped me establish each new store and train other managers and staff. Kathy's input has been fundamental to us achieving and maintaining our high standards."

"Without the backing of good managers like Kathy, in whom you can put your complete trust, it is almost impossible to run more than one shop. It can be absolute hell in the first few months with staff coming and going and getting to grips with the systems. But if managed effectively, it is not long before things settle into a controllable pattern."

"Franchising undoubtedly takes a great deal of problems away from setting up your own business, particularly during that critical first year. It is a far, far easier route to take. And the statistics speak for themselves. A 95% failure rate has been recorded for new businesses, set against a 75% success rate for franchisees."

"But a lot of people enter the world of franchising thinking that they can make money in the first year. Generally, this is just not the case. It is more commonly the second or even third year before they start to see the returns."

Even at an early stage, Mike could see the benefits of building the O'Briens Irish Sandwich Bar brand, part of which was developing the office and outside catering service. He was soon rewarded with record sales. In order to cope with growing demand and cover a more extensive area in the Capital, he was one of the first Scottish franchisees to invest in a van to deliver platters free to any location within the city.

Mike was so confident that customers who sampled the platters for the first time would want to come back for more, he provided one free O'Briens sandwich platter or deducted the cost of the same from a customer’s first order.

It is unique initiatives such as these that have proved popular steps for Mike over the years. But what of the future?

"I really do not want to run any more than three outlets. That's the optimum number for me. But if I really wanted to develop more, which is really the fun part, without putting too much of a strain on our existing management structure, I could sell one of my outlets to a new franchisee. This would help re-capitalise the business and let others share in the O'Briens experience."

"To-date, I have been extremely encouraged by our success, especially as we are now enjoying a double in turnover since the move from two to three outlets. My aim is to build on our achievements in the years ahead, further developing the O'Briens brand here in Scotland and sharing in the huge growth being experienced by the sandwich sector."