He started mowing lawns as a student and now runs the largest franchise chain in Australia, turning over the best part of a billion dollars a year. Jim’s Group has more than 3800 franchisees world-wide, with 54 different divisions (mowing, cleaning, fencing, etc.). His story is an inspiration for everyone who dreams big.
As a student, mowing lawns was a way to be outside and get exercise, and paid a lot better than most student jobs. He was doing a PhD in history and aimed to be an academic, but towards the end it was clear that his unorthodox thinking would never find him a job in a university. With no other skills and a new wife to support, he began mowing lawns full time in 1982, deeply in debt and with an initial marketing budget of $24. This proved successful enough for him to start taking on subcontractors and then make a business of building and selling lawn mowing rounds. With the arrival of VIP, an Adelaide-based mowing franchise system, he began franchising in 1989. Because of his experience selling mowing rounds, which involved not only sales but a certain level of training and support, the change was not a major one.
Service to Customers
Jim’s biggest challenge, with subcontractors and as a Franchisor, was to give the same quality of service that he had as an individual. In the beginning, he was not very successful. At one time he looked through his record books and worked out that he was getting around one customer complaint for every work lead received! Franchising made this easier, since Franchisees owned their own businesses and had an incentive to look after customers, but there were still too many issues. His first step was to carefully choose potential Franchisees, sending them out on the road for experienced operators to assess. Then he began charging for leads, which gave an incentive to follow up promptly, better training, recording and following up complaints, and in recent years customer surveys. Complaints began dropping steadily, from (in effect) 100% in pre-franchising cays to 5% when he began recording complaints properly, to in recent times only 0.75%. As he did this the volume of work rose dramatically, without any increase in advertising. In 2018 demand for services was so great that Jim’s Group knocked back more than 180,000 customer inquiries, about one job in four. The increase in leads is especially remarkable given that Jim’s Group permits and even encourages Franchisees to charge more than the competition. Many customers cite referrals or experience with other services as a reason to call Jim’s. Jim is confident that with new technology and better systems on the way, complaints can be reduced to less than half what they are now.
Even as it is, the great majority of customers are very happy with the service. To take some typical comments from recent surveys.
“Gavin was great. On time, wiling to explain what was needed and what he was going to do. Completed the job perfectly and cleared away all the rubbish. Very happy with the work!”
“Peter was amazing. I was able to bring my laptop straight to him after our phone call, and within approximately one hour Peter had called me back with fantastic news. He had fixed it. Wow, I was so surprised, as I was sold by my daughter’s school’s IT people, that it was unfixable, and that she needed a new laptop. I definitely will be recommending Peter to other people and if I have any computer related issues again, I won’t hesitate to give Peter a call”.
And to Franchisees
An equal challenge was to provide Franchisees with the best possible service, especially as the business spread interstate and then overseas. Very early he began appointing Regional Franchisors, usually successful Franchisees, later giving them formal training into the role. To make sure Franchisees were treated as valuable customers he gradually gave them more and more rights. These included the right to change Franchisors or even vote their Franchisor out if not happy with them, annual confidential surveys which would allow poor Franchisors to be breached or even terminated, and most recently a veto over changes to their Manual. Jim believes that no other franchise system in the world gives Franchisee this level of power.
Home Service is a Great Business
Jim’s Group expanded rapidly, not only to different states and later countries (New Zealand, the UK and Canada) but into different services such as cleaning, testing and tagging, fencing, building inspections, antennas, pool care and dog wash. Because service businesses have so much in common, it was easy to adapt Manuals and Contracts to the needs of different services. Most new divisions were founded by people with experience in the industry, joining their expertise to Jim’s experience in franchising and customer service. A particular stress in recent years has been on the development of advanced IT systems, which Jim sees as the key to steadily improved service and support. Jim’s Group currently spends close to $2 million a year on IT.
Jim explains that with the rise of competition it is vital to keep changing and upgrading. “Although we are still growing, it is not as fast as we would like. This is particularly a problem given that inquiries from customers are growing much faster. Tight finance in recent years has also made it more and more difficult for people to borrow money. That’s why we need to keep on doing better and better.”
Still Actively Involved
Jim remains actively involved with all aspects of the business, especially that involving service to customers and to Franchisees. He gives all Franchisees his direct phone number and email address and urges them to get in touch with him for any reason and at any time. Many of them do so, and many changes to the business have been brought about as a result. He also personally follows up customer complaints that have not been resolved the first time. His other jobs include talking with his staff about changes and improvements, vetting proposals for new divisions, talking to the media, doing promotional videos, and being active on social media. For example, he does a Facebook Live session each Wednesday at 7 p.m. (EST), answering any and all questions from Franchisees and members of the public. Topics range from business success tips to history and genetics and his favorite film villains.
He is also the author of several books: ‘Biohistory’, Biohistory: decline of the West’, and ‘Every Customer a Fan’ and is the subject of a new biography “Jim’s Book”, by Catherine Moolenschot. He is currently funding a research project into the biochemistry and epigenetics of social behavior, a continuation of his PhD work which he sees as having potential for the treatment of mental illness.
Despite his success he lives simply, driving an eight-year-old Mitsubishi and flying Economy Class on airlines. He keeps chooks and grows as much as possible of his own food. “Money is to be used, not wasted on self-indulgence. Also, too much of it is bad for children growing up”.
A Bright Future
Jim loves what he does and is excited about the future. At the age of 67 he is full of energy and new ideas and expects to keep going for at least another 20 years. For all this, he does not see business success as the most important thing in life. “I needed money to pursue my research goals, but studies have shown that wealth as such has very little to do with happiness. Financial security yes, but beyond that family, personal relationships, a job you enjoy, community, a sense of meaning and purpose in what you do. These I have, and I am indeed very blessed.”