Take a walk along any residential street today and there is a very good chance that you will see the work of an Agency Express franchisee. The UK's largest specialist estate agents board contractor is responsible for the erection, servicing, and maintenance of ubiquitous 'For Sale', 'Sold', and 'To Let' signs across the country. The company's enviable reputation and proven business concept has resulted in 85 working franchisees out of a total of 110 opportunities available in the UK. It could be time to make an offer. Paul Cullen reports
Agency Express erected its first sign in Norwich in 1998 when company founder Stephen Watson spotted an opportunity in the estate agency business.
'Seven years ago the estate agency market was changing,' explains Stephen. 'It had been dominated by large corporations who had rushed into the business specifically to sell financial products - mainly endowment policies. As the market for endowment policies started to disintegrate, many of these corporations left the business. Those that decided to stay had to make the business pay by actually selling property, and because you can't suddenly sell twice the number of houses overnight that required reducing costs.
'Businesses looked at centralising all their costs. Electricity, stationery and even 'For Sale' boards could all be bought from a single source but there was no national sale board servicing company. This meant that one large corporate estate agency with more than 300 offices nationwide would use 127 different contractors to erect and maintain the boards, and every month hundreds of invoices would be sent to all the individual branches.'
Agency Express centralises the accounting process which is a huge advantage for both its clients and franchisees. But invoicing is just one of the many services offered to support the company's network of franchisees. 'One of the things people don't like about self-employment is the paperwork,' say Stephen. 'It's difficult to be the 'nice guy' and have to chase money as well. The support we give our franchisees is second to none. As well as handling accounts, we provide marketing, IT, human resources and even health and safety advice. We are very proud of what we have to offer.'
Inevitably, potential Agency Express franchisees will wonder how fluctuations in the housing market will affect the profitability of their business. In fact, a deflated market can be a real boon to the board business, as Stephen explains: 'When the marketplace is very buoyant, there may be as much as twice the amount of property coming onto the market. It's much easier to turnover and many people will either sell privately or won't bother with a 'For Sale' board in their garden. In a depressed market, however, virtually everything that is up for sale is both with an agent and has a board. People are also more likely to change agent after a few weeks which means our franchisees could make another sale.
'We also offer servicing for both commercial boards and residential letting boards. The 'buy-to-let' business has boomed in recent years and we work for the vast majority of rental companies in the UK.'
Agency Express currently services 21 out of the top 25 estate agents nationwide and covers more than 90 per cent of the UK. Although the company has almost fulfilled its UK quota of 110 franchises, there are still opportunities available. 'Over 56 per cent of our business is with the large corporations,' says Stephen. 'We have priority areas where business is ready and waiting. Although we can cover most of the UK at the moment, there are still franchise territories available.' An Agency Express franchisee can expect a total of eight days training which includes everything from the basics of running a business to physically putting up a board. 'The only way to learn how to put up a board is to get out there and do it,' says Stephen. 'We send trainee franchisees out with our training team and talk them through the process.
'Once a new franchisee is equipped and ready to go, the final part of the training is when we take a team to their area - normally for at least three days - to introduce the company to all the local estate agents.'
The Agency Express franchise requires an investment of £11,950 (plus VAT) and includes a 10-year licence agreement, the deposit on a sign written van and all the equipment necessary to get up and running, including a computer, clothing, tools and stationery. Franchisees hail from a variety of different career backgrounds and include a former accountant, fireman, dairy manager, shopkeeper and scaffolder. 'We are keen to see as many potential franchisees as possible,' says Stephen. 'We are looking for people aged from their mid twenties to sixties with some experience of life.'
Agency Express is reporting turnover growth of between five and nine per cent per month. As well as continuing to grow in the UK, the company is looking to expand in Ireland and even in the USA, Canada and New Zealand. 'If we are going to expand into another country, we have to have a certain density of population and home ownership,' says Stephen. 'In somewhere like France, people only move on average once every 22 years compared to every seven years in the UK. However, in these countries, the situation is much the same as it is here and we would probably be looking at setting up a master franchise in these territories.
'Agency Express is a very visible business. Everyone sees the signs all the time. We concentrate our marketing efforts directly on the estate and letting agents and our brand has gone from strength to strength in the past seven years. These are exciting times for us - the signs are very good.'