Growing a Recession-Proof Business

With a second territory improving his profit margins, Card Connection's Gabriel McGeown is fast becoming one of the network's best performers

Ex-publican Gabriel McGeown was appointed as the new Irish franchise owner for leading greeting card publisher and franchisor Card Connection last October. Gabriel (pictured below) expanded his business quickly and, since then, has bought part of the County Down area in addition to his existing Armagh and South Tyrone territory.

'After 31 years as a publican I was looking for a new challenge,' confirms Gabriel. 'I wanted to exchange the long hours culture of working behind the bar with a business that was more flexible. I saw the Card Connection franchise for sale in the local paper and following some detailed research, realised it provided a great opportunity to run a thriving business selling a very popular product. The company had a good structure, it was well supported and the area had plenty of development potential.'

A full member of the British Franchise Association, Card Connection was established in 1992 and since then it has grown to be one of the UK's largest greeting card publishers and is the market leader in the franchised distribution of greeting cards. Using a proven system, franchise owners place greeting card ranges in retail outlets on a 'consignment' basis. This is one step beyond 'sale or return' as Card Connection customers never have to buy the stock in the first place, only paying for what they sell. The award winning merchandising service provided to retailers by local franchise owners is second to none and has established the company's excellent reputation especially within the convenience sector.

Card Connection franchise owners have their own exclusive territory and operate from home, calling on their customers typically on a monthly basis. Customers include convenience stores, sub post offices, petrol station forecourts and staff restaurants in large offices. In addition, Card Connection supplies numerous UK national accounts, which include the likes of Netto, Budgens, Londis, Spar and Shell.

Gabriel's experience in managing a large team of people in his previous role as a busy pub and restaurant owner made him ideally placed to manage an expanding Card Connection franchise. He has rapidly acquired two vans, a warehouse and employed a former colleague to help him manage the quickly expanding business. Although there is not really a typical day, Gabriel spends most of his working time on the road with his van packed up with Card Connection greeting cards aiming to visit between six to nine retail stores. 'The consignment system is very popular,' he confirms. 'One of my main focus areas for growing the business currently is to work with new retail customers. New stores that I visit are very receptive to the Card Connection approach as it means they can offer more products to consumers at no extra cost to themselves. Many retailers are finding this particularly advantageous in recessionary times.

'Most retail outlets need to be visited at least once per month to deliver the supply of greeting cards and to ensure displays are kept looking fresh and up-to-date with seasonal product. This is an important aspect of my work as attractive displays encourage customers, which of course, leads to higher sales. I deliver to small independent retailers and also chains like Cost Cutter, Spa, Vivo and Musgrave. I get sent regular new business leads from Card Connection's head office and when I have interest like this, I always aim to visit the retailer the following day. I believe that providing this level of service is one of the keys to running a successful business.'

When Gabriel took over the franchise he started off with just over 70 retail outlets stocking Card Connection's products. He now works with well over 100 and is taking on at least two more stores each month. 'As well as prospecting for new retail accounts Gabriel was quick to see that by purchasing an additional neighbouring franchise territory he could take advantage of the economies of scale achieved by running a larger operation,' explains Andrew Cutler, Franchise and Sales Director at Card Connection. 'This has not only resulted in higher levels of sales it also means his business has significantly improved its profit margins in a short space of time and, as a consequence, he is fast becoming one of our most successful franchise owners.'

Gabriel adds: 'One of the advantages of the greeting card market is that it is essentially a recession proof industry. However, with tough economic times anticipated for some time to come it is essential to continue to provide the highest quality merchandising service to my valued retail customers. To this end, Card Connection has introduced a number of innovative ideas including electronic hand held terminals which calculate stock levels and produce invoices automatically. This has allowed franchise owners to cut down on admin so we can spend more time with our customers.

'So far I am delighted with how my Card Connection franchise has grown even in these challenging economic times. The quality of the products, the merchandising service and the consignment system is really popular and this has been largely behind my success so far. Each day my small team works hard but we have the satisfaction of knowing, like anyone who runs their own businesses, that the rewards are ours to keep.'

Reported by Mel Betts