Women in franchising: 'Stick to what you believe in'

Franchisors are well ahead of employers when it comes to recognising the value of recruiting mature women. Rachel Spaul interviews Northwood franchisee Patricia Hawkins

As new legislation on Age Discrimination takes effect, employers are being forced to recognise that a person's skills and abilities are more important than their age or gender. Franchisors have been awarding franchises on this basis for many years, recruiting a higher number of mature people, who tend to have more capital - often from a redundancy payout - and greater life experience. According to the NatWest/bfa Franchise Survey 2006 the average age of franchisees is currently 46 compared with an average of 40 a decade ago.

The industry has also seen an increase in the number of opportunities aimed primarily at women such as 'handywomen', slimming and fitness groups, dance and swimming clubs for babies and young children, jewellery and ceramics. Patricia Hawkins is proof that being a mature female is not a barrier to building a successful business if you're prepared to work hard and have the backing of a professional franchisor.

Patricia was making a good living working as a Configuration Engineer developing software for telephone systems, but the industry was unstable and redundancy was a real threat. Taking her future in her own hands she re-mortgaged her four-bedroom house in Leicestershire to fund a Northwood Lettings and Sales franchise. She recalls: 'At the time, my daughter Nicola was working on Northwood's marketing material and brought a brochure home. I hadn't considered franchising but it looked like a good opportunity, was well presented and definitely worth considering.'

In 2002 Patricia opened Northwood Cheltenham joining an experienced company with an established network of franchisees. She points to Northwood's complementary product range of property sales and lettings, which now also includes mortgages, as being a primary selling point for the company. She adds:

'I felt apprehensive but also excited. Leaving my job and re-mortgaging the house were huge decisions and I did wonder if I'd made the right ones, but I had confidence in Northwood's products and the company. I did look at other property management franchises but none had an approach as professional as Northwood, and that is still the case.'

Patricia admits that the first two years were not plain sailing, despite the attentive support provided by Northwood. She attributes this to her own inexperience: 'The most challenging aspect for me has been not having the experience to make the right decisions that make the business run smoothly but the franchise support team have been excellent, always available on the phone and more than willing to visit the branch. I can also pick up the phone to any other Northwood franchisees for advice.'

Four years on and the business is extremely successful with an ever-growing portfolio, Nicola is a partner in the business and will soon be running their second branch. 'Starting a business is a huge risk for anybody but you do get a real sense of achievement when you have a profitable and successful business,' Patricia reveals. 'In my previous job I was working 24/7. As a Northwood franchisee I work nine to five and actually have more time for myself.'

Patricia and Nicola have exciting plans for the future, which could see them with four branches in Cheltenham, possibly Derby and the surrounding area's. Patricia advises other women considering making a career change: 'There are more opportunities for women now than there used to be. It's about making the right decisions, sticking to what you believe in and hard work. I have no regrets and really enjoy what I'm doing. Would I do it again? The answer is simple: absolutely!'