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Organic Development

The Franchise Magazine investigates how enterprising franchise owners, like Granite Transformations’ Gavin Whittaker, contribute to the growth of franchised brands.

Thriving franchise operations depend upon a good business model, a convincing product offering, consumer brand awareness, effective field support and well-honed administrative systems. Ultimately, however, grass roots success is reliant upon enterprising franchise owners, who channel their energy and effort into growing the brand locally and hopefully introducing new ideas and initiatives to the business mix.

Take Gavin Whittaker as a prime example of a franchise owner contributing to the development of the franchise network, as well as growing his own business locally. He was the first franchise recruit to the Granite Transformations retail network, pre-dating even the current franchisor, Rocksolid Granit Europe (RSG). Having dealt with the then Master Franchise Owner, who installed sparkling new countertops in the Whittaker family kitchen. These tough, slimline, 1/4” thick work surfaces are the core product offering of the global Granite Transformations brand and, like many franchise owners who succeeded him into the UK network, Gavin saw these diamond-polished composite finishes and liked what he saw.

Realising that this was a highly marketable product which was only available to retailers through the franchise route, Gavin went ahead and signed the first franchise agreement in this country and set up combined workshop and showroom premises in Tunbridge Wells. He was partnered by his wife Sally, who looks after the accounts and administration, and was soon joined by Operations Manager, Alex Coombs – his very first employee and now a shareholder.

Since then, the Kent-based business has become the first Granite Transformations franchise to reach £1 million in annual revenue and now routinely appears at the top of the network sales table. Gavin has also broadened his retail mix by adding a high street showroom in Sidcup, after acquiring a second neighbouring franchise territory, and later introducing satellite merchandising display units in a series of local garden centres.

Around this time, franchisor RSG, was reacting to difficult trading conditions on Britain’s high streets and introduced a new franchise model based on garden centre concession sites, to lower the initial investment and reduce rental and running costs. Granite Transformations is quite a distinct retail proposition, since sales transactions are not typically finalised in the showroom, but concluded in the customer’s home, where worktop and replacement door colours are reviewed and initial measurements taken before the contract is signed. Merchandising displays that enable prospective customers to see and touch the product are, therefore, essential for initiating the buying process, although these need not necessarily be located in bricks-and-mortar premises.

The garden centre concession site model is a viable alternative to high street premises, especially given the synergy between the customer demographics and a shared interest in home improvements generally. There should be no shortage of garden centre sites either, with around 2,500 UK locations generating annual sales in excess of £4.5 billion and attracting over 30 million visitors. Nevertheless, RSG insists that any Granite Transformations garden centre display should be permanently manned, otherwise potential customer leads would simply drift away.

Gavin had come to much the same conclusion at his principle garden centre location, Ruxley Manor in Sidcup. The display was manned only three days a week and he noted that, whenever it was staffed, there were considerably more customer leads. As will be explained, Gavin used this information to revise his retail mix and, rather than keep this market intelligence to himself, shared this insight with fellow franchise owners at a recent UK conference, revealing that garden centre sites now generate more than half of his sales leads.

This openness is encouraged within the Granite Transformations network and, indeed, it was fellow franchise owner Peter Morrison who first actually spotted the potential of garden centres, setting up the first ‘silent salesman’ display unit at a prominent site outside Cambridge. RSG seized upon this idea, refined the merchandising unit and later designed a series of mini-showroom and modular displays for garden centre and shopping mall applications, typically incorporating DVD displays, cutaway worktops with sink and tap insets, and product sample panels. One of these designs formed the basis of a 9m2 stand that RSG custom-made for Gavin’s latest garden centre venture.

What happened was that Polhill Garden Centre at Sevenoaks, with whom Gavin had been pursuing a concession site opportunity for five years, suddenly offered him floorspace. As one of the country’s top 10 horticultural locations, Polhill is a true ‘destination centre’, with a whole mix of trading partners, a 400-cover restaurant and an on-site shopping village with butcher, greengrocer, bakery, fish shop and florist. Negotiations led to a carefully-chosen 3m X 3m plot, which would be manned seven days a week to match the garden centre opening hours.

At Ruxley Manor, Gavin’s main ‘door opener’ had been Carol Walker, who has extensive sales experience, a natural affinity with garden centre customers and an excellent track record of delivering high quality appointments. He invited Carol to switch to Polhill and extend her working hours, which she readily accepted. The combination of an enterprising franchise owner, a highly effective salesperson, a quality brand and higher customer footfall proved a winning combination. Gavin now generates around forty pre-qualified leads each month from this site alone and average contract values have risen to £6-7,000 plus, as installations increasingly include replacement cabinet doors.

Recognising the power of peer-to-peer recommendation, RSG has used Gavin’s case study to encourage other Granite Transformations franchise owners to consider a manned garden centre site when expanding their territories or adding satellite locations and to highlight to potential franchise investors the merits of this business model as a lower-cost entry point. The franchisor’s independent franchise recruitment consultant, Dugan Aylen, is already reporting that the £25k concession site franchise package is proving very appealing to would-be franchise owners, especially given the availability of bank loans and RSG’s pre-qualified status with leading high street banks.

That’s not to say that the high street showroom model is now out-dated – far from it. RSG regards bricks and mortar premises, either a high street shop or combined retail and factory unit on a trading estate, as the essential next step for a growing franchise operation. Gavin’s two showrooms and their display windows do attract passing trade from shoppers and commuters, lend considerably to brand awareness in the Tunbridge Wells and Sidcup areas and provide the important first point of contact for website browsers and advertising respondents.

With Granite Transformations’ parent group, Italian tile maker, Trend, now positively encouraging franchise owners to carry and display a fuller range of its glass mosaic and agglomerate products, a high street showroom also provides the necessary floorspace for displaying a rich variety of colours and designs. The Trend product offering, with its distinctive designer collections and 24-carat glass tiles, also tends to attract interior designers, architects and upscale consumers, so prominent retail premises can add kudos and market credibility in a way that a garden centre display cannot.

Already, newer franchise owners, like Matthew Bird in Cheltenham and Simon Rodgers in Derby, and long-standing franchise owner, Darrell Smith in Wakefield, are adding Trend showrooms and expansive bathroom displays to their showroom layouts, reflecting the continually broadening Granite Transformations retail mix and a move slightly upmarket. In-store space for a ‘chill-out zone’ and a selection of kitchen and bathroom displays make for a relaxed and convivial retail environment, where different interior décor options can be explored and grander installations considered. But potential franchise investors can take it one step at a time, says RSG, starting perhaps with an affordable concession site franchise and growing the business into a substantial home improvement specialist.

There is the worktop fabrication service to bear in mind as well, with most Granite Transformations franchise owners opting to profit from a nearby fully-equipped workshop to service the installation side. In Gavin Whittaker’s case, he has adjoining showroom and production premises in Tunbridge Wells, from which Operations Manager Alex oversees the fabrication of custom-made fittings and schedules the just-in-time availability of installation materials for makeover projects around their expansive franchise territory.

Further west, John Willy of Taunton started with just a garden centre display and a fabrication workshop in his father’s barn but, as an experienced joiner and fitter, he still ensured first-class workmanship from this somewhat basic set-up and is even now upgrading to larger premises. To the east, Peter Morrison and his brother Henry service a substantial franchise territory that now extends into Greater London, from a purpose-equipped factory in an industrial unit outside Cambridge, benefiting from the economies of scale. In the northeast, Rob Lister of Newcastle has employed his workshop resource to design and fabricate a sophisticated worktop and replacement door-merchandising unit that is now being adopted around the network.

Meanwhile, RSG has channelled much of its energy and resources into enhancing the Granite Transformations franchise support mechanisms, including the development of an innovative online database, the Hub, that gives its franchise owners instant access to everything from recorded customer calls, to the latest marketing material. It has also totally revamped the brand’s call answering, recording and forwarding system to ensure that vital customer enquiries are properly tracked and distributed equitably. In addition, parent group Trend has extended the Granite Transformations range offering by developing and manufacturing a new collection of porcelain worktops, made from post-industrial recycled material, using one of the toughest materials on earth.

The Granite Transformations franchise operation is an organic entity, constantly changing, refining and growing. Its franchise owners like Gavin, Peter, John, Matthew, Simon, Darrell, Rob and others contribute to the evolving brand through their own initiatives and driving sales locally, in part for their own benefit and in part to the advantage of the overall Granite Transformations network. It’s probably what distinguishes standalone business owners and branch managers from franchise owners and it underlines what Gavin Whittaker et al can contribute toward the organisation as a whole.