Long-time Poppies franchisee Chris Wootton is relaunching the domestic cleaning business in the UK as its forward thinking franchisor
Remember the TV adverts that featured Victor Kiam, the man who liked the product so much that he bought the Remington razor company? Now, some 40 years later, Chris Wootton has done pretty much the same thing.
After 23 years as a franchisee of domestic cleaning business Poppies, Chris took over as franchisor in April 2018. It was, he admits, a bittersweet moment. Company founder Sue Rorstad was Chris’ mentor, a close friend and had always wanted him to be her successor.
The biggest deal of his life
“She had started the business in 1980 and it was her baby,” Chris remembers. “Selling it would be the biggest deal of her life - and buying it would be the biggest deal of mine. We actually became adversaries in negotiation - it was a bit disturbing, but that’s business. We bounced it around and came to the point where we were both equally unhappy, which probably meant it was a fair deal.”
Sadly, however, that wasn’t the end of the story, as Sue was diagnosed with cancer. “She felt that selling the business would be a sign of admitting defeat, so we put the sale on hold and I came into the business to help out,” Chris says.
Sue finally lost her battle with cancer in 2015 and probate continued for three years, preventing the business from changing hands. Finally, in April 2018, Chris became the new owner of Poppies. It was 22 years to the day since he had become the West Lancashire franchisee and 38 years to the day since the business was born.
“With the support and blessing of her family, I’m incredibly proud to be able to give Poppies a new lease of life,” Chris says. “This is a highly respected and extremely successful brand and I’m determined to put the franchise back on the map where it belongs.”
Long and circuitous route
Chris’ route to becoming a franchisor has been long and circuitous. Trained as a manufacturing engineer, he joined Jaguar in Coventry before setting up a small IT company with two friends.
“Those were the days of floppy disks and dot matrix printers, but by 1996 I felt I needed a change of direction - something that allowed me to work for myself, but not by myself,” Chris says. “I wondered if a franchise was the answer.”
A methodical and thoughtful person, he did an intensive personal audit to make sure he was making the right decision, calculating his strengths, where he was less proficient, what he enjoyed and what he didn’t.
“I came to the conclusion that the things I couldn’t or didn’t want to do would be done for me if I bought the right franchise,” Chris says.
At the time, he knew of only one franchise - Poppies in the Wirral in north west England. “I had helped put their accounts and payroll on computer, it seemed profitable and they had fun,” he says. Guided by the philosophy of JDI - just do it - Chris bought the West Lancashire and Sefton Poppies franchise and opened for business in April 1996.
He cheerfully admits: “I was possibly the worst franchisee they’d ever had. I was rubbish and it took me three weeks to get my first client. But I got enormous help from Sue and we became great friends. She even taught me how to fly a hot air balloon.”
Indeed, the two Poppies branded balloons became a familiar sight at events over the next few years.
Blueprint for franchise success
After a slow start, Chris’s West Lancashire business grew into the biggest in the network and today is used as a blueprint for franchise success. “I’ve seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t and I’ve been able to use my experience to fill gaps I saw as a franchisee,” he says.
Today, under Chris’ guidance the Poppies network cleans over 6,000 homes every week across the UK, has a turnover of more than £5 million and employs 458 staff. And as part of an industry worth an estimated £4.7 billion, there’s no shortage of future potential.
How it all started
The Poppies story started in April 1980 in a semi-detached house in Chester-le-Street, County Durham when 26-year-old mum Sue Rorstad was searching for what we now call a work-life balance to enable her to replace her income from a job in local government and spend more time with her young child.
Her friends had problems finding reliable home helps and Sue realised there was a need for a professional domestic cleaning service. She launched Mopps and Co and as the business grew it seemed logical to develop it as a domestic cleaning franchise, changing the name to Poppies (because staff popped in and out). The first franchise was sold in 1984 and the owner is still with the network.
Looking back, Chris said Sue thought of Poppies as more than “just cleaners” and believed in the need to reward people properly. “All our staff are expected to care about the client as well as their property and give practical support to every individual,” he says.
Sue became a local celebrity and met Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street. She was also awarded an MBE. Chris has warm memories of the woman who gave him a chance to realise his dream of becoming his own boss and is carrying on her crusade to recognise, respect and value everyone who works for the company.
Chris says that Sue, a woman of many achievements, was most pleased that through franchising Poppies has been able to create so much employment, particularly part-time and flexible jobs, which give mums with school age children the chance to earn money and still meet their family commitments.
Taking over the reins
As Sue began to feel it was time to plan for her retirement, she picked Chris as her eventual successor. “Sue was my mentor, franchisor and good friend, and I then became franchisor under training,” Chris says. “Buying Poppies became my dream for several years and finally in 2012 she sent me the letter I had been waiting for: how much she wanted for the business.”
It was then that her fatal illness tragically intervened. After Sue’s death, Poppies was involved in a complicated will situation, but eventually Sue’s husband accepted an offer and Chris took over the reins of the business he had come to love.
“Being a franchisor is very different to running a franchise,” Chris says. “It’s a bit like taking over a Premier League team after being a manager in the Championship.”
Does he enjoy it? “I live and breathe Poppies and having what I’ve got now is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Chris explains.
He says the demand for home help is steadily growing as working people and families juggle with competing pressures on their time and the elderly struggle to stay independent in their own homes for as long as possible.
Poppies services span the whole spectrum of domestic cleaning, from regular housework and spring cleaning to laundry, independent living assistance, second home services and cleaning up after a move.
An attraction to prospective new franchisees is that 90 per cent of Poppies’ services are regular contracts. The business is not seasonal, but has a repeat income, so can be a saleable asset.
Relaunching the opportunity
“My aim is to double the size of the network in the next four years,” Chris says. “We will welcome new franchisees from all walks of life, each with their own individual aspirations. Poppies is a homegrown business designed and built in the UK and I’m excited to be the one who’s relaunching the opportunity. The plan is that by April 2020 we will be welcoming our first new franchisees.”
One of Chris’ first moves after taking over the business was to move the head office to his home territory as part of a reorganisation plan. He knew Poppies had a strong team culture and was delighted when fellow franchisees rallied around the new boss. Together with its new leader, the network has helped to develop innovative systems, a customised technology platform and a new support infrastructure.
As well as updates to internal systems and technological advancements, which include a bespoke app for staff and clients, Poppies has firmly planted itself in the 21st century with a fresh new look.
“We may be approaching our 40th birthday and be the oldest cleaning franchise in the UK, but we’re every inch the modern professional brand,” Chris says. And while the familiar Poppies logo has been retained in the new image, franchisees will have an updated website, marketing collateral and a social media presence.
Chris told us that when he took over the plan was to spend the first year consolidating and years two and three on development: “As a franchisee, I felt some things were lacking - for instance, some offices were still paper-based - but I’ve been happy to invest in all these things because I knew we would all benefit.
“The last 18 months have been spent developing the brand ready for its next phase of life. The goal wasn’t instantly to recruit more franchisees, but rather to invest in the business and create the best possible environment for franchisees to succeed. Now we’re ready - and it’s time. “There’s still a lot of work to do. I’m working harder than I ever have and can’t wait to see the results of our efforts.”
Chris is looking forward to welcoming a new generation of franchisees - at a fee of around £13,000 - but isn’t necessarily looking for candidates handy with a mop and bucket.
As he puts it: “With Poppies, having an interest in helping people is more important than knowing how to clean someone’s floor. The person in charge shouldn’t be out there cleaning, but should be running the business and solving the problems. Luckily for us, there seems to be a lot of people out there who are happy to do just that.”
Chris Wootton answers our quick-fire questions
What do you enjoy most about the business?
The variety. I went into franchising because I wanted to deal with people and that brings constant pleasure and surprises. Lots of clients, lots of staff, lots of stories. No two days are the same. Of course, there’s a lot of responsibility being the boss, but leading a top team brings its own rewards - and they’re not all financial.
Buying Poppies and then bringing in my own changes and ideas. There was also a lot of worry and stress over negotiating the sale after Sue’s very sad death. Her wise advice and support would have been invaluable.
Biggest lesson learned?
Don’t over-analyse. When you’ve got a big decision to make, do all possible research and talk to people whose advice you respect, but take account of what your first reactions were and don’t underestimate your gut feeling. I’ve found that in so many cases it’s been proved right.
What advice would you give a younger you?
Just do it. Pick a course of action and follow it - and be prepared to deal with the consequences if things go wrong. Be brave and that means taking risks, challenging yourself, having a vision and facing your fears. Treating everyone in the way you would want to be treated is pretty good advice too.
Top tips for someone wanting to invest in a franchise:
• Go with a British Franchise Association member.
• Prepare for some really hard work. Working weeks of 60 hours or more are common among franchisees getting their businesses off the ground.
• Pick something that interests you. It’s going to become your life, so if you don’t enjoy it the chances of success are minimal.
• Most new businesses fail through lack of cash, not sales, so calculate outgoings and allow for unseen expenses.
An award-winning journalist and author, Tony James specialises in business and sport