Gerald Roper looked at numerous franchises, but chose Ableworld after finding out the mobility retail industry was one of the UK’s fastest growing markets. Trevor Johnson reports
It was a dream they created and shared and finally three years ago it came true - Gerald and Maria Roper gave up their long teaching careers and started their own business.
They were both very much part of the community in Colchester, Essex. They wanted their business to reflect that involvement and eventually found what they were looking for - a franchise with mobility company Ableworld.
The couple had always cared about the community. Gerald was a church treasurer, rugby coach and school governor, while Maria was a charity worker and ran local playgroups.
“The Ableworld franchise appealed to us because it would help people who were finding life hard,” Gerald remembers. “Friends had told us how difficult it was to get hold of suitable equipment to help their parents.
“They said they didn’t find the people they had spoken to particularly helpful and that was one of the things that took us in the direction of Ableworld. We were impressed by what the company offered and help they gave.”
A science teacher in a Colchester school for 20 years, Gerald comes from a farming background and had also worked as an accountant. “I knew about the world of business and the sort of franchise we wanted,” he says.
Everything started well. Business boomed and the couple won Ableworld’s most promising newcomer award. Then, sadly, last September Maria passed away. Gerald had nursed her. Now he had to pick up the reins of the business they had created. “It was hard and the hours were long,” he says.
Today the business he and Maria started together is booming and Gerald has the Ableworld Franchise of the Year award to prove it.
Laying the groundwork
Ableworld, now one of the largest retailers in the rapidly expanding mobility and homecare market, was started in 2001 by Mike Williams, who had spent three years laying the groundwork for the first store.
Mike, who admits to being an “out and out retailer”, had spotted a gap in the market for a modern chain of onestop mobility stores when he was trying to find equipment to make his elderly father’s life easier.
“I couldn’t find much at all and when I did it was poorly presented and overpriced,” Mike says.
Having been in the retail trade all his working life, he saw there was an opportunity to meet the needs of an ageing population - and Ableworld was born.
From one store in Cheshire, the group now has retail outlets in over 30 locations, some company owned and some franchised. The first franchise was granted in 2008 and the plan is to have 60-70 stores in operation by 2019, some 60 per cent being franchises.
Presiding over a fast growing business, Mike has said what gives him most pleasure is to have created what customers say is a trusted brand: “And to me that means we are doing what we set out to do - selling quality products to the elderly and the disabled at valuefor- money prices.
“Building trusted relationships and giving high levels of customer service are paramount.”
An Ableworld franchise offers two revenue streams - a retail outlet and a stairlift business. Benefits include lower than average fees, comprehensive training and ongoing support.
Gerald says he looked at numerous franchises, but chose Ableworld on finding that the mobility retail industry was one of the UK’s fastest growing markets - there are currently 15 million people over 60 and this is predicted to rise to 20 million by 2030.
One of the few retail areas showing healthy increases year on year, the mobility sector is reckoned to be worth around £1.5 billion and as public funds dwindle there is expected to be an ever increasing demand for products like wheelchairs, stairlifts, mobility scooters, home aids and adjustable beds.
Ableworld’s franchise fee is around £30,000, plus some £45,000 to set up the business. Training extends over seven weeks, followed by a launch programme and marketing support.
About a third of the initial franchise fee goes on marketing activity based around the opening.
Trainers are on hand during the first few weeks after launch to deal with any queries and problems.
After that, a franchise support manager makes regular visits and there’s continual in-house training on all aspects of the franchise.
Gerald says: “We liked the idea of offering customers good products at realistic and competitive prices. The ethical side of the business appealed to us. Some customers are vulnerable people and while we are happy to sell to them, we don’t want to be putting them under any pressure.”
He is justifiably proud of the customer feedback that arrives at the franchise. A typical recent testimonial reads: ‘The service we got at Ableworld Colchester was up and beyond anything we have ever had from anywhere else. The shop is great, with everything you need for your disability.’
Gerald’s franchise has three staff and stocks a wide range of products, ranging from mobility scooters to bath and toiletry items. It also installs stairlifts using its own specialist engineers.
“I’m delighted with the way the business has gone, but I still have ambitions to make it bigger,” Gerald says.
Mike Williams adds: “We are always looking for sites in other areas to open up further franchises. There is still huge potential for expansion in this business.”
Proof of that comes in the fact that this year three new stores are planned to be opened by existing franchisees, as well as three company owned outlets.
Gerald, not surprisingly, believes franchising is a great way to start a business because of the expertise and backing from people “who have been there and done that”. Ableworld has proven systems and processes that take away a lot of the risk and worry from a start-up.
“It’s long hours and hard work,” Gerald says. “But so are most wage paying jobs. The difference is you get the benefit, rather than someone else.” Franchisees who feel the same way come from a variety of backgrounds, including the armed forces, retailing, public service, the car industry, construction and engineering.
For instance, Andy Rees of Birkenhead was previously in the Royal Navy and Cardiff’s Leanne Studdart was a hairdresser. Her husband James, who shares the business, was in manufacturing and sales.
Conway Davis of Gloucester saw there was a growing demand for providing quality products for the elderly and disabled.
“I’ve always wanted my own business and knew this was the one,” he says, while David Gaffney of Broxbourne explains: “I never realised how rewarding and humbling it would be to deal with some of the wonderful customers in need of help with products to support their daily living.”
Gerald says: “We are all about people keeping active in their own homes. We respond quickly when they’ve got a problem and often it can be solved without spending a lot of money.
“For instance, four-wheel walkers are not expensive, but people constantly tell us how they have changed their lives.
“A typical reaction is: ‘It’s got me active and walking again and given me the confidence to get out and about.’
“That sort of thing makes our job worthwhile. Of course you want to make money, but making money for the benefit of society is a real bonus.”