The couple who founded Wilkins Chimney Sweep and a successful husband and wife team from the company’s franchise network explain how they pull together to make their businesses a success
When choosing a new career, couples frequently decide to work together - and franchise operations, with their training and ongoing support, often make the perfect choice for husband and wife teams.
But what makes a couple choose to go into business together? What are the challenges they face and does it make for a stronger relationship, or is it all too close to home?
Wilkins Chimney Sweep not only has a successful franchisee husband and wife team in Mark and Justine Sullivan, the only British Franchise Association accredited chimney sweeping operation in the UK is also run by couple Peter and Louise Harris.
Married for three years, Louise was awarded Encouraging Women into Franchising’s New Woman Franchisor in 2011. Peter trains new franchisees to sweep chimneys, while Louise is the franchise business trainer and the franchisee’s day to day contact.
She also runs the administration for both the franchise and the original chimney sweeping business.
Franchisee Mark Sullivan retired from the police force in 2011 after a 30-year career. Wife Justine has had numerous jobs, ranging from police officer and swimming teacher to working for a local housing association. They have been married for 11 years and have two young children.
What made you go into franchising as a couple?
The franchisee: at about the time I was due to retire from the police, we were looking at options including setting up in business on our own.
Going back into the world of paid employment during a recession didn’t meet our needs in terms of having a new challenge or giving us the flexibility in terms of child care.
We had a dream of one day owning and running our own small business and were in the fortunate position to be able to take the plunge.
Franchising appealed to us as a ready-made business model that had a proven track record of success along with back-up and support. We had no experience of running a business, but felt we had the drive and determination to make a small business work.
As two people who had worked for most of our adult lives and struggled at times with child care, we saw this as an opportunity to balance home and work life and have a joint interest or project we could share that provided the flexibility we needed. We didn’t want to have a ‘passing ships in the night’ lifestyle. Also, we believed we could work well together as a team.
The franchisor: Peter and I have complementary skills; although we have different backgrounds and we work quite differently, it means we both bring key strengths to the table. I had been a franchisee and professional trainer, while Peter ran a very successful local business that was the perfect pilot for the franchise and is an excellent sweep with a great eye for pricing, buying and customer service. One of the main reasons we franchised the business together was that we couldn’t possibly have done it alone.
How do you combine your strengths to make the business work?
The franchisor: we don’t spend all day every day in the office together, which is quite important. I am the administrator and business trainer and Peter has the practical experience. Character-wise we take on classic male-female roles - Peter is very practical and business like, keeping everything grounded and wanting the facts, while I have learned some of these skills, but bring the order and processes to the business. Both of us have high standards and see integrity as absolutely paramount, so our values are aligned.
The franchisee: Justine has a customer services background and has proven to be an asset in her dealings with customer enquiries, which gets lots of positive comments. I am able to focus more on the task side of the business, although we do sit down together and review our business model regularly and Justine does occasionally come out in the van with me to experience life at the coalface. This has enabled her to deal with some of the technical enquiries with much more confidence. We are both able to follow the prescribed model and are equally committed to making it a success, so we manage to pick each other up when times are challenging.
What are the advantages of working with your spouse?
The franchisee: we have a shared interest in making a success of our business and discuss how we are doing each month. We also have a better understanding of the pressures we each face and there is no need to put on a work persona. That said, we don’t spend a lot of time under each other’s feet, as I am usually out on the road and Justine has the freedom of her own work environment at home, which does allow for the quick dash in the morning and afternoon for the school run.
The franchisor: we trust each other and work only for each other’s best interests. We are both working to the same goals and are able to keep each other going when things get tough. We also know how the other person will react, be it to a challenge or, even better, good news.
Has being in business together strengthened your relationship?
The franchisee: yes. We both have independence and freedom, but without living separate lives or being under each other’s feet. We communicate regularly and any frustrations - there are some from time to time, as in any business venture - are shared.
The franchisor: hugely. Peter and I met in 2001 when he came to sweep my chimney. We didn’t date straightaway, but started seeing each other seriously at the end of 2005. We were married in July 2009, so we were newly wed when we started the franchise. Sharing such a huge part of our lives gives us more insight into each other. That’s not to say we don’t have some cracking arguments, too - but they make us stronger.
What new skills have you learnt?
The franchisee: even with the highs and lows we have experienced, neither us regrets taking the plunge. We are still learning, but we have had to quickly get to grips with dealing effectively with customers, managing time and route planning, coping with setbacks, business admin and accounting, the language of finance and especially the complexities of marketing - finding out what works and what doesn’t for our needs.
The franchisor: we’ve learnt not to talk about our business constantly and make sure we have a cut off time, which is important. We also have to make sure neither of us feels more put upon than the other and this takes a bit of skilful management. In terms of managing the franchise, it was and is a constant learning process.
Has your life changed for the better?
The franchisee: I think it has brought us closer together as a family and it’s good for the children to have an understanding of going to work and running a business, rather than dad playing golf and mum staying at home. I think the children are proud their dad is a chimney sweep and I know it’s early days yet, but I think this may also encourage entrepreneurialism in them at a quite young age. My daughter has often asked: “How many sweeps today, daddy?” or said: “ I saw someone looking at the van, I think they might call us for a sweep”.
The franchisor: our families have been a bit neglected and we have had to make a bit more of an effort to ensure dates are in the diary and to be better at planning for birthdays and special events. I suppose that’s developed our skills, too. However, life is better. We’re in control, although we are busier than we’ve ever been. Some of the things thrown our way were not expected, but most of it has been great. We share the successes and the challenges and that really keeps our relationship healthy.