Rik Hellewell, managing director of Ovenu, walks Global Franchise through how he has led his international franchise through the instability and turbulence caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Interview by James Fell, editor of Global Franchise
Rik Hellewell has a positive, no-nonsense approach to both life and business but there’s a detectable strain in his voice when he begins to reflect upon the huge challenges of the past few months.
He admits that, since founding oven cleaning franchise Ovenu 26 years ago, he has never had to deal with anything as serious as the business entering a period of stasis.
“It has been excruciating,” Hellewell tells Global Franchise. “I set up Ovenu back in 1994, just as we were emerging from recession and I managed to successfully trade through the financial crash of 2007/08, but I had no experience of how to deal with the fall-out from a global pandemic.
“For there even to be a possibility that it could sweep everything away when you have worked for as long and as hard as I have, was extremely stressful.”
However, the current situation appears much brighter compared with those dark days of March, with more than 100 franchisees across the U.K. and 30 in Australia having resumed trading.
“The majority have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of work they have on their books since reopening and some are even considering taking on sub-contractors to cope with the demand.”
Much of the groundwork for this bounce back is down to the many hard weeks Hellewell spent planning and preparing for the time that his franchisees would be welcomed back into their clients’ homes.
“I’ve always felt a responsibility for my franchisees,” he explains.
“This was an exceptional situation, but all I knew was that at some point we would emerge from the shadows of this dreadful virus. “This thought kept me going: planning, preparing and pulling out all the stops to support the franchisees to return to work; to keep them and their clients safe and ensure they got as busy as possible as quickly as possible, and this we have achieved.”
During the weeks before the U.K. lockdown, as fears over the spread of infection grew, Hellewell was bombarded by concerned franchisees asking him to supply personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer to allow them to continue working.
“I had no experience of how to deal with the fall-out from a global pandemic”
However, that abruptly stopped on March 26 when U.K. chancellor Rishi Sunak announced additional support for the self-employed, allowing them to claim 80 per cent of their monthly income, up to a maximum of £2,500.
As most franchisees were self-employed and, in the face of a growing number of client cancellations, they opted to mothball their businesses and take up the offer.
This, Hellewell says, was set against a background of a confusing government message over who could and could not continue to work.
“Cleaning wasn’t on the list of prohibited occupations, but several franchisees believed they were unable to work as they did not appear on the government’s list of key workers whose children were able to continue to go to school,” he says.
“However, I do believe that it was morally right to temporarily close the Ovenu franchises, simply to keep everyone safe and I know it was a concerning time for everyone involved.”
During the lockdown, his priority was to keep the franchisees active and engaged and to do this he began hosting regular Zoom meetings.
“We all worked together to share knowledge, best practice, and any useful information that would support the franchisees and their businesses through this extended period of inactivity,” he says. “We also published useful information on their internal intranet and forum, which encouraged them to focus on Ovenu and the way forward.
“We have had plenty of examples of franchisees using the time wisely, everything from developing a long- term business strategy to improving the content on their client Facebook sites. “This is one of the huge positives to emerge from the pandemic and I plan to continue the Zoom meetings, as it has created a much stronger bond within Ovenu.”
Rik reduced his franchisee management fees but only dropped the national marketing fees to 75 per cent – ensuring he could quickly turn on the taps as far as marketing and sales support was concerned. He invested in Google Ads, improving franchisees’ individual web pages, produced client newsletters, and increased public relations activity.
He said: “All this activity was invaluable and helped engage the franchisees and kept their clients informed and raised confidence as we were able to communicate the safety procedures we had in place.”
Hellewell was also able to improve the morale of the franchisees by May – passing on statistics based on a rising number of client telephone and email inquiries. This gave them the confidence to return to work knowing there was a demand for their services.
With income at a standstill, he was able to negotiate a reduction in some costs, adding: “Some of our suppliers understood our plight and were able to be flexible while others just weren’t in a position to offer a discount.
“I got a few quid from a local government grant and that was about it, in the main, it was a case of having to grin and bear it. I couldn’t furlough myself because I was working six days a week to keep things going.”
During this time, he was also dealing with the added complexities of contract renewals and was delighted that – apart from some expected retirements – most chose to remain with Ovenu.
He believes now that the challenge over the coming weeks and months is to raise the confidence of clients.
“A lot of people are grateful that we are open and providing a service but some, understandably, remain cautious and are telling us that while they do want their ovens cleaned, they would rather wait a few months,” he says. “It’s not the fact they haven’t got the money, or no longer want to use our service, it’s just coming to terms with a new reality.
“I’m confident this caution will recede as more people become used to ‘the new normal’ but everyone does need to keep their guard up to prevent any fresh wave of infection.
“Although this has been an experience I never wish to repeat, I think it has highlighted the importance of communication and underlines the benefits of the franchise model – which means individual business owners don’t have to face something as monumental as this on their own.”