Franchising your business for long-term success (pt 5)
2007-08-02 15:04:43 -

Founder of O’Briens Sandwich Bars, BRODY SWEENEY, continues his series on how to cope with the stresses and strains of starting a new enterprise 

Be open to criticism 
We at O’Briens never claim to be perfect. Although we think we do what we do quite well, we do make mistakes, and almost everything we do could be done better. It’s easy for a feeling of arrogance to creep into your business, especially when it’s going well.
The dispute with our franchise partners outlined previously happened for us at a time when I think I allowed a sense of arrogance to creep into our dealings with them. It is understandable that they reacted negatively to it, and some of the changes we proposed should have been thought through better. But my reaction was to become defensive and deny that anything was wrong. That was a mistake.

Celebrate and recognise
We love parties in O’Briens and, if I say so myself, it’s something we do rather well. We relish an opportunity to express ourselves (or show off!) and bring everyone involved in running the business together to celebrate our unique relationship. This includes all our suppliers and service providers, through to our staff and franchise partners.
Every year in January, we hold our annual conference and Feis Mór (‘big party’). We start preparing for it the week after the last one ended. Three months before it happens, we move into high gear. Every last detail of the conference and the Feis Mór are planned down to the tiniest detail. Everything must be perfect on the day; nothing can be left to chance.
As the conference week approaches, everyone in O’Briens becomes involved. Tension runs high, nerves are stretched, the core team puts in long hours. Last-minute hitches are dealt with, and the show is on!
Our conferences also give us a great opportunity to recognise publicly the success of all the stakeholders in our enterprise. From our partners who have had a really tough year to our most blasé success stories, and from our own support team to our long-serving – and long-suffering – suppliers, we all love acknowledgement that we’re doing well in some aspect of our businesses. For many of those who attend our conference, this is the first time they have been up on a stage to receive a token of thanks for the sweat and blood they have shed in the year just past.
Recognition, of course, doesn’t have to be confined to big set-pieces like conferences. It can be as simple as saying ‘thank you’. I don’t believe you can say it often enough. I make a conscious effort to say thank you to people in the O’Briens organisation as often as I can during the day. And at smaller regional meetings, when I get to meet the staff when visiting stores, there’s always a chance to make somebody feel better about themselves. This creates the all-important feel-good factor.

Franchising overseas
In early 1997, I received a telephone call at my office in Dublin. At the time O’Briens was beginning to find its feet as a business. We were up to about 20 outlets, with the first few opened in the UK, spearheading our expansion in that market.
On the phone was a man named Hugh Hoyes-Cock. He wanted to come and see me to discuss setting up a master franchise for O’Briens in Singapore. Back then, I wasn’t entirely sure where Singapore was!
Hugh had an interesting story. A British accountant, he had been living in Singapore for the previous 20 years, working for large multinational companies. His son Alex was attending the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, studying to be a doctor. Alex had written to his Dad about this great sandwich bar in Dublin called O’Briens, where he got his lunch every day. On Hugh’s next visit to Dublin to visit Alex, he called in to see for himself what the store was like. 
It was after that visit that I got the phone call. Some months later, we entered into a master-franchise agreement for 11 countries in Asia. Just as we were about to sign the agreement, Hugh said to me: ‘What about Laos and Cambodia?’ ‘Go on then,’ I said, ‘you can have them’ – and thus I ‘gave away’ two sovereign countries for nothing!
Our master franchise in Asia was the first of a string of such franchises we have developed around the world. Notwith-standing the fact that we knew nothing about the market in Singapore, it made sense for us to develop in this way, for three main reasons:
l The right person in the right place While we knew nothing about Singapore, Hugh did. From the best locations to set up a sandwich-bar business, to where to buy vegetables and meat, to understanding the marketing mediums Hugh brought his local knowledge, and his personal drive and enthusiasm, to the project – and therefore made it possible.
l The concept was already properly developed As we had been systematising and recording how the business worked for a long time before Hugh came along, it was no problem to let him share in the work we had already done. We packed our shop-fitting manual and our marketing and operations manuals into a box, gave Hugh an intensive three-week training course, and sent him back to Singapore to get on with it – which, to his credit, he did.
l When we looked, the markets were actually similar Not knowing much about it, at first glance we assumed that Singapore was very different from Ireland or Britain. People I talked to about the proposed move were sceptical, however. ‘Asians don’t eat bread – their staple diet is rice and noodles’ was a typical comment – and, superficially at least, it seemed to ring true.
In Ireland or Britain, our typical customer is a young, white-collar female, with a high disposable income, who takes a lunch hour, eats food based around bread and coffee, wears Levis and listens to U2. When we took a serious look at the market for our products in downtown Singapore, we found that it was identical to what we had in Dublin. Incidentally, we have found the same typical customer base for our products in almost every market in which we operate around the world.
As we have expanded abroad, I have learnt to look for the similarities between the various markets rather than the differences – which are a reason not to do something. Underneath it all, we have much more in common, as citizens of the world, than we commonly acknowledge.

Next week: Being good is good business – Why being responsible in your community gives you an edge

n Taken from Making Bread – The Real Way To Start Up and Stay Up in Business by Brody Sweeney, published by Liberties Press – buy at and get a 10 per cent discount
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