When 35-year-old Charlie Bush set up his own veg box delivery scheme, he used Riverford Organic as an operational template. But the effort he put into running his business wasn’t matched by the returns. However, in a cunning twist of fate, while carrying out ‘tactical research’ on the competition, he discovered that better fruit hung beneath the boughs he’d been reaching for. In an interview with Matt Pigott, Charlie talks about why he chose to leave his initial business behind to become South East Lancashire’s first Riverford franchisee.
It was an epiphany really, a classic ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ scenario. When I tried to set up my own veg box scheme with a business partner, Riverford was the benchmark company I wanted to emulate. They were the pioneers of the veg box scheme. I thought I could copy them, but nine months later I discovered that finding good, reliable suppliers was far more difficult than I could have imagined.
I sent off for Riverford’s franchisee pack, mainly to gather information that might help me with my own venture and, while reading that, I realised that I was trying to compete with a company I should be joining. Riverford had been in business for twenty years, had gone through the pain I was going through and had proved that it could quite literally survive all weathers. I thought: ‘why on earth am I struggling, trying to set up my own scheme from scratch when I could have a ready-made business with a proper infrastructure and plenty of advice and back up, on a plate?’
When I applied to Riverford for a franchise, I was candid about what I’d tried to do before. The fact that it didn’t faze them showed that they were both confident and reasonable, and I went ahead and bought the Clitheroe and Burnley territory.
It’s much easier because of the training and support you get. You have a network to turn to, one that can provide plenty of marketing ideas and advice, and you have the experience of other franchisees, as well as head office, to draw on when you run into problems. But perhaps most importantly, high quality produce on the supply side is readily available, the importance of which I underestimated when I struck out on my own. It’s pivotal to running a business like this. Now I don’t have to worry about the supplier side logistics either, all I have to do is focus on my own delivery routes and strategy.
As well as these things, there’s the brand recognition you benefit from as a franchisee. Riverford markets nationally, and franchisees market locally, so you get to reach consumers on various levels. As a lone operator, I’d never have had the budget for that.
Of course, being a franchisee is still hard work. I need to get to the hub where the food arrives very early each morning, sort out the boxes and then make my deliveries. When I’ve done that, it’s onto the admin and marketing. There’s a lot to do, but when it’s your own business you don’t mind because you’re always adding to your own investment.
I think it’s important for new franchisees to know they’re not going to be spoon-fed by the company. Every franchisee runs their own business and bears the responsibility for making it work. For that reason, there has to be a line where you become less reliant on head office support, and focus on doing things for yourself. Of course, the support is always there if you need it, and I don’t know where I’d be sometimes without my local Riverford Farm in North Yorkshire to turn to, but it’s important to have confidence in your own abilities, and to be ready to market yourself, whether you’re buying an established territory or building one from nothing. Mine was a virgin territory so I’ve had to build my customer base up from scratch as a one-man operation. I expect to take on a driver soon but initially I’ve had to do everything myself, including marketing. For me that means getting out and meeting people face-to-face, as well as picking up the phone to tell people about Riverford.
After eight months, I’m seeing the effort paying off. I always knew that I’d break even at around 65 or 70 boxes a week. I now have 130 deliveries a week, a target I reached within six months.
To keep up the momentum, I like to make around fifty calls a week to potential customers – anybody that has expressed an interest in having organic veg delivered. It doesn’t matter how old the lead is. I also like to get out at least two weekends a month either doing an open van day, where I park on a green and show people the produce, or at a big food show. It’s common knowledge in the network that these are the best ways of signing up new customers.
Ultimately, it’s a people business and the most successful franchisees are the ones who engage with existing and prospective customers directly.
One of the best things about being part of a franchise network is that, if somebody comes up with a really good marketing idea, they can share it. Then, if you think it will work for you, you can implement it yourself.
Mainly the people at the North Yorkshire farm. I get their input on what shows might be good to attend in the summer, and I often call them to find out what’s going to be in the boxes the following week. The farm also helps with marketing. For example, if I decide I want to do a 25,000-leaflet drop, the farm will pay for the printing, and I’ll pay for the distribution. It’s a shared input and a shared outcome.
Money is always a consideration when you’re buying a business, and I knew that the potential was there for me to make a decent living. But there was more to it than that – I wanted something that would give me a more flexible lifestyle. My wife’s got her own business working from home, and most of my friends in Lancashire also work from home, so it’s nice for me to have the freedom to take an afternoon off to spend with the family or go for a round of golf, if I want to. That sort of flexibility is something I never had working for anybody else.
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