This month we hear from Fiona Littleton, East Manchester Riverford Franchisee. Fiona purchased a Riverford Home Delivery Franchise in September 2013. Here she tells us why she chose Riverford and how her first few years have been.
After spending 17 years as a Business development manager, advising small businesses on how to run a profitable & successful operation and helping them to put into place admin routines, staff management, marketing plans & accounts. I finally decided that it was time to prove that I could use that knowledge for myself and run my own business.
I knew that a franchise was a good option for your first business due to the support mechanisms that exist, the model is tried and tested plus there is a wealth of experience across the network to tap into for help and advice.
We chose Riverford as my Husband, Craig and I were already Customers and loved their products. We felt it offered the right business model to enable us to run our own family business and be part of something we could feel genuinely proud of.
I took the franchise on solely to start with, but before too long Craig, who previously worked for our local council, left his job and now works as a full time driver in our business meaning we are now both fully involved.
When considering how we should fund our business, we decided to re-mortgage our home. This provided sufficent funds to cover the start-up costs and allow us some working capital. It proved to offer a much better rate of interest for us than any business loan. We were lucky to have a lot of equity in our property.
Riverford offer support along the way but prior to the launch of our business, both Craig & I had a week’s induction at Riverford’s head office farm in Devon which was great, along with the training we received it allowed us to forge strong relationships with the other new franchisees that were also having their induction on the same week.
I also spent some time with other franchisees from our network farm before we officially launched. I went out on delivery rounds and spent time in their offices which allowed me to ask questions about how it all works. I was able to pick up lots of useful tips on how to manage the daily routine tasks.
I am still learning all the time – no matter how much training you have there will always be situations that surprise you. You need an open mind to soak up everything thrown at you on a weekly basis.
My typical day involves me out delivering 2-3 days a week which can be hard work to juggle alongside all the other business demands, admin, social media, shows, accounts etc. Sometimes I feel that there are not enough hours in my week and I don’t know what a full day off is anymore, but if you don’t love what you do you wouldn’t commit that amount of time to it.
I still manage to give myself time off during each day at home to go for a walk and clear my head, so there is an element of flexible working (apart from when I am out delivering. Those days are generally long hours with an early start – 5am).
Running your own business comes with various challenges. The hardest thing for us was taking on a “Virgin” territory that did not have an existing customer base. Growing the customer numbers and spreading the word has been a challenge. People who have already heard of Riverford are still often surprised that the veg boxes are delivered beyond Devon (where Riverford started 29 years ago).
Although Riverford promote centrally on a national scale, having our own small marketing budget can be difficult. You can’t just do a huge costly media campaign. Everything has be done on a smaller scale which can be frustrating. Our business has seen continuous growth though so we must be doing something right.
Another challenge for us is that we do not live within our franchised territory. Living outside makes it difficult to keep in touch with local media and it’s harder to be aware of potential opportunities within the area.
It has made it all the more important for us to be out on the road doing the deliveries, so that we see customers on the doorstep and are able to talk to them.
We attend many local shows & events for the same reason, so we can meet people face to face and encourage them to order from us. When we get to the point where I can stop doing deliveries having Craig on the ground every day will still be invaluable.
Despite the challenges, running our own franchise has changed our lives. Life for us now pretty much revolves around the business. There have had to be sacrifices made, no holidays yet, seeing less of friends and family (especially in the summer months) as we are busy at local food festivals, fetes and other events where we can promote our business.
That said, my previous job was all encompassing as well with really long and unsociable working hours. The pressure from the company to hit targets, report on everything we did had taken more of a toll on me than I thought. In hindsight I am absolutely certain that moving into my own business was the right choice. There is still a lot of pressure, both motivationally and financially but it is pressure that you put onto yourself. I feel much more in control of my destiny now.
What we call the “show season” (Summer months) is particularly busy for us as we are heavily promoting our business, making sure we are out there doing everything from big Food Events to small Farmers’ Markets.
It often feels like we have a lot more events to attend compared too many other Riverford Franchisees we have spoken to. However we have found that we are now part of a new community and have got to know some stall holders really well.
Our new customers and others give us advice about new events coming up and things happening in the area that could be great opportunities for us. Luckily we do enjoy these events, which I think is essential if that is going to be a big part of your life.
Social Media is really important and fantastic because it is free! It is a great way to let people know about new products instantly as well as events we are doing. We do a 6-8 weekly newsletter via email just to let our customers know what is happening in the area and provide any information we think would interest them (which usually comes from questions customers ask us whilst we are out delivering).
We target leaflet housing estates where we are already doing deliveries to improve efficiency. We have advertised in local magazines and directories and are currently trying to improve our PR with the local press to get some editorial coverage if possible by developing a relationship with them. We have also taken part in several National campaigns run by Riverford, the latest being a funds for schools campaign.
We feel that we add that personal touch that other delivery schemes can’t replicate. My customers are encouraged to come to me with any issues or questions and we always get back to them within 24 hours. Customer service is at the heart of what we do and nothing pleases us more than a new customer who comes to us through a recommendation– it’s like a pat on the back.
If I were to offer any advice to others considering a franchise, I think that first and foremost I’d say that you need to love the product or business you are considering. For us running a Riverford franchise was because we love to cook and we believe that Organic food is the best tasting as well as being better for you. If you don’t subscribe to the product you are promoting, you can’t inspire others to feel the same way.
Sales skills are important, and not something that come naturally to me at all, being able to answer questions and engage with people are really helpful especially at any events where you speak to people face to face.
Running the business side efficiently is equally important. You need to be methodical about doing certain things every day or week to keep on top of your admin. The nature of logistics is that some of the more boring tasks does make you more efficient and therefore saves you money.
I think you have to have the ability to pick yourself up if things don’t work out and stick with it because most things do bear fruit if not always straight away.
Empathy and understanding play a really big part in Customer services too, listening to any issues or concerns customers may have and dealing with them efficiently can make the difference between retaining or losing a customer. Not everything is black & white and you have to find the right shade of grey sometimes.
Do lots of research, ask lots of questions, spend time doing the things you will be doing week in week out and take your time to decide whether it is right for you (for us it was attending shows, going out on delivery rounds, spending time with existing franchisees).
We bought our second territory nearly 12 months ago, which meant we expanded overnight. We now know the new area better and really need to take stock and work out our strategy for continued growth. The business is manageable but we need to grow it further to justify having 2 vans. We have 2 years left of our current franchise agreement. We will definitely renew for another 5 years and then we’ll see...