John O’Brien is the Poolwerx founder and CEO. Poolwerx is the world’s largest pool and spa care network comprising 155 franchises. He has been a Franchisee of the Year, Master Franchisee of the Year, and Franchisor of the Year. Individually, John O’Brien is probably the most awarded Australian in franchising.
Originally from country Victoria, he’s down-to-earth and very likeable. A former arts-law student turned entrepreneur, John O’Brien is a person of very high intellect. Success has come from persistence, attitude, and having a vision. He has achieved a great deal in franchising for more than 20 years and was kind enough to share with me some of his knowledge, philosophies, and experience.
SF: John, your PoolWerx franchise network has grown dramatically over recent years – how has this come about?
JOB: “Around 20% has come through acquisitions and the rest through Greenfield territories. 14% of our franchisees are from referrals and this is always increasing.”
SF: What are your thoughts on promoting your franchise opportunity?
JOB: “I believe in advertising in all types of mediums. Expos, capital city newspapers, regional newspapers,Franchising magazine, our website, the FCA website. The decisions people make today are very informed. The more they see you, the more bucks you spend on advertising, they know you’ve got substance and the more they know you are credible. The more credible you are the more they’ll trust you.”
“In the US it’s common for franchise systems to get 40% – and even up to 60% – of their leads through the internet. Poolwerx are less than half that, and we’re increasing.”
“You’ve got to be innovative. Soon we’ll do a caravan throughout regional NSW, Queensland, and Victoria. Advertising in local press, pushing P.R., and conducting seminars in the evening. P.R. is the most underestimated part of recruitment and also one of the most cost-effective. Outstanding editorial really compliments advertising.”
SF: From past experience, do you know how many franchises you’ll grant this year?
JOB: “We’ve kept every lead for franchise development over the past three to four years. Now we can take our budget and forecast our enquiry and forecast our conversions in terms of new franchisees coming on board.”
SF: How is it PoolWerx has been so successful at recruiting new franchisees into the network?
JOB: “I’ve seen so many franchise groups over time – and in fact more now than ever – that spend an absolute fortune getting their franchisee recruitment systems in place. Its one thing to have the tools in place but more important than any of that is to have the right people in place in your recruitment team. Probably of all the roles to fill in a franchise – after the founder – the person who heads up franchise development is the hardest to fill. You’re selling somebody a dream, you’re selling them their future, you’re selling them their family’s lifestyle.”
“Over 23 years I’ve come across five people who can do this well. We search long and hard for these people – that’s why we talk to you! These people are very rare. The hardest thing of all is selling people’s futures.”
“With our franchisee recruitment, we get one in ten wrong. One in ten will exit in the first year. We accept this now and we don’t reckon we can do much better than that.”
SF: What do you do to keep you franchisees positive, motivated, and focused on the long-term vision?
JOB: “We keep our franchisees positive and focused through communication. Communication is not a flippant word – it’s an art, it’s a process, it’s a system. You must have your communications systems in place – it’s one of the first things you’ve got to do when you set up your franchise. We have ten monthly business meetings a year with our franchisees. They are only allowed to miss two of these. They must go to eight a year – and they do! We keep the content really good and really relevant.”
SF: You put a lot of faith in the hands of your Master Franchisees – how do you go about screening and selecting them?
JOB: “Our Master Franchisees keep our franchisees motivated. Before we take on a Master we put them through a whole bank of testing including a whole half-day with Greg Nathan. Greg’s got a very good tool just for picking Masters or Multi-site franchisees. The focus of this is on leadership. Leadership is the most important thing we look for in our Masters. Masters lead, motivate, and business coach our franchisees to the next level.”
SF: When you were planning the growth of PoolWerx, what made you choose Master Franchisees over Area Managers?
JOB: “I chose to use Masters in my model because they provide entrepreneurship. The more you can push ownership down through your organization, the more return you’ll get, the more client service you’ll get, the more innovation you’ll get.”
SF: Why don’t more franchise systems use the Master Franchise model?
JOB: “The reason most franchise systems don’t have Masters is that Masters got a bit of a bad smell about ten years ago. The reason it got a bad smell is because they (franchisors) set up the wrong structure with their legal documents. In short, they did it wrong. Also, and probably the most important reason they got it wrong in the past is they re-created head office in Masters. They expected the Master to provide local marketing, local administration etc. We said “What are all the things we can do at head office?” As many things as we possibly can! Then we can do it professionally, control it, and do it cost-effectively. “What are the things that have to be delivered locally?” The local guy must have local contact and local leadership of our guys in the field. Do I reckon Masters will come back? I reckon they will because I’m a firm believer in entrepreneurialism and ownership in successful organizations. I’d much rather be in business with businesspeople. They feed you and invigorate you and challenge you.
SF: Who do you admire most in franchising in Australia and why?
JOB: “I think Noel Carroll from Michel’s Patisserie is an outstanding Franchisor. He knows his business back-to-front. He knows his industry and he knows franchising. There’s a lot of Franchisors who either know their industry or they know franchising. Not many understand both. Tom Potter from Eagle Boys is the same. Both blokes are down to earth and can relate to the dreams of their franchisees. Both guys are great leaders.”
SF: What are your thoughts on the decision making responsibilities in a franchise system?
JOB: “Franchises need strong leadership and a strong leader. Franchising is not a democracy. I’ve seen a lot of good franchise groups get de-railed because they start to become a democracy. At the end of the day, there’s one decision-maker and that’s the CEO and he’s got to make calls, he’s got to make them often, and he’s got to get more right than wrong. National Advisory Councils are not decision-makers – they should be simply part of the information input mechanism.”
SF: You talk about ownership and entrepreneurialism – how do you encourage and support ownership in PoolWerx?
JOB: “Myself and my two partners own the business. My six department heads all have equity in the business. We’re extending that through all of our staff soon through a share offering. The Master Franchisees all have equity because they’ve invested in the business, and of course all the franchisees have equity as well. Soon, everybody in my organization will have an investment in some way or another. I like that.”
SF: Thanks for your time John.
JOB: “Anytime mate, glad to help out.”