Eden Exchange recently spoke with Warren Ballantyne, the owner and Managing Director of Gutter-Vac. Warren talked to us about his franchising journey as well as his experiences growing the Gutter-Vac business.
Gutter-Vac is a vacuum gutter cleaning franchise system. With the head office located in Brisbane, Gutter-Vac has Franchisees in all the states and territories of Australia. The business model has proven extremely successful with many Franchisees owning more than one territory and quite a few with 3 or more areas. Warren talked to us about his franchising and his business journey and provided some insights for entrepreneurs interested in entering small business and franchising.
Thanks for speaking with us Warren. Firstly, why did you get in to franchising? What were you doing prior to founding Gutter-Vac? What triggered the idea for the company?
I had my own successful plumbing business based in Bundaberg. We were continually being asked to clean gutters. At the time, the only way to do this was by hand. It was a dirty job that, in my eyes, was very ineffective and time consuming. Also, at the time, we were starting to find syringes in the gutters and that didn’t make me too happy to be putting my hands into the gutters.
It was then the idea sparked, what if we had an industrial wet/dry vacuum to simply suck out the gutters instead of cleaning them by hand? It took some time to develop the machine because there was nothing on the market. It was during the time of the development of the machine (over 2 years) that we thought that this could possibly be a franchise so we started to write our manuals. These was completed once we began running the business and realised that it could definitely be a franchise. This was 20 years ago, so it has certainly proved to be a good move to basically pioneer an entire industry.
Gutter-Vac currently has franchise territories available all over Australia. What areas are you particularly focusing on? What are some of the key factors that make running a Gutter-Vac businesses unique?
We have seen a real boom in the franchise over the last two years and the franchisees as a group have doubled their sales in that time. Because of this, many of our franchisees have expanded their businesses by purchasing new territories. We have sold out in Queensland now, in both the territories. Tasmania is gone and there is only one territory left in South Australian and one in Western Australia. We still have some really good opportunities left in Sydney and Melbourne and a couple of regional territories in NSW and Victoria.
Gutter-Vac may look like a straight forward business, but it isn’t. Customer service is a real priority for us and that is the key to success in our business. The other key factor is safety. Because we do both residential and commercial work, are processes for doing the work safely is a high priority for both types of customers.
The other unique factor we have is our machinery and training. With over 20 years of experience in the gutter cleaning industry, we know how to do the work to a high standard. Many people may think our jobs are simple, but we get tricky buildings and jobs everyday. Even this year we had an ‘out of the box’ job to do that got me realise again how unique an environment and industry we work in.
I also believe that our training and systems are unique and we are continually improving on them. We do some things that are unique in franchise training that the majority of franchise groups don’t do. We have found they are the key factors to success for our new franchisees. I can’t tell you what they are as we keep them a surprise for our franchisees in their training!
What advice do you have for someone looking to own a franchise for the first time? What’s the key message you tell new franchisees?
Owning a franchise is just like owning any business – it takes work, it takes time, it takes persistence. We have a customer service focus so I like to remind franchisees to look after their customers, put themselves in their customer’s shoes and work to what you would expect as a customer – or above that expectation!
It is always a leap to start a business. I commonly use the story of bungy jumping as an example. You have to make the leap, leave the security of the bridge or platform and jump. Us, as the franchisor, the franchise system, we are the bungy cords that won’t let you hit the ground. We are your anchor.
I think you need to make sure you talk to as many franchisees as you can before joining a franchise. Not to convince you to join, but to discover as much as you can before joining about what to do when you get started. You also need to find the franchisees that are more like you in personality. I know many groups select names of franchisees for prospective franchisees to call. We don’t do that. We give you the full list. Call some, call them all. Really understand what the business is before joining.
The key message to franchisees – look after your customers, be marketing all the time, surround yourself with good people and if you are in a franchise – come to conference! It is the one thing that will have the biggest impact on your business and you.
What type of background and experience does a new Gutter-Vac franchisee need to have? What makes for a successful owner?
We are nearly at 80 territories in Gutter-Vac and we have so many varied backgrounds of franchisees that I can’t say there is a particular ‘type’ of background or experience you need to join Gutter-Vac. I think it is more a personality. You would want to have that customer service focus I’ve talked about, a willingness to learn, of course not be afraid to work at heights is a plus and then also a good honest work ethic.
Our most successful franchisees have all of these things. Success is really up to the franchisees. The ones that do the most work, talk to the most people, get out and market their business, they end up with bigger businesses with more work. Probably to note though, the franchisees that are the most successful are also the best team players in our group. Never too busy to lend a hand to me or to the other franchisees.
What type of support does Gutter-Vac provide once a new franchise has opened its doors?
Our support starts before a franchisee even comes to training. We have an online pre-training course to get them prepared for training. We then do a comprehensive 7 day training – both theory and practical training. Once they get out in the field, we give a lot of support. We have an in house business coach who speaks with the new franchisees every week to coach them on building their business. We have a closed Facebook group that is proving to be a real winner for peer to peer support on tap 24/7 from all the other franchisees. The whole head office team is here to support them from helping them learn the systems, using our CRM, website and day to day items.
I help the franchisees with technical things on the machinery plus I help them with quoting and tenders as they need to be completed. We also have our conference once a year which is a major event. Our franchisees also have an advisory council to get questions answered and to provide further support. We find the franchisees in an area (neighbours) often get together to help each other as well. I believe that is our role as the franchisor and we are continually adding ways to support the franchisees and every franchisee has my personal mobile number so if they need help, we are only a phone call away!
What are some important industry trends you believe franchise buyers and sellers need to be looking out for? What’s your take on where your industry is heading?
Franchising is really moving forward and in Australia, it is a really great way to get into business. You are in business for yourself, but not by yourself. One of the principles of success I often talk about is surrounding yourself with good people and this is what franchising is all about.
The service industry is booming and there are stats around saying it will treble by 2050 so we are perfectly positioned for that growth in what we do.
The biggest thing I see is if businesses don’t keep that focus on customer service. With more technology, more self-service buying, I’m finding that customers still want someone to provide that good old fashioned customer experience and because of what we do, we can fill that need for our customers.
What are some of the key achievements you are proud of at Gutter-Vac? On the other side, what challenges have you faced to get the business where it is today?
Wow! We have had so many achievements and the biggest is that 20 years from conception, we are still here today, the market leaders and still have plenty of growth potential in us.
We were named #2 overall franchise of the year this year and last by TopFranchise. That was pretty exciting because it was judged by the franchisees. They each had a personal interview by a third party and I told them to answer everything honestly because we wanted to use this data to improve our business. I have to say, I was excited that we achieved this years overall result again, but I was more pleased when we saw the breakdown of results and that we had improved in every area. My team and I put a lot of work in after getting the results from the first year, listening to the feedback and making changes to improve and that happened.
I’m excited that the first round of franchisees have been sold in the USA under the name Outback GutterVac. That is certainly exciting.
Over the last 2 years we have seen the franchisees as a group double their sales and that to me is really exciting because this is directly impacting the franchisees families and lives. We had our biggest month ever this year.
It is pretty exciting to see the participation of our franchisees interacting and supporting each other, their participation and attendance at conference and contributions through the year. That is a real achievement.
On the other side… challenges. I don’t think we have enough time to go through 20 years of challenges right now. Just like any franchisor, we have seen many challenges. The biggest challenge was probably the GFC because it hit everyone in business. Taking the company into the USA was also a challenge. But if you want to succeed you have to work through the challenges and keep going. You have to think out of the box and make it happen.
What are the strategic priorities of Gutter-Vac? Where do you see the company in a year from now?
We are really focused on supporting the franchisees and continuing this growth path they are on. We don’t want to get too complicated, we want to continue good work and see our franchisees grow their businesses for them and their families.
In a year… I see that we will have grown to 85 – 90 territories in Australia. The USA will most likely be sitting at around 30 – 40 territories, but that could be a gross underestimate as they don’t have anything like us so it could truly take off. I’d also like to see our franchisees continue to grow their businesses at the rate they are currently so we will have to grow and adapt to ensure continued support for them. It is looking like a great year coming up again!
What’s the best part of your job?
Helping the franchisees. I love when they call me with out of the box jobs that we have to team up and think about to work out how we are going to make it happen. Everyone laughs at head office when I get to go down to the ‘shed’ and start tinkering with the equipment or coming up with something new for the franchisees to use to help them complete complicated jobs or come up with things to help them do their work better or faster.
I also love conference. It is the once a year opportunity to have the franchisees face to face and to celebrate just what they have achieved with them. There is certainly more than one drink had a conference with the crew!
Thanks for your time Warren
My absolute pleasure.
Gutter-Vac is an exciting business opportunity that is perfectly positioned in the booming home services industry. The Gutter-Vac Franchise is constructed upon a reliable foundation of simple, innovative and proprietary equipment, operational systems and procedures.
A Gutter-Vac franchise provides you, the franchisee; with access to vital knowledge that has been developed and improved through our 80+ Australian locations. Gutter-Vac’s industry experience and business tools that assist you in establishing and growing a profitable, scalable Gutter-Vac location that will suit your professional goals and lifestyle.
With Gutter-Vac you receive all of the small business benefits, that include big business systems and resources. Gutter-Vac offers an exclusive territory, quality products and services, comprehensive training and resources, along with our award winning franchise support, marketing expertise and superior business systems.
To view their latest franchise opportunities please click here or call 07 3357 6270 for a confidential discussion.