Jim Penman began his business as a one-man operator in 1982. After making the decision to franchise in 1989, Jim’s Group now has 3,600 franchisees in 45 different divisions. “We’re by far the most successful in our field – bigger than the nearest 15 competitors combined in Australia. I believe the reason is an intensive focus on customer service and service to franchisees,” he says. “We’re a very service-oriented organisation. Over the years, we have seen a dramatic drop in the level of complaints. There are systems in place to survey customers, record complaints – all kinds of things.” One result has been a steady increase in the flow of work over the years. This has been such that, over the past 12 months, Jim’s Group has knocked back more than 100,000 leads. Despite rapid and continuing growth, they can’t take on Franchisees fast enough to cope with the demand.
Among the services offered by Jim’s Group are cleaning, mowing, test and tag, fencing, antennas, pool care and computer services. Penman is personally passionate about the service he provides to customers and especially to Franchisees, asking his Franchisors to sign only those they are convinced will succeed. Satisfaction of all parties is top priority.
His attitude to suppliers is also focused on Franchisee welfare. “When people approach us wanting to deal with our franchisees, we have a very simple question for them – what can you do for our franchisees? What’s the best deal that you can offer?”
“We want the best price, we we want the best service, and we’ll negotiate for this on behalf of our franchisees. In fact, Jim’s Group prefers not to take any money from suppliers directly. We ask them simply to give the best deal to our people. For suppliers themselves, we aim to be a good client. If our suppliers look after us, we want to look after them. In my mind, to have good suppliers, you’ve also got to make it worthwhile for them. But, we do want incredibly good deals for our people so that we can offer them extra benefits. I know people who have become franchisees because our insurance deal is so good.”
Perhaps the most exciting change over the past year has been the development of a trade exchange system known as ‘Jim’s TradeNet’, using on-line technologies similar to those of companies such as Uber. Businesses within the exchange receive an overdraft in electronic currency – or “trade dollars” – which can only be spent with other members. The aim of each member is to gain extra business, but also to find new and reliable suppliers since each transaction is rated using a star system. Thus, members have a powerful incentive to provide excellent service to each other, since even a single poor rating can make it difficult to find clients.
“It’s gone very fast and has been very successful,” says Penman. “Trade exchanges are a huge business world-wide, but ours is very different from any other system, especially because of our focus on service and customer satisfaction, as well as advanced IT systems. It is the same formula that has made Jim’s Group such a success.
Returning to Jim’s Group, there has been an incredible demand for our services, good times and bad. When the GFC hit, we didn’t even notice. But we now face a huge challenge in the development of on-line rating systems. At present, people call Jim’s because there is a certain guarantee of quality in our size and reputation. But if rating systems such as Airtasker take off, we could be in serious trouble if we are not ready.
This is why we’re working on a system to give our own clients access to the records of our own franchisees so they can rate them and read other people’s ratings, which will help to reassure them that our people are good. But it will also help push our franchisees to provide their own service, and the small minority who do not can be pushed out. So, rating systems are a potential problem but could be a huge bonus. If we can do this really well, people will have more confidence to use us in the future, and they’ll just say, ‘Why not use Jim’s for everything, because know we can get great service from them?’” We’ll also be using this system to sell our surplus clients to outsiders, using the money to help drive more work to our Franchisees when they need it.
“I think this is a time of extraordinary opportunity,” Penman says. “The computer revolution is changing our business dramatically. We’ve cut our costs down to a fraction of what they used to be, while providing steadily better service to clients and Franchisees. It’s an exciting time for business because business is changing very fast. There are people who don’t adapt, but there are extraordinary opportunities for those who can. We’ve put a huge investment into IT – probably about a quarter of our payroll these days, developing better systems and programs for our office and franchisees.”
Penman has interests far beyond business. Developing the ideas from his PhD in History, he is currently funding biological research into fields such as epigenetics, with the aim of finding treatments for conditions including addiction disorders, anxiety and depression. “Money is a great tool but a pretty poor end-goal”, he says. “In the end, what matters is doing something really worthwhile with it.” The great majority of his assets will be left to his research foundation.