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Q&A: Making a splash with Steve Franks, group CEO and MD of Water Babies

Q&A: Making a splash with Steve Franks, group CEO and MD of Water Babies

Swimming concept Water Babies is experiencing a tidal wave of success. With the brand testing the water with new aquatic centers, Global Franchise caught up with Steve Franks, group CEO and MD

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What kind of a franchise is Water Babies?
We’re a franchising organization that teaches babies to swim, but we’re also much more than that. We teach around 52,000 babies a week, and we’re the U.K. leader in this particular field. As well as that, we’re also the world’s leading producer of underwater photography, and we also have a retail element, too.

While we primarily teach babies to swim, we also offer transferable life skills – working with children, particularly in the newborn until four-and-a-half age range, is when it all happens: it’s where the personality develops, and it’s an important and precious part of the development of a human being. It’s an important part of a family’s journey, and we’re incredibly privileged to work with families, helping to enrich their lives through the things which we’re particularly passionate about.

Why has the brand started opening its own swimming centers?
More pools closed last year than opened, which is a big shift in terms of what happens within our market. We’re looking to build unique aquatic centers that have never been seen anywhere else in the world where we can control the environment we work in. They will also provide anchor points for our franchisees and help to strengthen their businesses, which will significantly add a point of differentiation that does not exist today.

We already have eight or nine of the facilities that have been built by our China-based master franchisee. We’re looking to build our first “owner-operated” aquatic center in Berlin, towards the end of the year; before then, turning our attention to identifying sites across the U.K.

We hope to be operational in the U.K. by Easter as of next year. We’re talking to property developers and landlords about sites. Retail is getting more challenging, therefore there’s a lot of space becoming available, so we can retro-engineer our new spaces into shopping malls and other buildings.

What’s next when it comes to international expansion?
We have a clearly defined route to international development which includes strengthening our positioning in the Republic of Ireland, getting a foothold in Germany as our European hub, Toronto in Canada being our gateway to North America, New Zealand as our route into Australasia, and China as a standalone market.

While we have had franchise agents researching the Middle East as a potential region in which to expand, we’re very much focused strategically on strengthening the international territories we are currently working in. China being the biggest and most culturally diverse while at the same time presenting a huge opportunity for growth and expansion.

How intensive is your franchisee recruitment process?
The first thing we get an interested investor to do is fill out a questionnaire. It’s a hard copy, old fashioned questionnaire that requires completing longhand – part of the psychology is that we’re looking for attention to detail and someone who will consider the questions.

After that, it’s a nine-month journey before you eventually become a franchisee. We’ll start by bringing you in for a franchising day, and that’s when we’ll do our utmost to dissuade you from ever going into franchising – we really probe, and tell you how it’s going to be incredibly hard work and how there’s no easy way to success. If at that point you’re determined and not put off, you’ll go and research a particular territory that’s available, the pools in the area, the economics of the region, and you’ll begin to build the base of your first business plan with us.

We’ll then set the parameters, and once those boxes are ticked, you get started on your aquatic training. There’s pre-training, which is an eight-day course in a swimming pool with a tutor – it’s really challenging. If you pass, you’ll go on to a series of assessed lessons, where you’ll be able to teach lessons with real babies under the guidance of an assessor. There’s normally a minimum of 20 or so lessons – it depends how you get on.

You then go under your franchise starter training, which is around 13 weeks and covers all of the technical elements, including finance, marketing, IT, audit compliance standards, and more. A regional franchise partnership manager will then guide you through the start of the journey. It’s all really challenging and you’ve got to be very determined, but the outcome of that is we have franchisees which have been with us for 15 or so years, and we’ve never had a business failure. We have a very challenging, dynamic and engaged franchise network.

Interested in finding out more about the Water Babies franchise? Steve was a recent interviewee on the Global Franchise Podcast

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