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Posted by Sarah Brown on 25 Mar '24

Five useful lessons you can learn from Dyno-Rod and franchising

I was sad to read Jim Zockoll's obituary in The Times a few weeks ago. He was the founder of Dyno-Rod and died on January 25, 2024, at the age of 93.

Jim was a highly successful entrepreneur, constantly looking for new business opportunities. From him and Dyno-Rod, I gained invaluable insights into franchising and business in general, as well as some inspiration and examples of what to avoid.

I worked for him in the late '80s as Head of Sales and Marketing at Dyno-Rod. It gave me the chance to get to know a passionate entrepreneur. I was there to organise the 25th anniversary celebrations for the company in 1988 and used the anniversary as an opportunity to author "At Your Convenience," a joke book of drain cleaning stories and cartoons that sold almost 30,000 copies. Here are five lessons I learned from my experiences.

Don't be put off by challenges if you believe in something.

Before Jim, there were no specialist drain cleaners or non-food franchises in the UK, just plumbers for drain cleaning and food and drink franchises from brewers. When he launched, there was no Yellow Pages to promote the service. He wanted to launch a Yellow Pages, but BT wouldn't let him.

He knew the service worked and that he could make money, so he persisted even though Clacton on Sea, the first franchise he launched, didn't work. He convinced a young adman to create a campaign that became famous: a blocked drain running the whole length of a tube carriage. He created a famous brand from scratch.

Trust is critical for a positive culture, but do help people to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, Jim Zockoll didn't trust people. When I was appointed, he wanted proof of my A levels and degree in writing!

All the letters to the company went over his desk so he could keep control. The impact of this was that he was not a popular boss, and I remember that on Christmas Eve, someone in the Dyno-Rod head office threw brake fluid over his gold convertible rolls-royce and the security man employed by Jim could not narrow down the suspects as there were so many.

Making it easy to do good

When I was a child, my mother told me that if I left money lying around and our cleaner took it, it was my fault. Similarly, Jim Zockoll designed his franchises, so it was not easy for franchisees to steal or break the rules. This protects everyone and ensures fairness. A franchise is a shared brand, and the quality needs to be maintained. If a franchisee can take shortcuts or use substandard materials, he undermines everyone.

What I learnt is that a franchisee tends to go through a particular life cycle, starting with immense gratitude for the success and what is being achieved, followed later by a change to feeling that they, as franchisees, are doing all the work and the franchisor is just like the taxman taking a percentage for doing nothing. Hence, if it is easy to pay less, they will take it, just like people looking for tax avoidance schemes.

I have since advised people thinking about starting a franchise and almost always have had to point out that there will be issues as the franchisees become experienced and look to reduce the fees they pay or to find cheaper products to sell, not those of the franchisor.

Franchising - the more you pay, the better!

In 1963, Jim created what became Dyno-Rod, the country's first non-fast-food franchise business, forever changing how Britain unblocks its drains. Modelled on drain-clearing franchises across the US, Jim initially recruited friends who paid a fee to purchase the franchise. The package has varied over the years, but for many, it has included a van, equipment, and advertising. Ongoing, they also handed over up to 45 per cent of their sales revenue.

When I ask people to guess the ongoing franchise fee, they are generally shocked at 45%, but for that, we did everything except drive to the job and clear the drain. Dyno-Rod answered the phones 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, progressed the jobs, did the invoicing, chased the cash, produced monthly revenue accounts for the franchisees, did the advertising and PR, and produced their stationery to use with customers.

We also cared that the franchisee succeeded, as we had 45% of our money riding on it.

Imagine a franchisee paying 10% of turnover as a fee; there is very little available for marketing and support and not enough money to care if one goes under, particularly if the joining fee is high!

Drain cleaning can be interesting, fun and exciting.

Not all Dyno-Rod jobs involve blocked drains caused by hair and grease. It is common for Dyno-Rod to get called out for unexplained bad smells. In February 1983, a Dyno-Rod engineer discovered the remains of a body in a flat occupied by Dennis Nilsen, the infamous serial killer known as the Muswell Hill murderer. And the police have frequently called the firm when they suspect thieves or dealers have flushed money or drugs down the drain.

Dyno-Rod had many business customers from the firm that made London black cabs who blocked their drains with the paint to distilleries in Scotland. A distillery that shall remain nameless had problems with blocked pipes so we sent down a 'pig' a big bung to clear the pipe. It worked, but unfortunately for the firm it was the build up which was blocking the pipe that gave the whisky its distinctive flavour. The moral of the story understand what makes you distinctive!

There are numerous positive and unlikely stories. In 2009, a Dyno-Rod engineer successfully rescued a week-old cocker spaniel that had been accidentally flushed down a toilet by its eight-year-old owner. Neither the fire brigade nor the RSPCA had been able to free the helpless puppy.

My favourite tale is about the callout on a Sunday to a blocked downstairs toilet. Unusually, the householder didn't stay with the engineer as he worked (amazingly, most people do despite the smell). After a very short time, the equipment found the blockage—a roast chicken. Ironically, the cook had been trying to drain the fat without blocking the kitchen sink drain, but the bird escaped from the roasting tray!

Not all ideas are born equal.

Jim was constantly having ideas. In the early Seventies, he developed a franchise for the car-repair trade with Pit-Stop Auto Services, which delivered high-margin service jobs such as resprays, new tyres and replacement bumpers. In 1976, he sold Pit-Stop to Tenneco, the American oil conglomerate, for £1.5 million.

However, Piggy-Back Trailers, a system for towing vehicles, went sour when its marketing strategy failed. Similarly, Old San Fransisco Ice Cream Parlours failed after he launched them in Berlin in the winter.

"I'm a serial entrepreneur," he said. "I started ten companies up and seven went bankrupt."

I joined Dyno-Rod to focus on expanding Dyno-Services, including Dyno-Locks, Dyno-Electrics and Dyno-Plumbing. The goal was to position Dyno-Rod and its subsidiary brands as the "AA of the household". The issue was not getting customers as they trusted the Dyno-Rod brand, and it was high profile. The problem was that we could not convince enough trained tradespeople to join the franchise for electrics and plumbing. They wanted to avoid the disciplines and standards the brand imposed, from turning up on time to quoting, even though we could triple the hourly rate they were achieving as an independent. Dyno-Locks and Dyno-Rod were different because the training was short, and we could provide it.

Last thoughts

I liked Jim Zockoll but didn't like working for him because of his micromanagement and the fact that it was impossible to fulfil the brief I had joined to do " to create the AA of the household," so I left after three years.

My most significant impact was possibly in pricing, where I raised prices by 66% and simultaneously increased the conversion rate from enquiries to jobs. I also spent a lot of time coaching franchisees on how to run their businesses more effectively and improved franchisee recruitment.

I found the drain cleaners' passion for their job inspirational. Many people have achieved a lot with the company. For the 25th Anniversary celebration, we used the Grosvenor Park Hotel on Park Lane, and franchisees filled every suite.

Want more inspiration, read these:

Using collaboration to change the world

Seeing opportunities rather than problems

Using your values and vision to help you through difficult times

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Tags: inspiration Franchising entrepreneur