Charlie Hodgson - Reading, Newbury & Oxford

CASE STUDY

What did you do before becoming a Network Partner?

I went to Magdalene College, Cambridge to study Classics. I think it’s fair to say that Classics doesn’t translate as directly into life skills as some other more vocational degrees and I decided, following graduation, that I should learn something useful about commerce and finance. However, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do in the long term. I fell into training as an accountant at Deloitte and then spent the next twenty years or so working in corporate lending (Bank of America, Barclays, ABN AMRO and RBS) and working in corporate recovery within large accountancy firms, advising distressed companies (Grant Thornton and PwC).

My career in finance was reasonably successful and the sector’s well remunerated. I worked hard and earned a good living; I found the work interesting but I didn’t feel any clear vocation for it. As above, I worked in some very Blue Chip organisations and was fortunate to work with some very bright people, many of whom became good friends but I never felt 100% at home in the culture.

What prompted you to investigate franchising?

I think it’s fair to say that I got lucky in that franchising at S4K found me as much as I found it!

Over the years I’d become disillusioned with working in the financial services sector – the politics; the bureaucracy; various rounds of management changes; restructuring projects that resulted in redundancies but little in the way of genuine efficiencies; and the poor employee morale that goes with all of that. Over a period of time I felt an increasing desire to makes some changes. I looked at various opportunities including setting up or buying a business or career change towards something more fulfilling and community centred.

The challenge I found with setting up in business for myself was that whilst I’d accumulated a breadth of knowledge about finance and I was a product/service specialist, in reality I was a sector generalist. I had transferrable skills but didn’t have in depth operational experience outside financial services. I was realistic that the answer was unlikely to be buying or starting a bank so I needed to learn something about another sector! I kept an eye on various business sale websites and explored some opportunities introduced by my contacts but I didn’t find anything that looked interesting commercially and matched my interests, practical knowledge and skills. At a high level I investigated some franchise opportunities but I never got as far as due diligence. In each case I quickly realised they amounted to little more than an opportunity to buy a job that offered lower pay and less job security than I had in full time employment. Probably my mind set was influenced by my attitude to risk as well as the quality of the opportunities on offer.

Things changed when just over five years ago my father tripped on a curb and, cruelly, his injuries were out of all proportion to the accident – he broke his neck and we lost him after three weeks in intensive care. I was very close to my father. I respected and admired him and he was a mentor to me. Dad wasn’t academic: I remember when he and a friend visited me in Cambridge for a formal dinner he turned to his friend and said “Not bad for us to be here with three o-levels between us!” However, he was hardworking, honest and commercially astute; he loved his work in the property sector; he was generous to a fault, both with his time and resources; and he was fully immersed in the communities in which he found himself. He supported the village church and dedicated time to his voluntary work as a trustee at Sue Ryder, a charity that specialises in palliative care. Dad was very sociable with is own friends and Mum and Dad were always incredibly welcoming and hospitable to my friends and my siblings’ friends. At his funeral there wasn’t room in the church for everyone who came to pay their respects. Inevitably, what had happened caused me to pause, re-evaluate and reflect. In time, I decided that life was too short to stick with the rat race. My career in financial services left very little time for things that mattered to me more, including family.

I’ve always enjoyed training and mentoring more junior colleagues and I plucked up the courage to have a go at teaching in a secondary school. I taught English and Business and Economics. This included working with children with Special Educational Needs and Disability. To make a career in teaching work for me and my family I needed to find some cost savings and an additional source of income to plug the gap between an experienced banker’s salary and a trainee teacher’s wages and my wife Charlotte and I started doing AirBnB in a part of our home. Whilst it was borne out of necessity, we quickly learnt that running our own business (albeit in a very small way) could be enjoyable, sociable and empowering as well as rewarding. It’s fun meeting new people and helping them enjoy their stay and we take a real pride in providing the best experience we possibly can.

By dropping the 3 hour round trip commute to London I freed up time get back involved more in rugby and cricket, both playing and coaching. I’d had a previous connection to S4K as a parent as my youngest son, George was at school with Steve’s children and he was amongst the early cohort of S4K footballers. S4K did a huge amount towards building George’s confidence and his enthusiasm for sport so, as parents, Charlotte and I had first-hand experience of the ‘S4K Way’ as a customer. In the early days of S4K Steve and I had previously discussed me getting involved working with S4K but I just didn’t have the time- I was too tied up trying to balance family commitments with an all-consuming financial services career. Things had changed post rat-race and I spoke to Steve about getting involved in S4K and an opportunity arose to work with S4K rugby. Steve was looking to add to the S4K rugby service line team so I got involved working with George Chetwood, training coaches and developing the rugby curriculum. When George decided to move on to a different opportunity outside S4K I became the head of the Rugby service line.

If you’d told me at this point that I would become an S4K Network Partner I wouldn’t have believed you. However, when I saw S4K as an insider I became so impressed with the opportunity and the passion to grasp it with both hands that I wanted a part of it. I think S4K is different from other franchises I’d looked at due to the level of support that’s available setting up and getting the business running. It’s the wealth of resources and expertise available and the culture Steve and Mark have built. I find everyone in the S4K team so helpful, approachable and willing to go the extra mile to help – there’s a genuine desire amongst the team for continuous improvement, always to leave things better than one finds them.

Why the children’s sport and education sector?

S4K also grabbed my attention because it provides a service that society needs. We need to help children develop an enthusiasm for keeping active at a young age. The temptation for children to sit in front of a screen all day has never been greater – and there’s a massive temptation for tired parents, worn out by busy jobs, to allow this to happen. From research I’ve read and conversations I’ve had with wellbeing experts, I’ve concluded that happiness and mental well-being are very closely correlated to physical health; the quality and range of relationships we have; and our sense being part of a community. I feel that sport can help deliver on all of these criteria. Based on my own experience, I feel involvement in sports creates opportunities to build friendships, develop the ability to collaborate and forge a sense of belonging to something whereby the total is more than the sum of the parts. I love sport and enjoy working with children so I realised quickly that this was the opportunity I’d been looking for.

Why an S4K Network Partner?

Putting aside my personal journey and my own motivations, I think the S4K model just makes good business sense.

Children’s sports coaching is a highly fragmented sector. Whilst the state (by running maintained schools) is one of the largest employers of PE teachers and sports coaches in the UK, this is spread across a huge number of different schools (over 24,000 in January 2019 according to the Office for National Statistics). Even in larger secondary schools the PE teams are relatively small and the level of collaboration between schools is mixed. There are a variety of resources online and others that can be begged, borrowed and stolen but there’s scope for PE lessons to vary considerably from one school to another.

Outside schools, the challenge is similar. Sports clubs and small local coaching companies take a variety of approaches to the delivery of sports coaching to children. Sports’ governing bodies work hard to promote consistency but most coaches are volunteers, enthusiasts and improvisers so the quality and approach varies. Also, whilst safety cannot be compromised, sports’ governing bodies rely to a great extent on the goodwill of volunteers so it’s hard for them to enforce standards rigorously.

By contrast, Sport4Kids professionalises children’s sports coaching. There’s a clearly defined approach with a focus on entertainment, Montessori learning and best in class technical skills. Centralised quality control means that the same curriculum and session plans are used consistently across the country rather than each coach separately reinventing the wheel by generating their own. The training of coaches is consistent throughout the network and audits ensure that a consistent quality of approach is maintained across the network. This ensures the quality of the product and service is front and centre but also (and increasingly so as the S4K network grows) delivers economies of scale that are simply not available to smaller operators.

Through tireless effort – consistent persistence as they often refer to it – Steve and Mark have developed and continue to hone a model that works and is highly scalable. They’ve learnt lessons (sometimes the hard way) that save me from learning them by trial and error. The wealth of experience, resources and support available to me under as a franchisee are fantastic. This was one of the key factors that gave me the courage to own a business in a sector that I have not previously worked in except as a volunteer.

I also think there’s much more to come for S4K Network Partners. As the map of the UK is painted blue, with S4K expanding into more territories every week I think the economies of scale enjoyed by Network Partners will grow in terms of marketing, the branding, purchasing power etc.


How was it in the beginning?

We’re still in the early stages as we’re not launching our first weekend skills classes until September this year. Our current focus is on recruiting and training coaches and securing venues.

I think the experience so far is that we’ve had clear and effective guidance on what we need to do and how to do it.

With hands on support from S4K we’ve secured agreements with venues and we’re already building relationships with additional venues with a view to our future expansion. S4K supported our negotiations and advised on acceptable price points for the type of venues we looked at. S4K also provided insight in terms of the pros and cons of different locations and the practical access arrangements/policies operated by the venues.

Attracting applications to work with us has been easy. S4K recommended a listing on Indeed, recommended the appropriate level of spend and provided us with a template with the wording of the advertisement, which needed only minimal input from me such as entering the towns we’re recruiting in.

Likewise, our digital marketing was easy to set up. I’m a bit of a luddite but all I had to do was provide some limited information to the administration team who passed it on to a recommended digital marketing expert and it was done in short order.

We’ve also attended a local fete and a summer show. There was a module on the S4K University that told me exactly what I needed to do to meet S4K standards, the key success factors and what equipment/paperwork I needed. Whilst exhausting, these summer events haven’t felt like work. Running interactive opportunities for children to discover S4K puts smiles on their faces and those of their parents and I’ve found people are really receptive to what we’re trying to achieve. Parents understand the opportunities for physical and social development that sport offers and they’re receptive to the way S4K goes about it. It feels like we’re pushing against an open door in terms of the level of demand for what we do.

It’s early days but we already have a nursery customer and another is likely to sign terms imminently. We also have leads for provision of services to schools and we’ve had have some party bookings on the strength of the S4K brand, without having really done any specific marketing of this service line yet.

What is your typical day like?

Thus far we’ve been laying the foundations for growth. I’ve chosen to work with a general manager whilst also doing a part time consulting role for three days a week.

It’s been hectic but fun so far. I wouldn’t say there’s a standard day but there are key activities that will underpin our growth. These are securing venues, recruitment and marketing. There’s an element of desk work to identify venues. There’s lots of interaction with people including potential customers, potential recruits, the S4K team, the coaches we’ve already hired who are in training and more.

It’s fun and varied and the think I like the most is that we’re fast and flexible compared with large corporate life. S4K provides guidance and standards for doing things properly but this is because they want use to succeed rather than a bureaucratic imposition of their will! Where we have made occasional mistakes we’ve just gathered round and fixed them, learnt the lessons and moved on.

How is business in the current economic climate?
It’s hard to say as I haven’t operated this business in a different economic climate. I think the kind of parents that are interested in what we do are essentially diligent parents who want the best for their children.

I think all diligent parents want to provide opportunities for their children. Clearly affordability is an issue if consumers have to tighten their purse strings. In the food chain families there’s not doubt that there are other forms of expenditure that come before children’s sports coaching (e.g. mortgage, utilities, food etc). S4K is discretionary spend but I think parents will look to rein in on a range of other things before they cut back on spending money on their children.

Aside from where we are in the economic cycle I think the long term outlook is positive. The UK population is growing and government data is showing growth in GDP. Mental health and childhood obesity are constantly in the newspapers and our offering plays a role in addressing both of these challenges. I sense there’s a trend in society towards the increasing accumulation of experiences rather than material possessions and irrespective of where we are in the cycle there’s political will to improve children’s access to sporting activities and grow.

In my opinion we’re bringing a differentiated service offering to a large growth market. I think the S4K model will increasingly bring the S4K network advantages in terms of scale and efficiency as the network accelerates its coverage into the rest of the UK. I think there’s a compelling business case for increasing our market penetration in a fragmented market.


What advice would you have for others considering an S4K Network Partner in this sector?

For me, S4K meets my priorities in that I think there’s a good living to be earned in an exciting and fulfilling environment, with lots of support.

I would urge people considering becoming an S4K Network Partner to think carefully about what they want in their life and career. If joining S4K delivers on those priorities, they shouldn’t let fear or self doubt deter them from taking a leap of faith.

Back yourself and remember that S4K wants its Network Partners to succeed so there’s a team to lean on. It’s daunting but you’re becoming a part of a great team.


How do you see the future of your business?

We’ve secured the franchise territories of Reading, Oxford and Newbury so at the very least we want to be the most successful children’s sports entertainment provider in the region. In terms of what success looks like, I want us to be a truly community-based business that looks after its customers, employees and partners. I want our business to help develop the confidence, happiness, physical and mental wellbeing of everyone involved in it (including me!).

From a personal perspective, as a minimum, I hope to make a good living. However, you’ll know by now that I firmly believe in the business model so I’m really ambitious for our business. The quality and breadth of the range of services we can offer makes me confident that we can be a £2m turnover business in the medium term and who knows what from there. However, at least of equal importance is doing something my family, colleagues and I can feel proud of.

I hope that by the time I hang up my trainers and discharge the static from my nylon shorts for the last time, I will have left a legacy for my family and the families of those we come into contact with.

 

S4K Franchising Ltd.

Windlesham Court, Bagshot,
Surrey, GU19 5NG, United Kingdom