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New Zealand’s top franchisees of 2017 are a semi-retired couple who believe in working smarter, not harder. They also prove that some of the best opportunities in business lie outside the big cities
A lifestyle block in Te Awamutu might not be where you’d expect to find one of New Zealand’s best small businesses, but then Judi and Earl McWhirter might not be what you’d expect, either. The former teacher and academic bought their Just Cabins franchise in 2008 as a way of supplementing their income and saving for their retirement. Nine years on, despite having no previous business experience, the couple have just been named Supreme Franchisees of the Year in the 2017 Westpac New Zealand Franchise Awards.
‘I was just speechless. Blown away. I did not expect that!’ says Judi. ‘It’s a credit to the Just Cabins franchisor, Fenton Peterken, the systems he’s put in place and the encouragement he’s given us, as well as the support we’ve had from the other franchisees and the whole Just Cabins family. We’re all in this together!’
Just Cabins pulled off a momentous double to win Supreme Franchise System of the Year and Supreme Franchisee of the Year. It’s only the third time in the Awards’ 23-year history that any brand has won both Supreme titles in the same year, and it’s the first time that a non-food franchise has managed the feat.
For Fenton, it marked the climax of a journey that started back in 2010 when he first bought a Just Cabins franchise in West Auckland. He was so taken by the concept that he ended up buying the whole business from the franchisor and selling his chartered accounting business so that he could put all his energy into it. Since then, Just Cabins has been a regular Awards entrant, winning the Lifestyle Services category for five – now six – years in a row. Now they are on the top step as Westpac Supreme Franchise System of the Year.
Just Cabins rents out self-contained units for individuals and companies to use as extra rooms, offices or accommodation. The carefully-designed units come in three sizes and are complete with built-in lighting and power, insulation, carpets, lockable ranch-slider and window, all on a steel-framed trailer base which can be easily towed by a four-wheel drive. They need no planning permission, making the franchisees’ job simple – find the client, deliver and set-up the cabin, then receive the weekly rent as long as the cabin is needed. Once the cabin is no longer required, it can be moved on to the next customer.
Originally founded by a project manager from the construction industry, Just Cabins really took off in 2010 when franchisee Fenton Peterken took over the company. A Chartered Accountant by profession, Fenton brought a financial mind-set to the task of building a business that would truly deliver to both customers’ and franchisees’ needs. ‘Cash flow is excellent and, as portable buildings are classified as depreciable items by the IRD, there’s much more to put back into the business to fund continued growth,’ he told Franchise New Zealand in 2013. In 2014, the company was ranked at number 14 in the Deloitte Fast 50.
With all the franchise territories sold in New Zealand, Fenton has been quietly working on expansion of the concept to other countries. This year’s Awards double will no doubt help to increase interest.
In naming Just Cabins the Westpac Supreme Franchise System of the Year for 2017, the judges said: ‘Just Cabins presented a clear understanding of their customers and their requirements, and a systematic process for reviewing these requirements. They have been working on environmentally-friendly products and have this linked into a systematic process for evaluating their suppliers.
‘It was very clear from this year’s entry that Just Cabins’ mind-set has moved to another level. By embracing the full Criteria for Performance Excellence, which is the internationally-moderated and recognised framework, Just Cabins have set their benchmark even higher.’
WESTPAC SUPREME FRANCHISEES OF THE YEAR
Winner – Judi & Earl McWhirter, Waipa, Otorohanga & King Country
The 2017 Supreme Franchisees of the Year, Judi and Earl McWhirter, are living proof that there’s no perfect age at which to start your own business as long as you choose the right franchise for your needs.
Judi (64) has a PhD in Statistics and spent much of her working life as an academic at Waikato University, while Earl (68) is a retired teacher. After running a bed and breakfast and owning a couple of rental properties, the couple consulted a financial advisor about what they should do when some life assurance policies matured. ‘He told us to pay off the mortgage, which seemed like good advice, but then we came across Just Cabins,’ laughs Judi. ‘When we told him we were buying the franchise instead, he was horrified. But every time we see him now, he says he has to eat his words.’
Just Cabins appealed to the McWhirters for three main reasons: it was a business they could operate after school and at weekends; it offered much better returns than their rental properties; and if tenants were irresponsible, they couldn’t do as much damage, nor would it take three months to get rid of them. ‘If someone didn’t pay, we could just take the cabin away,’ says Earl. Today, the couple operate 71 cabins.
The semi-passive income offered by the Just Cabins franchise has enabled the couple to live their dream. ‘We do about 12-15 cabin moves per month, I do the paperwork and Earl does the maintenance,’ says Judi. Earl is a PE-turned-Technology teacher and is a practical type, having recently made his own mandolin on which to play his beloved bluegrass music. As a teacher, he taught his pupils to create their own paddles before leading them on an end-of-term trip down the Whanganui River.
Judi and Earl, who have been married for 45 years, told the Franchise Awards judges that their personal drivers are ‘spending more time together and travelling the country.’ The judges reported that, ‘Essentially, they are growing the business to provide for this lifestyle and following a robust and successful franchise system that embraces a clear vision, key processes and business planning.’
As Judi sums up: ‘We’re not tied to our business, when we’re away in our caravan the money is still coming into our account and we’re not beholden to any boss. Was it a courageous decision to buy the franchise? No, not really – it was just the next stage of our lives. It was meant to happen.’
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