[Sally Stone relocated to France in 2002 and set up 'Les Bons Voisins', a successful property management business that Sally franchises across France. But it hasn’t all been easy. Here, in an interview French Entrée, she tells her story...]
How did it all begin?
In 2001 a work colleague bought a holiday home in Brittany, France, which he was happy to lend out. My husband had a birthday coming up so what better way to spend it than a cheap weekend away in France, especially given the ferry company's special offers?
So, off we went and found a charming, medieval Breton market town with tiny streets and beautiful stone houses. And warm, welcoming people. And a small house where all you could hear in the garden was church bells and birdsong, even though the house was only five minutes from the centre of the 'town'!
We opened a bottle of wine, soaked up the sunshine, and thanked some nearby neighbours for their help in pointing out local places of interest. And then we got chatting to them. 'If only we could have bought a place like this,' we mused out loud. 'Well,' they said, 'there's a little cottage just over the road which needs someone with a little vision and energy...'
The cottage was rumoured to be available for £10,000, or even less if some of that was paid 'au dessous la table.' Worth a phone call, surely? We were interested immediately. We told ourselves that if we bought a holiday home we could have holidays where we knew the bed would be comfortable! After all, buying and restoring a French cottage would only be the equivalent of a few foreign holidays, wouldn't it?
In short, we decided to go for it. It was a lovely cottage, converted from half of a larger house. The other half was owned by some English people who were absent most of the year. Our new-found friends became our new neighbours too, since their property was just to the right of the cottage!
In a flurry of calls and paperwork we put in a successful offer for the cottage that weekend, but now had to find people to help us with many parts of the purchase and renovation as we returned to reality in the UK. Fortunately, our new friendly neighbours were so pleased that we were renovating the old cottage that they helped us organise things from a distance. While we returned to our working lives in Britain they kept our appointments with France Telecom and other utility companies. They took deliveries. They even sowed the grass seed in the lawn and sourced a local roofer for us. They were marvels! For much of this time we sat in the UK, getting on with our jobs and making plans for our future visits. And all the time we said how fortunate we were to have such good neighbours, because without them sorting out the problems of the renovation at long distance would have been so hard. Or even impossible!
And then we had a thought. What about homeowners who don't have such good neighbours? What do they do? How do they cope?
How did you come up with the idea for your business and how was Les Bon Voisins set up?
And, so it began. The kernel of an idea - a property management company in France specifically designed to help people (of whatever nationality) who owned a 'maison secondaire' there. To provide them with whatever assistance they needed to make their property ownership a pleasure (or, at least, less of a headache than it had been before!) To make sure the grass was cut in their absence, for example. Or their mail re-directed. Or their property taxes paid. Or their property inspected while they were away. Or their deliveries taken in. Or an artisan sourced for that new roof they needed. So many ways to help...
And our belief that the niche for such a business might really exist, spurred us on. After all, France has the highest number of 'second homes' of any country in the world!
And then, just at that time, I was made redundant. For the very first time in my life, and in my 50s, I signed on as unemployed in the UK. When I explained my dream of the new business, in France, the employment exchange staff checked on the rules and regulations and allowed me three months in which to sort out the business plan for 'Les Bons Voisins' - because, yes, that's what we decided to call it: 'The Good Neighbours.'
Among many things I worked on the website, the logo and the slogan which captured the whole idea: 'Caring for those who care for France'. We persuaded the absent English couple who owned the cottage adjoining our new holiday home, to sell their half to us. We planned to restore the two cottages back to the original large family home, and run the business from it. After a big surge of activity, and many heart-stopping moments, we were in France, ready to start, just before Easter 2002.
We always intended to franchise Les Bons Voisins because we felt it was a viable business concept that other people like us could provide and which was transferable all over France, but first we had to prove that the concept really worked. Already we had a queue of prospective clients waiting for us to begin, and so we set to. That first year was hard! The learning curve was more like a vertical rock face with no safety net, and whatever instructions we were given were in a foreign language! And, in addition to actually carrying out the work of the new business we were also trying to set it up and establish it legally, with all the paperwork that involves, in a foreign country, with rules and laws we weren't familiar with, and in a language in which were weren't fluent!
Some things happened just as expected. For example, our early days were full of hard work and there were lots of adjustments to make. So we got that bit right! And we felt partly alienated at the beginning because we didn’t exactly fit in - most of the English ex-pats settling in our area either ran gîte complexes or were early retirees. We anticipated that bit correctly too! But some things I found surprising. For example, I discovered I was passionate about integration into French society - you couldn’t really not be, given the warmth of the local French community that was so fascinated to see this determined English couple working most days of the week and really getting stuck in.
Looking back, it's easy now for the next few years to blur into a recollection of some long days, some laughter, some tears and some triumphs. But it's the detailed memories of those early years that now help us to mentor the couples who join our network, helping them to avoid the pitfalls we fell into so that their progress is smoother and much faster than ours.
My husband, Mervyn, and I split our roles more or less as we had expected. Mervyn, a qualified electrician with a long career in the water treatment industry, became the Mr Fix-It. There were not many practical problems that fazed him. Plus, we made sure our business registration allowed him to use his decorating skills for our clients. Me, I majored in administration, the sourcing of new clients and dealing with day-to-day interpersonal stuff.
The early idea we had, of going together to each client's property to maintain a garden or prepare a house for their arrival, proved to be unworkable. We often needed to go in opposite directions to make sure we achieved what we needed to do to meet the deadlines our clients had set. So, when our friendly neighbours were preparing for a Bank Holiday party or some similar relaxation, we were often away making sure our clients' gardens were weeded or their houses were spruced up ready for their arrival on holiday!
We soon stopped being surprised by what clients asked us to do. Mervyn was once thrown a yellow cushion by a client who said to him: 'That’s the colour I want my lounge painted. Can you do it?' I still have the photo of him anxiously mixing the paint to achieve the desired result - which he did, and they were delighted with the finished job. Then there was the time we miscalculated the amount of wallpaper (an expensive brand available only in the UK) needed for a client's vast hall and had to make two emergency appeals to other clients arriving over from England, asking them to buy some for us. We dared not confess our inexperience to the client!
I would often try and pull my weight on the practical side, to Mervyn’s evident amusement. He found me one day, in a client’s cupboard, trying to paint the interior in a heat wave with an elbow hurting from too much pruning of another client's garden.
He, on the other hand, did not understand what on earth I did with my days as I went from government office to government office, registering our business, sourcing professional insurance (nearly impossible when the companies realised we kept keys for up to thirty other houses in our home!) or simply gathering information to make sure we complied with rules we sometimes did not even know existed.
I learned to understand the system of queuing in France. I realised that even with an appointment I might wait two hours in a corridor to see an official, only to discover that it was then five minutes to midday so the shutter would go down for lunch and I would need to return at 2 pm to begin waiting again. So, to make this dead-time profitable I took my French language books everywhere with me, and my Walkman, and turned those hours of waiting into language-learning time.
What is it that clients find so helpful/useful about the services you offer?
The range of things we did for our clients grew and grew - as did our database of contacts for the products and services we could not supply ourselves.
Each time we assessed a new client's requirements we sourced local artisans to do the things we could not undertake personally. This was truly a win-win situation. The absentee proprietor gained a good reputation by employing local labour, the French artisans found work they would not have been aware of without us. And so we made a living within that first year, covering all our living costs and basking in the warm approval of our local community.
We also learned to help those clients who let out their holiday homes as gîtes in the holiday season. We helped them by smoothing the experience for their guests and ensuring their holidays were a success. A lot of that early experience and expertise is what I now pass on to the new franchisees in the LBV network. And some of the best advice involves dealing with the simplest things we learned to solve back then, such as preparing good directions to the property (so that holiday makers didn't arrive tired and cross because they'd lost their way) and stocking our own fridge with basic ingredients for an 'emergency' first evening meal for them in case guests arrived expecting to find a supermarket 'open all hours' like in the UK. After all, these holiday gîtes were often in small French villages and hamlets. Maybe the nearest open-all-hours supermarket was in Paris!
However, the majority of our early clients kept French homes for their own use and came from very different situations and from all parts of the world. A young couple from Bristol, for example, who needed help to negotiate their dream property. An Australian in America who had sadly lost his wife and needed his holiday home emptied and sold. The ex-president of ASLEF who arrived on a bitter November day and needed logs for his fire. The professor of logistics who forgot how to use his central heating every single time he visited his house...
And the pièce de résistance among the services we rendered to clients? That would be for our Louis Vuitton designer client who needed help with his fortieth birthday party. This was held at his holiday home in our commune and involved 110 people arriving from all over the world, a chef from Paris cooking for five days in our kitchen (the client's kitchen wasn't finished!) the hiring of tables and taking delivery of vintage champagne, and employing various local people to wait on the tables. That whole affair was a full-time job for a few weeks!
The tasks we undertook for clients were as varied as the clients themselves. Some help was administrative - such as paying their property taxes on their behalf or arguing with the local tax office as to what amount of TVA (the French VAT) they should pay - while some was practical: perhaps organising the renovation of their garden, or lighting the lamps in their house to give a welcome glow for their late-night arrival, or getting rid of the hornets' nest in their chimney, or organising an emergency boiler installation because they had eight guests due to arrive within 48 hours... All part of a day's work for a property manager. A local ex-pat once said to me: 'Property management? That means you clean gîtes for new guests, doesn't it?' I just answered, 'Yes' for the sake of simplicity. If only he knew...
The worst thing? Ironically, it was that our workload took off before we had finished our own home. We found that a challenge to deal with. We would leave a pristine house ready for our clients and return home to a bedroom which still had no door, a kitchen where the new, beautiful sink wasn't plumbed in for ages (we did have a utility room, so don’t feel too sorry for us!) and a living room that was not yet painted. I have to tell you, you can get quite fond of the colour of bare plasterboard! But, how could we complain? That business niche we had been confident existed was proving to be much bigger than we thought.
How the business is going and why you decided on the franchise route to grow your business…
Without us even advertising it, the LBV network began to grow. Couples who were thinking of providing similar services in France would find our website and then ring us to talk about how it all worked and how we had set it up. We'd explain the processes, and some of the pitfalls, and some decided to join us rather than trying to start theirs from scratch. Within six months of beginning we had a couple working with us on whom we practiced our mentoring skills. We helped them to register their own business but within the LBV framework, using our proven methods and with our help.
More couples followed. By the end of 2005 we had five other areas covered by franchisees within our growing Network. By the end of 2006 there were fifteen. By 2007 there were twenty-three. And so on. The recruitment and training of our new members is something I find fascinating ... especially the mentoring we provide as they start their businesses. Life in France is not always the dream they suppose it will be and we have had people leave the Network because of the pull of family issues, or illness, or because plain old homesickness got the better of them. But along the way they have provided a service to home owners in France and we still helped them to achieve their dream even if that didn't always play out in the way they hoped.
Because not all dreams do play out, and if that happens to one in a 'new' country then one has to adapt and move on. In my own case, Mervyn and I divorced in 2010 and I continued running LBV alone because it had been very much my baby from the beginning.
The LBV Network continues to flourish and in 2012 it actually expanded to become part of a group of property-service-related companies, having been joined by the specialist 'planning permissions' company, French Plans and a new estate agency LBV Immo.
There's no resting on our laurels though. The reputation I have worked so hard to build now needs equal work to make sure we retain it! The franchisees that joined us early in our development, who showed great faith in joining a new and very young network, now often have roles within the Bureau Central (Head Office) support team. Unusually for a franchise, we have mentors in place for our new franchisees, and we have also completed a very long audit and consultation with a French franchising expert to ensure that what we provide to members is a good example of a franchise within the French definition of that term. In France, being a member of a franchise network is actually regarded as a step-up from the norm, because it is well known that you will have been recruited and trained to a high standard because the French franchise industry is highly regulated.
The future? Watch this space ... there’s an awful lot of France to cover yet!