Sheffield - Chris + Mary Watson

sheffield case study When Mary Watson and  husband Chris decided to embark on a new life in business together, they  had no idea it would coincide with so many other life-changing events.  Nine years later Mary explains how they managed, and why they’re now  reaping the rewards: as contented parents, new homeowners and veg box  profiteers.

Says Mary:

“It’s been just over four years since  we made our first delivery – that was back in May 2007. My husband  Chris and I had been mulling over the idea to set up, or buy, our own  business for years. Chris worked long hours in advertising, with an  early commute, and I worked in admissions at the University of Warwick.  We’d reached the point where we realised we both wanted a change. At  first we considered starting our own business from scratch, but soon  came to the conclusion that might be a little overambitious because we  had no experience doing anything like that.

Before we became franchisees, we were  actually customers of the Riverford Organic veg box scheme in  Leamington, where we were living at the time. Almost by chance, Chris  was browsing through the Riverford website when he read that they were  opening a new farm in North Yorkshire, and that the Sheffield territory  – where I’m from – was available.

First steps

I was 5 months pregnant and had  already left work, and Chris and I had also been discussing ways we  could move back to Sheffield so that we could be closer to family. It  seemed like the right time for us to look into the franchise  opportunity, before it went to somebody else, and so we went to the  franchise expo in Birmingham, where we met some of the existing  Riverford franchisees. Next, we made a trip down to Riverford’s main  farm in Devon. We were so excited after that we went ahead and lodged  our formal application to buy the Sheffield area straightaway. When we  were in the process of submitting our business plans everything became  rather hectic: I went into labour two months before my due date, and our  son Zachary was born on December 8th 2006 – seven weeks premature. We  still managed to get everything in on time and found out our application  had been successful just before Christmas, at the same time we were  getting ready to bring Zach home from hospital. April 2007 was scheduled  for the launch of our business so the next few months were a blur of  selling our house, Chris working his notice and getting to grips with  being new parents. When we first moved back to Sheffield we went to live  with my parents in their spare room for six months while we waited for  our house purchase to go through. It actually worked out pretty well  having live-in babysitters at that time!

Time together

Everything has obviously settled down  now, and we’re into a steady routine. I love being a mum while also  working on the business part time. For Chris, the biggest benefit is  that he’s been able to spend more time with Zach. Before Riverford,  Chris would have been out of the house for 13 hours a day in his job as  an Account Director for an ad agency, and he’d have seen very little of  him Monday to Friday. Now, even though Chris starts work very early – at  around 5.30am – he’s usually home by early afternoon. My commute is to  the office at the end of the garden – even shorter than the school run!

Show business

In summer, we do a lot of local  shows, which is one of the best ways to get new customers. Almost all of  the shows are on weekends, meaning you have to be prepared to work  Saturdays and Sundays. But it’s vital for us to keep on meeting  potential new customers to grow the business, and shows are great for  this as customers can see our fantastic produce and chat with us about  which box will suit them best. Of course, you have to remember to stay  focused on your existing customers too, particularly around  holiday periods when a lot of people go away and put their orders on  hold. The main thing is to ensure you regularly stay in touch with all  of your customers in some way as it makes them feel valued and also  reminds them that we’re here.

One of the things we’ve learnt over  the last few years is that customer retention is just as important as  acquisition, because it’s harder to acquire new customers than satisfy  the ones you already have. So we, and the farm, work extremely hard to  keep our existing customers happy.

Well supported

The availability of our virgin  territory coincided with the opening of Home Farm in North Allerton. We’ve had a lot of  support from Riverford head office from day one. They’ve helped us with  everything from setting up the business to our initial launch campaign,  which included PR and leafleting. In our first delivery week we had just  60 deliveries to make. We’ve now got 600+ per week, with plans for  further expansion.