How do you separate a good franchise from a great franchise, particularly in the often volatile property market? It’s a question Huizemark co-franchisors André Hamman and Bryan Biehler have often asked themselves as they’ve grown the business, and it’s one of the reasons why Huizemark actually grew during the recession following the property crash.
While the two franchisors have both worked their way up the property industry ladder, starting as assistants to experienced agents in the mid-80s, working their way up to become first agents and finally running their own branches in Randburg and Sandton before purchasing the company together in 1994, Hamman and Biehler have very different personalities and skill sets. This has meant the best of all worlds for Huizemark.
“We’ve been friends and business partners for 30 years, and we bring very different things to the table, which we believe has really helped to grow the brand,” says Biehler. For example, Hamman’s focus has always been on tech and creating systems and tools that not only make the franchisee’s life easier, but that of their agents as well.
“Take away the admin and paperwork and agents have a lot more time on their hands to focus on sales,” says Hamman. Biehler on the other hand is much more focused on marketing. Over and above running his own office, he assists his agents in all their listing and negotiating efforts, even sitting showhouses if need be.
“We’ve never wanted head office to sit in an ivory tower and dictate policies and procedures without fully understanding the market and its needs,” Biehler explains.
“For many years André and I maintained our own Huizemark offices for precisely that reason: We don’t want to be divorced from the coalface, we want to keep our finger on the pulse of the real estate market, we want to understand what franchisees go through, and in André’s case it helped him to develop better systems.”
As the Huizemark franchising group grew however, and more and more of Hamman’s time became focused on the creation of better systems and finding ways to take the franchisee towards a tech-orientated, paperless organisation, the decision was made for the partners to focus fully on their areas of expertise.
“The Randburg and Sandton offices merged under the leadership of Biehler, and Hamman took on the role of CEO of franchising. “We’ve always focused on what’s best for the business,” explains Hamman.
“With this new realignment of our skills and focus, we’ve got very ambitious growth plans for 2014 and 2015.”
A very special birthday
In fact, many of these changes have come into play 20 years after Hamman and Biehler bought the business from Hamman’s father, Huizemark founder Piet Hamman, who launched the business as an estate agency in 1962.
But it’s a year that marks 20 years of democracy for South Africa as well, and is a factor that contributed significantly to the big decision the partners made all those years ago, while still in their early-30s.
“1994 was a time of turbulence, change and excitement in South Africa,” says Hamman. “My father had spent 30 years building a successful business, but by the early 90s the model no longer matched market needs and needed to be adjusted. At the same time, the country was going through massive changes.
“He made the decision to sell the company, which at that time was still called De Huizemark. He elected to sell his shares to me first, but I couldn’t afford to buy them alone. I approached Bryan because we’d started at the company together and had both learnt the ropes from the ground up. We also had very complementary skills which we believed would benefit the business.”
The new partners mortgaged their assets and took loans to cover the purchase, and then set to work on redefining what the business would look like.
“By this stage I was more involved in admin and system-creation at head office than I was in running the Randburg branch,” says Hamman. This changed in short order as both Hamman and Biehler focused all their energy on their respective offices. The aim: To sell as many houses as possible, bring money into the business, keep the brand visible and repay their loans.
“Change is always disruptive and needs to be managed carefully,” says Biehler. “André had developed a number of systems that made the lives of our franchisees easier, and so even as we focused on sales, we were rolling these systems out. At that stage our incredibly loyal franchisees made the decision to stick with us and the brand as we consolidated the business. In fact, three of our first franchisees are still with us today.”
The entrepreneurial franchise
While most franchise models aren’t suited to entrepreneurially-minded franchisees, Huizemark actually embraces them.
“We’ve got three franchise models, the macro franchise, which is based on a traditional model and covers a large area; the micro franchise, which is simply a smaller version of the macro franchise; and the Huizemark Agent-on-the-Go! Professional model which is geared towards experienced agents who want to operate exclusively in an area as entrepreneurs, but don’t want to be a principal,” explains Hamman.
“We realised that there are great individuals out there who want to be independent and left to their own devices, but that also want an affiliation to a strong brand with systems and admin back-up.”
In response, Huizemark developed a model that embraces the entrepreneurial nature of these individuals, and plays to their strengths.
“Unlike many other brands, this model offers exclusivity in an area, which means the agent can invest in marketing and brand building without worrying about another agent in the area benefiting from their investment.”
Consolidation the name of the game
That consolidation took a number of shapes. “The De Huizemark Group had grown to such an extent that in addition to the De Huizemark brand there were 15 other totally individual brands all falling under the Home Buyers Circle or HBC which was my father’s holding company.
“The HBC took up a full third of the property section in the newspapers each week. It looked great, but we realised that the strategy no longer worked. It wasn’t sustainable. It was cumbersome, there was far too much internal competition, and the admin was untidy due to the sheer size of the group and how it had evolved.”
Hamman is the first to admit that he’s highly analytical and likes order, systems and spreadsheets. He likes creating tools that are easy for other people to use, and so his and Biehler’s first focus was to simplify the model.
“De Huizemark was the first company in the group, and is still the most recognisable. We made the decision to keep that as our core brand and consolidate, sell or close the other 14 brands. Simpler was better, particularly if we wanted to grow the brand’s visibility and support our franchisees.”
For the next six years, the focus remained on consolidation. Biehler and Hamman had a small head office support staff who focused on the existing franchisees, and the directors focused on sales, building brand awareness and market equity, and finalising the consolidation process.
“We made no moves to grow our franchisee base,” says Biehler. “We wanted all of our ducks in a row before we began looking at growth. We took our responsibilities towards our existing franchisees very seriously and didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin.”
By 2004 consolidation was complete and the business was comfortable and ready for its next phase. “It was at this point that we made the decision to drop the ‘De’ and change our name to Huizemark, and to develop a new logo and corporate identity,” says Biehler.
Of course, full franchisee buy-in was important before any big brand decisions were made. “Many of our franchisees had been with us for over a decade and so any decisions we made really affected them,” says Hamman.
“We’ve always been incredibly proud of how loyal our franchisees are. They have a huge allegiance to the brand and live and breathe orange. Orange shirts, socks, ties and corporate branding are very common amongst them, and so we knew that whatever we did we had to keep the orange.
“It’s powerful to know who you are as a brand, and to see all your hard work and strategies not only take shape, but lead to your brand flourishing.”
In fact, the timing was perfect. Property was booming and the business found itself under enormous pressure from prospective franchisees to grow.
“There was a huge demand, and we were finally in a position to comfortably embrace it,” he adds. Fortuitously, the partners had also found their franchisee champion in the form of Adrie Barnard, who came with a wealth of real estate and business expertise.
“Adrie was everything we needed to take the brand forward in terms of franchisees,” says Biehler. In fact, the brand has grown from 23 to 43 franchisees since the market crash, attesting not only to its staying power, but how well the business as a whole is run.
“There were very few casualties when the market collapsed, and on the whole we’ve not only been resilient, we’ve grown,” says Hamman. “The shrinking market led to many sole proprieters wanting to join an established brand.”
“We’ve also always focused on non-traditional branding, which we believe makes us stand out,” adds Biehler. “We’ve always been about the personal touch, and our branding is vibrant and full of colour. When the market’s tight, you want to stand out, and we’ve naturally done that. Even our pay-off line, ‘You’re home’ is personal.”
Solving the skills crisis
Like many other industries, the property market is currently suffering from a massive lack of skills. “We made the decision that we could either complain about the problem, or do something about it,” says Hamman. We developed an eLearning platform for agents-in-training to complete the EAAB Logbook — that’s an industry first.”
“Our focus has been two-fold,” explains Biehler. “First, in such a competitive industry, we have to help our franchisees keep their agents. We’ve developed tools that ensure they always have access to training and the ability to upskill.
“We keep them the best in the market, and in return, they remain loyal to our brand. Second, the online Intern Logbook System creates a pipeline of new agents and simultaneously upskills previously disadvantaged individuals and provides employment and growth opportunities. It’s a win-win solution. We embrace transformation in the property profession as most offices countrywide employ people across all race groups.”
Embracing the growth curve
The brand has since enjoyed massive growth. “The property industry has had some bad press, and so transparency is of the utmost importance, both internally and externally,” says Biehler. “We’ve found that ethical practices are rewarded when shareholders trust the brand.”
The franchisors have also taken it upon themselves to ensure all their members are well trained and familiar with changing legislation. “Adrie has embraced the new educational requirements and the results are tangible,” says Hamman. “Our franchisees feel comfortable that we’re providing them with the latest information and training with regards to industry legislation, and that they can rely on us to knowledgably provide them with strong mentorship and coaching in these vital areas.”
Biehler sits on the boards of Real Estate Business Owners of South Africa (REBOSA) and the Institute of Estate Agents (IEASA), and is active in the Estate Agents Affair’s Board (EAAB) and the Property Charter. “We make sure we’ve got our finger on the pulse of real estate and are always up-to-date with any changes, which we then translate directly to our franchisees.”
Huizemark’s recent growth has led to the brand’s latest shift, which is based on Biehler and Hamman fully embracing their new roles.
“Bryan has always been highly supportive of the franchisees and their agents on the ground, and he’ll not only continue to do so, but in his new role this focus will only grow. Meanwhile, I’ll now be dedicating all of my time to developing new systems and tools to support our growing franchisee base,” says Hamman.
It’s an ambitious growth plan: 30 new franchisees within the next year. Thanks to a strong brand, an innovative focus on entrepreneurial franchisees, and technologically advanced systems and tools, there’s no doubt they’ll reach their goal.
The rise of the virtual office
André Hamman loves systems, and this has led directly to the desire to keep things as simple as possible for Huizemark’s franchisees and agents through great tech and tools. “We’re going virtual,” says Hamman. “Head office is already completely paperless, and we’re steadily rolling the system and tools out to our franchisees.”
Why, you may ask? “Because paper is distracting to agents,” he explains. “They need to focus on the task at hand, which is making sales and supporting their clients. They shouldn’t be focusing on endless paperwork.” Hamman is a firm believer that the industry can operate via the Internet and cloud-based technology, thanks to mobile tech like tablets, laptops and smartphones.
“We believe a mix between the old and the new, the traditional and the virtual, will lead to more productive offices, while bringing overheads down at the same time,” he says.
“We’ve already implemented ‘hot desking’ at our home office, and will soon roll this out to franchisees who want it. We’re enabling franchisees and their agents to work from anywhere, which cuts down time wasted in traffic, time spent on admin, and most importantly, decreases overheads.”
Massive success thanks to flexibility
Kobus du Plessis is a model example of the virtual office’s potential. Having started with one ‘office’, he’s now the owner of Huizemark’s largest independently owned group of franchises consisting of six offices with monthly turnover in excess of R50 million.
How has the virtual model helped? “I found the traditional model very inefficient,” he says. “Overheads are high because you have to lease a premises, whereas a virtual office has lower overheads, is mobile and more visible.
“The traditional model is also costly from a productivity perspective. Typically an agent would arrive at work, have coffee and then leave for appointments. Then they’d have to fill out paperwork, take pictures, return to the office to submit new listings, admin would need to process it, and there’s a delay in the listing going live.
“All of this costs money. With the virtual office, all the tools are at the agents’ disposal to make their administrative burden as light as possible and let them get on with selling.”
The database that du Plessis has built up has also made a marked impact on sales. “I’ve been able to build a database of buyers and sellers that matches properties very effectively. The quicker turnaround time leads to happy buyers, sellers and a profitable franchise.”