AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 TRADES:  Business Doctors

Matt Levington


Business Doctors specialises in supporting small and medium sized businesses, helping them fulfil their potential. Now exporting to Africa, Asia and Europe, co-owner Matt Levington explains how the business started trading internationally.

What does your company do? 

Business Doctors is a franchised network offering hands-on growth consultancy to the owners of small and medium sized businesses.

When was your company launched, who by and why? 

Business Doctors was launched by Rod Davies and Matt Levington above a Cheshire Indian takeaway in 2004. Introduced in the pub by a mutual friend, the pair vowed to use their combined 40 years of managing director level experience to make their own brand of hands-on management consultancy style services accessible, affordable and relevant to owners of small and medium sized businesses. 

Starting small and local, Rod and Matt spent their first three years perfecting their craft in the Merseyside area. With the Business Doctors name already trademarked, the pair drew on their international experience of managing SMEs to help their clients achieve next level growth.

Their home grown brand of business growth support was refreshingly practical and jargon free. And it seemed small businesses were crying out for their style of no-nonsense help including sales planning, new market development, recruitment, fundraising, succession planning and team building.

Rapidly the entrepreneurs realised they had hit upon a winning formula.

In 2009 they launched their first UK franchise and today Business Doctors help SMEs to grow in 13 countries, including India, South Africa, Irish Republic and Malta.

How long has the company been exporting?

We identified South Africa as our first international market and appointed a master franchisor there in May 2014.

There were several reasons why we chose South Africa, not least because we were receiving regular enquiries through our website from South African SME owners who were looking for business support. This gave us the confidence that the Business Doctors' ethos and brand translated well over there and so we set about recruiting a master franchisee to take on the territory.

South Africa also felt like a good starting point for overseas expansion because we share a language and there is only a one hour time difference.

What do you currently export, and where to?

Since then, we have expanded into India, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Malta, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Irish Republic.

UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait are next to go live.

What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?

Demand. We started receiving lots of enquiries from potential franchisees in South Africa because one of the web platforms that we use in the UK, Which Franchise, also publicised onto their South African website pages. That generated a lot of interest but we couldn’t engage with the enquirers because we didn’t have a master franchise in place and couldn’t support them from the UK.

But given the ongoing demand, we went out there and appointed an agent to help us find a master franchise investment partner.  The whole process took around three years in all, and we kissed a lot of frogs. But then out of the blue, we got an enquiry from a gentleman called Steve Sutton who was working as a strategic director with a telecoms company.

He’d been seeking his own business opportunity and had been trawling the internet for things he was interested in, which was providing business support to SMEs. Our head office is based in St Helen’s, and funnily enough that’s what caught his eye. He clicked on our link, got in touch and turned out to be everything that we were looking for. A very fortunate coincidence for us both.

Steve invested in the master franchise for southern Africa, which includes Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia. He currently has around 25 franchisees. We’ve since expanded into 14 countries around the world, include those mentioned above and the UK.

What is the easiest part of exporting?

Because our model for export is licensing via franchise, the responsibility for local market knowledge and cultural alignment of our brand and service lies with the person in that territory. Having that local knowledge is a major factor in trading overseas, so we are very much at an advantage in that sense. One of the benefits of franchising is we are trusting the partner to apply our brand, approach and ethos and retain the core set of standards, while being responsible for alignment to the local market conditions.

And the most challenging part?

Finding the right trusted partner. What we’ve learnt is we can’t control the day to day operations remotely, so we have to trust the partner to stay within the parameters of our core values, approach and ethos and not go off brand. If they do, it could devalue or diminish the brand for other licensed brand operators in any country.

What we do is control the brand and service that’s delivered through observation and management information reporting. If it starts to look like someone is going off-piste, we can bring them back in line. It’s something that we need to be aware of and keep an eye on.

Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?

When we first expanded into South Africa, we priced the sale of our master franchise in South African rand. The value collapsed during the negotiation period and we ended up receiving half of what we anticipated. That taught us to always value our initial investment requirements in sterling, US dollars or euros. They’re stable currencies and fluctuations are minimal, meaning that we’re relatively secure from major changes in value.

There are a lot of cultural differences, and even though we have master franchisors to handle each international territory, we do sometimes have issues with them. It’s not always the countries that are furthest away that cause the problems – there can be big cultural changes between us and countries closer to home. Belgium, for example, has three languages and using French in a part of the country where Dutch is preferred can be a major faux pas

Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?

None – not a bit! We tried engaging with the government and local authorities but there was nothing of substance either in terms of funding support or advice. There was some export training available in the UK, but we didn’t need training on export theory: the senior Business Doctors partners have 30 years of experience at senior director level in overseas markets between us.

What we needed was hands on resources and expertise to help us expand into those markets, such as legal help. Basically you just have to buy it in. There’s no government funding to support anything like this, and enterprise agencies tend support businesses in their local market rather than those who want to export.

It’s a bit disappointing really. We had a few meetings with different people in UK Trade and Investment but never managed to get any help.

What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?

Business Doctors’ core product for its SME clients is strategic planning, so the first thing I would suggest is to make sure you’ve got a coherent strategic plan in place that defines the overseas market as the opportunity to be focusing your growth around.

In our early days we weren’t strategic, we were opportunistic. Sometimes you can get distracted with what appears to be a significant opportunity when actually you haven’t exhausted the first 20 opportunities that are on your doorstep. Don’t get distracted, make sure it’s part of a coherent strategic plan and in line with your stakeholder aspirations.

The other thing I’d say is you have to know and understand your market. Often the only way you can do that is by engaging people that are fully immersed in that particular country and who understand all the nuances, trading practices, the supply chains, all those things. It’s very difficult to suddenly get an injection of knowledge, you need to have someone based in that country or at least from that country on your team.

Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years’ time?

When we look strategically at our business and we see the opportunity for export, our number one market in terms of having a significant impact on our overall business size and value is the US. We believe our brand sits very well in that market and there’s a massive demand for what we do over there.

We’re unusual in that most business to business support organisations and service providers in the franchise market tend to come from the US or Australia and are exported into the UK. We’re a British brand that is going out into those more established markets. Franchising in the UK accounts for a very small percent of GDP, whereas in the US and Australia it’s a huge amount. We’re currently seeking partners in those markets.