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Leading in lean times

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Jim Penman of Jim’s Mowing succeeded against all odds.

While a major part of being a leader is about inspiring others, you also need to be a great listener and be able to learn from mistakes.

Jim Penman is so unassuming you would never know who he is. He no longer has the beard seen on his famous Jim's Mowing logo. In fact, he turned up to the interview in the same shirt his franchisees wear cutting lawns, washing dogs, putting up antennas or vacuuming the floor.

The Jim's Group now has 2700 franchisees in four countries, which is a spectacular growth, and the achievement is even greater when you understand Penman's background.

“I was going to be an academic – I did a PhD in history and studied anthropology and zoology,” he reveals. “I developed a different way of looking at the world, with no jobs in sight and my thesis knocked back.” Along the way at university, Penman mowed lawns to pay his way and it was all he had to make money when his shot at an academic goal was kicked out of bounds.

“I was basically broke, owed $30,000 and had crappy equipment,” he recalls. “I got hold of $24, had some leaflets printed and shoved them into letter boxes.”

Unlocking business potential

That was Christmas 1982, but there were no heroic dreams then of what has since grown like a lawn out of control.

“For a long time I never saw it was something with great potential,” he admits. “I tried a whole lot of other things I thought would be more promising, such as a computer shop and a lawn mower shop, but it was mowing that I knew really.

“Gradually after a decade I said, ‘Wow there’s some potential in this’.”

In true entrepreneurial form, Penman sized up the opposition and convinced himself he could do the franchising model better than anyone, especially with regard to the rights of the franchisees.

“I wanted to give my franchisees more rights, more privileges and more security,” he says. One of his early innovations, which has since become law, was that he provided a list of all of his franchisees with phone numbers for prospective franchisees, so they could contact them to see what it was like working with Jim's.

Growing the business

The move into the diversified Jim's Group was not really a carefully planned decision, although he thought cleaning was a natural fit with his business model. However, he didn't think a bearded bloke with a hat was the right image for a cleaner. He was wrong.

“Who would want a gardener in their house?” he asks. “I set up a thing called Sunlite and the whole thing failed.”

Eventually someone told Penman that he wanted to start Jim's Cleaning.

“I told him it wouldn't work as the logo is the gardening image,” he says. “But he insisted it would work – he was right and I was wrong.”

Being proven wrong was a business blessing in disguise as it became the template for enormous expansion. Jim's Group is the largest home service franchise business in the world. It has mowed 30 million lawns for one in five Australian households, cleaned 2.5 million houses, built 200,000 fences, installed 300,000 antennas, washed 100,000 dogs and much, much more.

How has he transformed himself to run a 4000-people business empire?

“I have below-average skills in things like accounts, business skills, etc, but I have a strong experimental streak,” he reveals. “I try things and it might be 10 different things, but it will be the 11th that works and it drives people around me mad.

“The big mistake in business is to start with a model and stick with it,” he says. “You should never do that.”

Leadership tips:

  • Think about decisions and weigh up the good and bad before you act
  • Be innovative
  • Don’t give up when you make a mistake. Learn from the experience and do it better next time
  • Listen to the ideas of others and act accordingly
  • Get in experts in areas of the business where you lack skills.

 

Published on: Friday, February 27, 2009

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