Sunday, February 15, 2004

House Doctors fit the need

Franchise owners receive support, training

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Kenneth Belleman, director of operations for House Doctors Handyman Service in Milford, runs a training session for new franchise owners.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
MILFORD - Franchise fever is high these days, and the handyman industry is hot. House Doctors LLC, founded almost 10 years ago in Sharonville, has developed a prescription for success, building on both of those trends.

Handymen were already in great demand when House Doctors Handyman Service was established in 1994, but the company's founder, Paul Spires Jr., wanted to distinguish his operation from the way that jacks-of-all-trades normally worked.

"This was a very fragmented industry, characterized by lots of mom-and-pop businesses. They didn't have a great reputation," Steven M. Cohen, president of House Doctors, said. "You would call them up and leave a message. You were lucky if you got a call back, and lucky if they showed up."

Spires had launched another franchise, Home Team Inspection Service, in late 1992. He used a similar process for the House Doctors startup, and brought in Cohen to run a prototype franchise in Sharonville.

"I had a background in consumer services, having been a Sears repair licensee," Cohen said. "House Doctors was a natural fit for me, because it was the same concept: in-home consumer services. I knew how to get customers, keep customers and get referrals."

The prototype was very successful, spawning brisk sales of the House Doctors concept. In its nine-plus years of existence, the company has expanded to 200 franchises and has just moved to brand-new offices in Milford. Cohen thinks that the company's insistence on professionalism and customer focus has fueled the growth.

"We call people back promptly when they contact us, and we call back the day before an appointment to confirm it," he said. "Our handymen are bonded and wear our uniform. We don't give people a window of time when we'll be there; we give them a specific time or call them to tell them we're on our way. We know people are busy and don't have time to wait around for us to show up."

For the past four years, House Doctors has been named the top franchise in its category by Entrepreneur magazine and has fared well in the publication's other rankings, such as Top Homebased Franchises and Top Low Investment Franchises. In January 2003, Small Business Opportunities named House Doctors among its Top 15 Businesses for 2003.

Kudos from the small-business media have certainly boosted awareness of the company among prospective business owners.

"I was looking for something to do that suited my experience and my interests," said Bob Tarr, of West Chester, a retired manufacturing manager who describes himself as a "Bob Vila kind of guy."

"I looked into various handyman franchises. I always like to associate myself with the biggest and the best. The research I did suggested that the House Doctors might be that company."

In addition to its reputation and visibility, House Doctors' expansion can be attributed to its ability to spot go-getters, its affordability and its services to franchise owners, Cohen believes. He said folks who like to sit behind a desk wouldn't measure up as House Doctors owners.

"What we're looking for is the energy level of that individual. You don't have to be a handyman yourself, but you do need basic knowledge of tools and repair skills. We show you how to hire the right people to do the work," he said. "We also want owners with good people skills.

"When we look at potential franchise owners, it's not about how much money they have to invest. It's about making a franchise affordable so that the right people can get into this business. We look to the royalty stream to support the long-term growth of the organization."

Like some other franchise organizations - McDonald's, for instance - House Doctors corporate takes a small percentage of each franchise's receipts.

In addition to a franchise fee, a new owner must invest in tools. But the business can be run from home, and cash flow is generated right away, since customers pay when jobs are completed.

Prospective franchisees come to company headquarters for an information session, during which they are given a disclosure document and they see how the company works. New owners go through a one-week training program at headquarters and learn to use the company Intranet and software that handles their paperwork and processes.

"The company provides all collateral materials, from forms to brochures," said Dan Landen, whose Reading-based House Doctors franchise serves eastside Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. "They give you a system; that's what I bought. You learn how to do estimates, how to close out your books, how to pay your guys. They are there for you constantly, and I call them every couple of weeks."

Tarr, whose territory includes southern Butler and Warren counties as well as northern Hamilton County, likes the advertising support House Doctors provides.

"What I've learned, basically, is 'Early to bed, early to rise, work like h--- and advertise.' The company gives us professionally-produced radio and TV ads to use."

Tooling up for growth

A House Doctors franchise costs anywhere from $13,900 to $32,900, depending on the size of the territory and whether the buyer pays cash or finances the franchise purchase. There is an ongoing 6 percent royalty fee.

House Doctors' goal is to sell 30 to 40 new franchises each year. Its coverage is heaviest in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, but the company is expanding into other areas of the country, especially the Southeast and the Pacific Northwest.

Dan Landen's company grew 45 percent in 2003. He currently employs three service technicians and plans to add two more this year. Bob Tarr, who opened in the middle of a snowstorm last winter, has gone from one employee to three in less than 12 months.

Unlike some other handyman service companies, House Doctors owners hire multi-skilled individuals who work for them exclusively.

House Doctors is based at 575 Chamber Drive, Milford. Information: 831-0100.


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