A family affair

Cherry Lewis-Taylor runs four McDonalds franchises and has been nominated for Female Franchisee of the Year.

Cherry Lewis-Taylor is a bit of a pioneer. In the army, where she spent over 20 years and rose to the rank of major, she was the first female battery commander in the royal artillery, leading an all-male unit.

Having spent all her holidays as a junior officer sailing, she was also the first servicewoman to compete in the Cutty Sark tall ships race and the only serving female skipper to head an all female tri service team.

And she was the first female officer not to be discharged from duty after 14 weeks of pregnancy.

When she took up a franchise at McDonald's after quitting the army for family reasons she became the first franchisee to introduce a five-booth drive-thru, an initiative which was copied across the world. Having started with one restaurant, she now has four, a staff of 400 and an annual turnover of £10m. 

All of which makes her a strong candidate for this year’s Female Franchisee of the Year Award at the 2013 bfa HSBC Franchisee of the Year Awards, which will be awarded on 3rd October.

Cherry served for over 20 years in the army, joining as an officer cadet at 19 and rising to the level of major. She spent six years in the royal corps of signals, was also in the intelligence corps and served at the Pentagon, spent six years in Germany, lived in Cyprus and around the UK, including in Northern Ireland where she trained units in riot control and other tactics. She also served with a field regiment during the first Gulf War.

When she became pregnant for the first time in late 1989 the army would routinely discharge women after 14 weeks of pregnancy, but Cherry did not tell anyone she was pregnant because she was just short of qualifying for an army pension. “I wasn’t ill and I was a valuable member of staff doing an office job,” she says. She was found out, but shortly after the law was changed. She took only four to five weeks maternity leave as she “didn’t want to rock the boat”. A friend looked after her baby daughter. Her son was born around two years later when the family were based in Germany.

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Leaving the army

Cherry left the army shortly afterwards, mainly because as she and her husband rose up the army ranks, it was becoming harder and harder to be posted together and she and her husband wanted their children to have continuity of education and to remain a family unit.

Cherry took redundancy, but she knew that if life on civvy street didn’t work out her husband still had his job. He has since left the army.

Her experience in the forces gave her a huge range of skills, including catering and management and financial skills. “It prepared me well for civvy street,” she says. The hierarchical structure of the army prepared her well for an organisation with a strong chain of command like McDonald's. She was given support to resettle, including briefings on different jobs. None really appealed so she did an advanced business course which fired her imagination and got her thinking about running her own business.

She knew, however, that starting a business was risky and that lots of small businesses fail. So she started looking at franchises, which offered a tried and tested model. She researched franchise options and McDonald's seemed to tick all the boxes she was looking for: it was a people-focused business, it was “the Rolls Royce” of franchise and she knew it well. She researched it thoroughly, did a course in sales and marketing and took a crew member job at a McDonald's restaurant in Harrogate, near where she was based in York.

She then had to do nine months unpaid training to learn the ropes. Her initial training was done at the Hull drive-thru McDonald's followed by a stint at a restaurant in Bradford city centre. Two thirds of the way through the training her husband was posted to Essex and she finished her training in Chelmsford. The cost of the McDonald's franchises can vary and leases can cost as little as £30-40,000 with the rest being borrowed from the bank.

Cherry was accepted as a McDonald's franchisee and was offered the lease of a restaurant in Braintree. The restaurant had no manager so she took that role, quickly built up a team and looked at how she could improve service. She extended the restaurant inside, introduced a marine fish tank and changed the layout of the drive thru, creating McDonald's first five-booth drive through. “The restaurant was always very busy, but orders at the drive thru took too long so we needed to speed that up,” she says. The new layout was replicated globally.

Her success has turned the Braintree franchise into a £4m business with the third busiest drive-thru in the country.

She bought further leases – in Maldon, in South Woodham Ferrers and two years ago in Stansted. She is also an active community member, having sponsored Sporting 77 Football Club in Braintree for over 16 years, and was recognised by Keep Britain Tidy for her innovative food packaging and waste recycling campaign.

What has been vital to her success has been the emphasis on team building. As her businesses have grown, Cherry has been able to promote people. One business manager is not her operations consultant across the four restaurants. Another is her HR manager.

Her business managers have tended to stay with her since the early days and many couples work together. Cherry’s own children, aged 23 and 21, have both worked at the restaurants. “It’s a family affair,” says Cherry.





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