Franchising on the frontline

Afia Sirkhot recently won a major franchisee award for her work taking on three McDonalds franchises. She talks to about her experiences of running three businesses and bringing up two children.

Afia Sirkhot is an inspiring, if slight figure. Not only is she running three McDonalds franchises, but when she set up her first one 10 years ago the five foot two mother of two was a single mum and had to contend with drug users and violent gangs.

Afia was recently named overall UK Silver Award winner and Midland’s regional winner in the British Franchise Association HSBC Franchisee of the Year Awards.

The award is in recognition of her work on her first McDonalds franchise based in Birmingham. Afia says she had always wanted to run her own business, but she built up experience and savings by working first for several years for a supermarket chain first in Walsall and then in London where she was put in charge of 12 supermarkets. “It was hard work and I thought I would prefer to do that for myself rather than another employer,” she says.

While she was working in London and commuting from Reading she had her son Rakim, now 18. She was leaving home at around 5am and not getting home till 7 or 8pm and she wanted to spend more time with her family. She was keen to run a franchise, but realised she needed to save money up as few banks were prepared to lend money to a woman in her mid 20s.

With the money she had saved, she and her first husband bought a newsagent’s in an Oxfordshire village which they ran for a couple of years until it was bought out.

She was just 26 at the time and during her time at the newsagent’s she had her second child, Sabira, now 15. She and her husband took it in turns to look after the children.

Long hours
Afia eventually separated from her husband and bought a convenience store in Sutton Coldfield near where her family live after her parents remortgaged their house. Once again, she had to work long hours and had to be there all the time, but she says she felt really motivated by the need to pay her parents back. After running her own business for a while the support network provided by a franchise and the fact that she would not have to be there constantly appealed to her. She had always worked with food so she decided “to stick with what I knew”.

She did her research thoroughly, looking at several different options, including McDonalds, and talking to a range of their franchisees. “I felt if I talked to enough people they couldn’t all lie to me. They seemed passionate about the business and felt McDonalds were very supportive,” she says.

Her McDonalds interview was three hours long and the company grilled her thoroughly about everything. “They were interested in me and they wanted to know about everything, not just about the business but about my family and my personality. They wanted to make sure I could get the right work life balance for me. I thought at the time that they were being difficult, but I now understand that they have to be very particular about the people who they take on. It is a big commitment for them. If they choose the wrong person it affects their brand and could be very damaging.”

Moreover, she adds, the lease on the restaurant is for 20 years. The cost of the McDonalds franchises can vary. “You can get a lease for as little as 30 or 40 thousand pounds and borrow the rest from the bank,” says Afia. Luckily, she had a lot of savings.

McDonalds also went out of their way, says Afia, to accommodate her need for a locally-based restaurant, although Birmingham was heavily franchised at the time. “They understood that I could not relocate because of my family circumstances,” she says.

She was 33 when she took on her first franchise and says it was daunting when she started. McDonalds had put her on a nine-month unpaid training programme so she had experience in other restaurant, but running your own restaurant is another matter, she says.

She adds that hiring the right people is crucial. There were already existing staff at the restaurant and in her first months she had to sort out who should never have been there and was intimidated by having a boss who was on the premises all the time from those who were committed to turn the restaurant around. It was in an inner city area of Birmingham which was fairly deprived and had a lot of problems with drug use and prostitution.

“When I arrived there was security on the door. It was giving the wrong message to families and putting them off,” she says. She talked to the police and once they realised how serious the problems were she got them onside. “Before it was almost accepted that drug users would come in and use the toilets or be selling in the car park. We started reporting it and the police put a car in the car park overnight to deter people. Eventually the relationship with the police improved and they would come in for a chat and a cup of tea,” says Afia.

She started setting up local community meetings. It was a long process and she received quite a few threats. “I’m very small and I had big guys coming in shouting at me. I learnt that if they shout at you you just shout back louder and they will eventually back down,” she says. One gang was constantly causing problems so she sat down and talked to them. “I tried to explain that I was a mum with two small kids and a business to run. I was not a multinational. I was a businesswoman with bills to pay and that if they wanted to come in the restaurant they had to behave or they would be banned. I asked them to work with me.”

One of the gang came back to the restaurant recently with his own small children. “He said when he looked back he thought what was he doing. I was blown away,” she says.

Afia doubled the restaurant’s takings and gradually things improved. In 2008 she took on another restaurant in Dudley. It was in a retail complex and near where she grew up. She says it was quite surreal that she was hiring people who lived in her own street. Recruitment was a big issue at the new restaurant so she started working with local colleges and schools, doing mock interviews and training days. “I showed them what they need to do to get employed and went into primary schools too with a team of people including a solicitor and a marketing person to give the children the message they could be what they wanted to be,” she says.

In October Afia took on her third restaurant in Halesowen. Her son, who did business studies at college, has been working part time in the Birmingham restaurant to earn some money. Her daughter wants to go into law. “She told me that she would not settle for second best because I never have,” she says, adding that she also told her mum that she was her role model.

Afia, who remarried two years after separating from her first husband, makes sure she has every Sunday off with her children. When she was a single parent she recalls having to be very strict about her hours so she could pick her children up from school and have time with them. “My thinking was that I am a mum first and the business will always be there, but my children will not always be children,” she says. “I think being a single mum at that crucial time has made me a better business person.”

Cathryn Hayes, head of franchising for HSBC, says the judges, including her, were very impressed by Afia. “She has the support of a big brand, but she very much sees herself as a local businessperson who knows what her customers want. She is able to deliver consistency for McDonalds and keep her staff happy and motivated. The beauty of franchises is that you have the support of someone else looking out for problems on the horizon so the franchisee can focus on making the business and success and looking after their customers. In Afia’s case she has not just built a team, but she has become a real part of her local community.

HSBC has a Starting a Franchise guide on their website:

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