When Paul Sadler took on a part-time job as a swimming teacher in regional Victoria in the 1970s, little did he think he would one day own a swimming school generating around $20 million a year.
The Paul Sadler Swimland franchise now teaches around 25,000 kids a week to swim, employs more than 600 staff and operates in three countries. It has 13 centres - 11 in Victoria, one in Queensland and another in Canada.
Sadler, who was 24 when he opened his first swim school in 1972, saw the need for more swim teachers in an era when a growing number of people were building backyard pools - and the incidence of toddler drowning in those pools was skyrocketing.
But by his own admission, Sadler says making the transition from primary school teacher to businessman wasn't always easy. “They don't teach you about business principles when you're learning to be a teacher,” he says.
One of his first lessons was the importance of having the correct documentation when dealing with franchisees.
“When we started we took some advice that it would be cheaper to stick to a more informal franchise agreement. But that advice was costly because it meant a franchise was able to escape from the relationship on the basis of non-disclosure,” he explains.
Sadler was caught out because the agreement did not comply with Australian Competition and Consumer Commission rules that stipulate franchisors must disclose every member of the franchise in the agreement document. It meant a former franchisee was able to escape from the agreement without paying appropriate fees and re-open using a model that was extremely similar to Sadler's.
This led in 1998 to the loss of prime Swimland facilities that contributed several million dollars in revenue per year to the brand. “A good partnership agreement can add value to the business. Working out exit clauses is just as important as working out sign-on clauses,” he says.
Building the business
But it was a relatively small hiccup on Sadler's path to success.
A turning point in the business' history was when Wayne Pollock was appointed CEO in 2006 and started adding value to Sadler's model. At the time, the business comprised 10 franchises.
Pollock was the catalyst to the business appointing a board, improving partnership agreements and instigating better long-term planning and staff training. All swim centres now have their own strategic plan, growth targets and marketing strategies.
The goal is to put 40,000 children through Swimland schools each week within four years and add another eight to 17 swim centres to the business.
“Over the last 12 months we've added five sites to the business including one at Edmonton in Canada,” says Sadler.
The Canadian franchise came about after a former operations manager, married to a Canadian, decided to take his bride home to help assuage her homesickness, and at the same time open a centre in Canada.
“Forty-three kids turned into 1200 kids in a climate where we had no brand recognition and it was minus 28 degrees when we started,” says Sadler.
Expanding to Vietnam
More recently, Sadler has entered into a partnership with Australian expat and triathlon enthusiast Jo Stewart to start a string of swim centres in Vietnam. Stewart manages Swim Vietnam, which she started in 2008. Swim Vietnam provides free swimming and water safety lessons to children and trains local adults as swimming teachers.
After starting triathlons for kids in Vietnam she quickly discovered many could not swim. Around 25,000 Vietnamese children drown every year, with drownings accounting for 46 per cent of accidental deaths in the country, according to research by UNESCO.
So the pair created Swim Vietnam, which is based in Hoi An. Paul Sadler Swimland has contributed 25 per cent of the cost to build a pool and is taking on total running costs of the pool.
“We also want to establish an elite training centre and we've told our younger teachers we would like them to learn English,” Sadler says.
As for the future, Sadler and Pollock are about to go to the US where they will present to US and global swim centre conferences about his model. The aim is to share ideas and intellectual property with US conference and increase Swimland's profile in the US. The business is also negotiating to open two more swim centres in Canada.
“This level of growth would tip most organisations over and it's a measure of Wayne's planning ability that we are able to grow at the rate we are,” says Pollock.
“Being able to create a feeling of passion within the business is not random. We have a good product, a high level of transparency and lots of support for everyone in the business. People say to me 'why are your people so passionate?'. It's because of the above. I've found kids respond to praise and young teachers do too.”