How Grant Ponting Grew Trappers into a R300 Million Business When Grant Ponting took over the Trappers franchise in 2003, he needed to build a strong, cohesive group geared for growth, win the trust of his franchisees and prove that business is better when you work together. Today, Trappers has 34 stores and a turnover of R300 million. Here's how.
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- Players: Grant Ponting (MD) and John Black (Head of Retail)
- Company: Trappers
- What they do: Lifestyle and outdoor retail franchise
- Turnover: R300 million
- Number of stores: 34
- Visit: www.trappers.co.za
Every business has strengths and weaknesses. Successful companies learn to recognise and mitigate their weaknesses, while building on their strengths.
When Grant Ponting and his brother Mark bought the Trappers franchise group in 2003, their first priority was to determine the business's strengths and weaknesses, and what it would take to build a strong cohesive franchise group.
At the time, Trappers' turnover was R25 million with 16 franchised stores. Today, it has 34 stores and a turnover of R300 million. Not only has the number of stores doubled, but average store turnover has quadrupled.
This didn't happen overnight. It took careful planning, patience, building up trust and delivering on promises — and above all it required clear and focused goals.
Finding the strength in weaknesses
Both Grant and Mark were familiar with the Trappers brand before they invested in it. Having grown up in Nelspruit and attended university in Kwa-Zulu Natal, they knew the Pietermaritzburg and Nelspruit stores, and their owners. It was a strong brand that filled a niche in farming communities, but it didn't have a retail footprint in larger South African cities.
"My family were consulting for the Nelspruit store," explains Grant. "The business had three separate shareholders. The franchised stores were loosely affiliated, with no strong head office system guiding the brand's strategy or overall positioning.
"We believed that the brand had legs, and that we could leverage its strong heritage and grow it beyond 16 stores through a franchise model," he says. "We realised that we may lose stores who did not buy into our vision at the time, but we also knew that making these necessary changes at that time was critical for the business to grow."
"One of the strengths of the brand was how well each store owner knew and engaged with their community," says John Black, who bought shares in the business in 2011. "These were community stores run by entrepreneurially-minded people. But they were not used to being told what to do by a brand head office.
"All 16 stores operated independently. Our goal was to centralise the company, create a clear strategy and disseminate it to our franchisees, bringing all the benefits of a franchise with it, including economies of scale."
The idea seemed simple. The reality was not. "There was pushback," says Grant. The store owners Grant and John were attempting to woo to their way of thinking hadn't joined a fully formed franchise.
"They were there because they were good entrepreneurs. We needed to use that, not fight it; that's what had brought the brand to where it was, and we liked the brand. But we also knew that any real growth would only come if we were able to forge a strong, unified franchise business."
The very thing that gave Trappers its strength was also the biggest barrier to its growth as a brand. "We knew we needed to win them over. They had to trust us if this was going to work. If we could harness their entrepreneurial spirit and also create a consistency in the brand and its offering, we'd build an incredibly strong business."
Grant and John's mission was simple: Find a way to create a balance that encouraged individual store owners to take guidance, input and leverage what head office put in place but still maintain their individual, entrepreneurial spirits, running competitively in their towns, understanding their markets, and responding to local needs.
"We lost a few at the beginning. Some because the model was never going to work for them. Others because we recommended they de-franchise their stores. We were too far away from them, and didn't believe we could give them proper support while we were consolidating the business. It was in both of our best interests to part ways," says Grant. "We also knew that those remaining would have our full support."
They needed to convince their franchisees that their strategy and credibility would change each store owner's business for the better.
"We started by providing them with exclusive product ranges via a head office-owned wholesale business, in addition to exclusive deals and product ranges in partnership with key suppliers to the group," says John. Today, John heads up the retail operations of the business.
"As the business grew, the group was not only achieving better pricing, but opportunities to expand into exclusive ranges presented themselves more regularly, which in turn resulted in the development of a centralised merchandising and IT model," explains Grant.
"We also needed to create a consistent marketing message. There had been no consistent strategy or brand identity. Everything was localised. While that's good — you want strong, focused localised marketing — you also need a unified brand message. The key is to be consistent and centralised."
As these started to improve, there were economies of scale, which brought with them cost savings, service enhancements, banking benefits and gift vouchers.
"We could do cost-effective group SMS campaigns, packaging, staff uniforms — these are all costs that add up," explains Grant.
"They're also small brand touchpoints that don't massively shift brand experience alone, but together create a consistent and recognisable brand experience."
"Once you get everyone swimming in the same direction, you enter a safe haven," adds John. "There's comfort and support that a franchise brings its members. As a group we are far more powerful together, which is critical in this economy."
"In a competitive market, the more leadership we can provide, the better," says Grant. "Retail 20 years ago was simple: You just had to be a good retailer. Now you need a social media expert, legal experts, marketing — all of these are specialised services. It's tough for a single store operator.
"Then, if you bought well and delivered good customer service, you did well. Now, there are so many complexities. You might be a good retailer, but you'll still have gaps. A strong head office can fill these, either internally or with service providers, and costs and learnings are shared.
"There's a lot of information that can be shared between franchisees through workshops and conferences. We also play a key role when it comes to third parties — landlords and suppliers are more accommodating and trusting of a store that's part of a group."
Trappers' success has been based on trust and transparency throughout the value chain. "In the beginning, we gave more than we took," says Grant. "Sometimes this was to our detriment, but it empowered our franchisees. We wouldn't be where we are today if we hadn't. We couldn't afford to lose franchisees, and so we took our time building their trust. We listened to them, and slowly put what we needed in place.
"We ended up compromising a lot, but it was necessary. As we proved ourselves and earned our franchisees' trust, we were able to put more wide-reaching systems and processes in place, working with their knowledge of their communities and shoppers.
"Our compromises cemented a culture of working together. We've centralised the business, and costs and efficiencies are streamlined, but we've also got an empowered group of franchisees." According to Grant, if a franchisor is providing more than franchisees are paying the franchisor, you're in a good position.
"If it reverses, that's incredibly short-sighted — especially if you're trying to maximise something in the short-term, to the detriment of your future relationships with your franchisees.
"At the end of the day, we won our franchisees over with an increasingly trusting relationship; this has been the critical success factor in our relationship with our franchisees."
Refocusing on what matters
Alongside the franchising growth strategy was a retail strategy. From the beginning, Grant focused on building franchisee trust while shifting from a wholesale to a retail model.
When the business was acquired in 2003, it had no head office-owned stores. Under Grant and John, this has grown to ten head office stores and 24 franchised stores.
When Mark exited the business in 2012, John's role was to focus on the growth and management of the retail side of the business, having come from a major corporate retail background. "This has always been an important element of the strategy," explains Grant.
"Head office stores are necessary for scale. You need both. Corporate stores allow you to influence the overall direction of the business, experience what your franchisees are experiencing daily, and they are revenue generators.
"You also need to secure products at competitive prices, and for this you need scale. We needed to expand corporate store space to strengthen our buying power, which was essential when we were winning the trust of our franchisees and proving the benefits of a strong franchise model."
But there's a balance too. "In this, as in everything else, transparency is key," says John. "We don't dictate to our franchisees. We encourage them to test products within predetermined boundaries, and we do the same in our corporate stores. When they test a product that works they let us know, and vice versa.
"Not all tests are successful. Retail is a mix of art and science. We don't want to do anything that negatively impacts all 34 stores, which is why tests are important. This is a benefit of a franchise system — you can learn from each other."
True to the Trappers ethos, the brand follows a mixed system of autonomy and franchisor support. "It's not a cookie-cutter template," explains Grant. "What works in Joburg's northern suburbs doesn't necessarily work in Upington. We cater to local communities."
Slowly but surely, Trappers developed into a strong, successful franchise group, but another hurdle loomed. "In the early 2000s retail in South Africa was easy," says Grant. "Our focus was on building the franchise, but the retailing side was slightly easier. Loads of trends (like hand held GPS units and wearables) were taking hold at the time, and with a lack of focus our range assortments and the company's reliance on a few very successful brands became a concern."
And then the world changed. The 2008 recession reached local shores, impacting retailers. "Some of these trends slowed down or dried up completely, and we realised that we needed to refocus. We had to ask: What are we not doing, that we were doing ten years ago?
As a business, Trappers needed to refocus on its original and core customer profile, understanding that a brand's heritage is often imperative to its success.
"We had followed trends and forgotten our customer base, which left us exposed," says Grant. "You need to know who your customer is, and focus on that niche first.
"We don't follow competitors. We focus instead on the true Trappers customer. That's our north star. Who is our customer and what do they want? That's the question at the heart of our retail strategy, and we ask it daily. Our core customers don't change, but their needs do, and so it's important to stay abreast of those changes and check in with them; listen to them."
"This requires communication between us and the franchisees. "The more we share about our customers, the stronger we are as a brand."
Where to next?
Trappers is currently in eight of the nine provinces. "We initially focused on areas close to our base, but once we strengthened the franchise and corporate store base, we branched out," says Grant.
"We're now looking to grow in the Eastern and Western Cape, and as far afield as Namibia. We've consolidated our base. The next phase is to continue to identify geographical and financially sensible pockets of our market that we are not currently located in and place either a franchise or a company owned store in these areas that best satisfy our core customer needs."