Striking out for a coup in the loo

Franchising: the Americans are coming, with a stream of offbeat but profitable ventures

By his own admission, Pat Swisher's chosen activity "is not a business that everybody wants to get into". But as if to prove that where there's muck there's brass, he is doing very nicely out of cleaning toilets.

Although his surname would appear to make him a natural for this line of country, Mr Swisher did not start off there. He was previously a supplier of satellite television equipment, but got out of the business in the early 1980s because of the twin pressures of competition from much larger companies and the constant updating of the equipment.

He came up with five ideas for pursuing his business career and asked his then neighbour in Charlotte, North Carolina - Erskine Bowles - to advise him on which one to opt for. To his surprise, Mr Bowles - now a member of President Clinton's cabinet, but then an investment banker - went straight for the cleaning service, saying: "It's got everything you want."

In particular, it was neither high-tech nor capital-intensive. And since starting out in 1983, Mr Swisher has not looked back. Now a publicly quoted company with a turnover of about $30m (pounds 19m), it has spread to more than 100 franchise operations in the US and Canada and is about to open up in Europe. Master franchises have been appointed for Britain and Ireland and the first businesses are to open soon.

But Swisher International is only the latest of a stream of US franchise operations to move into Britain. McDonald's is the most obvious example and among the others is Fastsigns, which arrived in 1992 but came under new management six months ago.

Brent Pollard, a former cricketer with a broad business background, has put pounds 500,000 into the operation and linked it more closely to the US base in Texas with the aim of using the 10-year-old organisation's experience to help develop the fledgling European Fastsigns network.

The concept is simple: using computer graphics to generate signs of all sorts quickly to order. And, since it is relatively easy to learn the techniques involved, there are many companies in the market. Indeed, Mr Pollard insists that when somebody buys a Fastsigns franchise, they are "not buying the know-how to make a sign. The difficult thing is how to make a business - develop customers and the rest. That's what you're buying from us."

The cost is about pounds 65,000, plus pounds 15,000 in working capital, but for that the franchise joins what is claimed to be the world's largest computerised sign maker with more than 350 outlets and a strong growth record. The key, says Mr Pollard, is being located in high streets and drawing on the US organisation's sales and marketing expertise.

Swisher has not been around so long, but seems to have done well for something that was only supposed to make its founder "a few dollars" to see him through to retirement.

Although he admits that Europeans do not share the US obsession with "health and the risk of infection", Mr Swisher still thinks the concept has huge potential: "If the only thing we were doing was sanitising, I would have been a little hesitant about international expansion. But what we do goes beyond just killing germs. Rest rooms have to be cleaned in some way and we can do it better than you and more cost-effectively."

The core of the offer is a weekly clean of all the fittings in rest rooms at restaurants, garages, cinemas and "anywhere that has a loo open to employees or the public". This is followed by a coating with a special acid solution that means the owner of the premises only needs to make a superficial daily clean. Over the years this service has been extended to include the provision of soaps, paper towels and other products. "You have no inventory, no pilferage, no waste and present a better image to your customers."

Mr Swisher reckons he has established a concept that will see franchises hitting profitability within their first year. The typical initial investment would be about pounds 15,000 to pounds 25,000, depending on the size of the territory, supplemented by a similar amount of working capital. But he adds that experience has shown profits of 20 to 25 per cent of gross revenues are possible.

"The return was one of the things that attracted me to the business," he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40/45k + INCENTIVES + BENEFITS: SThree: The su...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent