There is more than a grain of truth to the expression ‘a kitchen is the heart of the home’. Given that so much of British family life is conducted around it, it’s not surprising the room holds a special place in our hearts. A bespoke kitchen has to feature pretty high up the list for people’s most desired furnishings, which is what makes customised kitchen franchise In-toto such an interesting proposition.
As British franchises go, there aren’t many that have a richer heritage than In-toto. It’s parent company, the ALNO Group, was first founded 85 years ago as the Wellman Kitchen Company by Hans-Dieter Wellmann in Pfullendorf, southern Germany. Currently, ALNO turns over around €450m under its own brand, of which 65% is domestic and 35% is exports to adjoining countries such as Belgium, France and Austria. ALNO is part-owned by Whirlpool, with 30% of its publicly listed shares being owned by the American home appliances giant.
ALNO has built up an impressive profile on the international stage but the British wing – and In-toto – appeared on the scene much more recently. “We have traded in the United Kingdom as ALNO since 1974,” explains Jonathon Wagstaff, managing director of ALNO UK. “The In-toto piece of the jigsaw started in 1980.”
Essentially, ALNO has three principle routes to market in the UK. “The largest for us in terms of revenue share is what we call the ‘direct-to-developer’, where we as the manufacturer are dealing with Barclays, Barrett, Taylor Wimpy, Redrow – the major house-builders in the UK,” says Wagstaff. Second comes selling their products to independent stockists, whether they be in the DIY marketplace or kitchen specialists. And finally comes the branded In-toto franchises, which have formed the core of a very solid model that has thrived through its fair share of tough times.
“We rode the recessions like a lot of other businesses,” comments Wagstaff. “We prevailed in terms of the recession of the late 80s, which was a challenge to those in home improvements.” They saw off two further lulls, both in the mid-90s and once more during the recent recession, building up to their current portfolio of 48 locations and 42 franchisees.
Jonathon Wagstaff, managing director of ALNO UK
In part, Wagstaff credits this to the strength of their franchise model. “One of the key things about franchising as a business is a lot of potential franchisees are looking to change their lifestyle,” he explains. The enterprise’s franchisees come from a wide variety of backgrounds; among In-toto’s franchise owners there are former merchant bankers, police officers, teachers and telecoms experts. “They clearly didn’t come into it to make more money,” he laughs. “They’re coming out of, in a lot of cases, a corporate background or some sort of government-funded institution background and they want some autonomy.”
And this is something In-toto definitely has over many other franchises. Wagstaff explains: “With the greatest of respect, you don’t go into McDonalds – which I think is a fantastic business model – to be autonomous.” Essentially, a business-minded individual doesn’t purchase a franchise like McDonalds to do their own marketing or experiment with their product range. “The product that we deliver to the consumer will be designed differently – it will look, feel and operate differently,” he continues. “And the individual franchisee has the opportunity to influence all of those things.”
In-toto’s franchises are built around three core skill sets: structured administration, effective project management and a panache for design. However, the company doesn’t just expect its franchisees to hit the ground running. “None of us are born with this knowledge,” says Wagstaff. “We’ve all got to learn bits at some point.” To this end, prior to signing a deal with a new franchisee, the company will interview the potential franchise owner, assess their skills and carry out psychometric testing. “We want to understand who they are,” he says.
After this, the enterprise will put them through a comprehensive three-month training process. “What we do is we take them through the whole process from when the enquiry is first received from the consumer, to how you interpret their needs and aspirations into what they want,” Wagstaff explains. When interpreting this design, one of the most important things is understanding how the required function must dictate the form. “We make sure people understand workflow practices, what the storage requirements are going to be,” he says. “It has to look good, it has to do a lot of other things. But it has to work first.”
The bespoke kitchen business has plenty of big plans for the future but that doesn’t mean everything is plain sailing. One of the biggest barriers to growth is securing new properties in a timely enough fashion. “Franchisees have a set timeframe,” comments Wagstaff. “What we’ve found was that we were missing opportunities because we didn’t have available property.”
For this reason, In-toto has embarked on a bold new expansion plan – it has identified ten key locations in which it wants to expand and is actively securing appropriate spaces ahead of time so it can be ready for franchisees that want to secure a new franchise. Wagstaff explains: “We will open the locations and, if we can’t find the right proxy in the right town, we will run them ourselves until we can find the right franchisee for them.”
In-toto’s goal is to have reached a benchmark of 50 stores by the close of the year, with an end aim of eventually totalling 75 stores around the UK. But it doesn’t intend to pursue excessive expansion at the expense of losing its brand focus. “For our business model, we don’t really think that we want many more than that,” Wagstaff comments. “We don’t want to be a mass-market franchise. We’re bespoke and designer.”
In that sense, it is very much a case of quality over quantity for In-toto, an approach which will surely stand it in good stead for years to come.