Whipping icecream franchise into shape

GETTING OUT: Chris Dorn, a PricewaterhousCoopers director turned master franchise owner of Mr Whippy, enjoying the sun.
GETTING OUT: Chris Dorn, a PricewaterhousCoopers director turned master franchise owner of Mr Whippy, enjoying the sun.

Former PricewaterhouseCoopers director Chris Dorn's days used to revolve around the buying and selling of businesses on behalf of clients, sifting through legal documents and performing due diligence.

Since buying the master franchise for mobile icecream vendor Mr Whippy, sales of soft-serve icecream covered in sherbet, dipped in chocolate or sprinkled with chopped nuts have kept him busy.

The 38-year-old Aucklander, who previously worked as an equity analyst, bought the business late last year, inspired by a desire to own equity in something.

"If I'd stayed in my job, I would have been on track to hopefully becoming a partner one day, but I wanted to become a business owner and see something build up. I looked around at a couple of business opportunities but this was an iconic brand with a lot of potential for growth, to reinvigorate it."

The master franchise had previously been owned by a couple in Auckland with young children. The couple worked part-time on it, overseeing the 30-plus franchisees around the country.

Mr Whippy, the icecream trucks that roam streets attracting customers by playing the familiar tune Greensleeves, has been operating in New Zealand since 1964, two years after it was founded in England. While the menu has been virtually unchanged, there are now 52 trucks on the road from Whangarei to Invercargill, which 32 franchisees operate.

Dorn hopes to give the company a new lease on life by opening a bricks and mortar store at a high-profile Auckland location, and is seeking new franchisees in target areas, especially in Wellington.

Setup costs for franchisees can be between $125,000 and $140,000. Franchisees keep their own income but the brand's total turnover was about $5 million a year. About 40 per cent of the sales were for a chocolate-dipped soft serve cone with a flake.

Dorn and his three investor business partners made their income by selling franchisees licences to operate and supplying the ingredients they use, including the icecream mix, made by Tatua Co-operative Dairy company.

Most of the trucks used were slowly being upgraded to more modern vehicles. Once a year, all the franchisees get together for a conference run by Dorn, where hygiene and presentation spot checks take place.

It is a seasonal business that is most active during the summer months. Mr Whippy operates all year round, however, and is available for hire at birthdays, weddings and corporate functions.

Dorn enjoys his new lifestyle as a master franchise owner, although it had been an adjustment going from a professional services provider with set hours to someone available round the clock.

"It can feel like I'm a bit of a one-man band, answering all the phone calls and emails. It is no easier than working at PricewaterhouseCoopers but it is more rewarding, seeing the gains made as profit grows."

He liked getting out of the office more, the social interaction, and operating more autonomously. "It is a lot more fun than working in a corporate office."