From Virgin Atlantic to Disney to starting a business after 50: making the most of your skills

Karen Kelly has worked alongside Richard Branson, managed UK operations for Disney and developed sales programmes bringing in well over half-a-billion pounds annually. So what made her set up her own business, Cleanhome, and franchise it? We asked her about the journey.

Karen KellyMy early years

My first job was as a junior rail clerk for Lunn Poly Business Travel organising all the British Rail tickets and timetables before becoming a fully-fledged business travel agent. It was a lovely job and it got me into customer service, as well as teaching me about the travel industry.

After about five years, I felt I needed a new challenge, so I applied and got a position with Air Europe as an account manager and that’s when I found I was ‘home’. I loved sales. I stayed there for two-and-a-half years before joining Virgin Atlantic in 1991. Virgin Atlantic was a fairly new operation at the time and it had a sense of mystique about it.

The jet set decade

I started as an account executive and was promoted to the position of a national account manager; I still remember securing the first global contract with Lehman Brothers for £2m which was a huge amount to the airline at the time.

Working alongside Richard Branson was brilliant. He taught me so much. He’s an amazing man and incredibly inspirational. On the work side of it, you’d be doing a 24-hour trip to New York, do the deal and then come back. The social side was pretty full on too, involving inaugural corporate hospitality trips to places like Mumbai, Toronto, Chicago, and Johannesburg. I was in my 30s, single and it was non-stop travel. I was with Virgin for 10 years and ended up as head of sales for the UK and Ireland, where my team was responsible for bringing in around £600m a year.

After 9/11 I knew that the airline would have to change and I decided that it would be the right time to go elsewhere. Richard will always be my idol so it was a huge compliment when asked me to stay but I needed to go.

Where dreams come true

I took a bit of a sabbatical and then secured the position of country director for the Disneyland Paris UK operation, based in Hammersmith. I was responsible for all the sales channels and the marketing, had a team of 22 people and managed a multimillion-pound budget. The brand and the product were fantastic and I had a great team. While Virgin taught me sales and business knowledge, Disney taught me marketing.

About five years ago, when I was approaching 50, I felt the time was right to start a business. I sat down and thought about the type of business I could launch. It had to be something that I knew about, something that was a growth industry, something that was relatively low cost to set up, but from which you could get decent rewards. Something with no commuting, and flexible so I could achieve a good work/life balance.

I hit on domestic cleaning. I could use my sales and recruitment skills to sell to the clients and recruit cleaners.

The start of something big

The first year, I set up the Thames Valley branch of Cleanhome and had a turnover of £46,000 from a standing start, with a profit of £24,000. Within 23 months, the turnover was more than £72,000 – 80% of which was profit. A friend of mine had franchised his business and I could see it was the perfect way to move Cleanhome forward.

We have now been franchising for two years and have 16 offices in areas across the country including, Gatwick, Windsor, Cambridge, Sutton Coldfield, Rugby etc. I live in Buckinghamshire and still run the Thames Valley branch.

The most rewarding aspect of the business these days is that I can take the skills I learnt in previous roles – sales, recruitment and training – and pass them on to other people so they can also build a successful business. I have been really lucky in my career and if I can pass a bit of that luck on to other people, then I will be satisfied.

It’s all about balance

I encourage my franchisees to work around their family/personal time as having this flexibility really helps bring out the best in the franchisees – and the happier they are, the more successful their business!

With the Cleanhome business model, franchisees can arrange their workload around family commitments, they can work from home and they can schedule client and cleaner meetings at their convenience.

Before setting up my own business I was working 12-14 hour days and I had hardly had any time for me. I now start and finish my day walking my dog in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside instead of sitting on the M25 in traffic. You can’t beat it!

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