Pip Wilkins, bfa CEO, talks to Sarra Bejaoui, founder of SmartPA, about their international
What do Smart PA do?
We help businesses to transform the way they work, through delivering outsourced support services.
We work with businesses of all sizes from micro, to medium, to enterprise, right through to large
How many franchisees do you have here in the UK and overseas?
We’ve got around 250 franchisees in the UK and another 20-30 globally.
We have franchisees in Dubai, Malta, the US, Ireland, France, Malaysia, South Africa, Bulgaria, Germany,
Spain and Japan.
Has your international expansion been through master or direct franchising?
In the initial stages we did think that master franchising was going to be the way for us, but we were
gaining momentum with people approaching us. So, we decided to go down the direct route and assess
its success for the franchisees as well as for ourselves. It has worked so far, and we have never gone back
to looking at a master franchise strategy.
Do you have a head office in country or is everything supported directly from the UK?
Everything is managed centrally in the UK. We have a global business support team at head office who
support all our franchisees.
Because of the nature of our service, we are well-versed in supporting people, communicating effectively,
and delivering a great experience on a 99.9% remote basis. The SmartPA experience for clients was
designed to be impactful and transformational. We have since taken this ethos and tweaked it to apply
to our franchise network in the same way.
How have you found your international franchisees?
I would love to say we were proactive in recruiting them, but we weren’t! It was all organic, from word
of mouth. Our first partner in Malta, for example, is now a family business and they have referred
us to friends and family as far as South Africa. It is that brand advocacy that has really supported our
Have you had to adapt your model to fit with cultural differences?
In countries like Malaysia and Dubai there are religious festivals such as Ramadan. If franchisees cannot
deliver a service during this time, we support them from head office so their business can trade as
normal. Working hours are also different. Friday is their Saturday, and they work longer hours compared
to UK time.
What is your most successful country to date and why?
I would have to say Malta. They have recommended into other countries, enabling them to collaborate
internationally themselves, and they have completely embodied our ethos of lifting and supporting
What has been your biggest international challenge to date?
America has been hard to crack. It is a huge country but that also means there are many other franchise
opportunities to compete with. There have also been challenges around time zones and having to adjust
our infrastructure to support our partners there. Not to mention the legislation that is different in each
state, which can be a minefield!
You are a vehicle for women in business. Are most of your global network female?
We are about 96% female globally. A large percentage of people who work in admin and business
support are typically female, but there is a work-life balance opportunity as well. A lot of our franchisees
are mothers, so flexibility is key. We have seen huge surge recently in women returning from career
breaks after starting a family. Many lack confidence and self-esteem because they might have been
knocked back when applying for jobs or they have been judged.
Are you proactively planning to go into particular countries in the future?
What we want to do now is amplify the international success we have. That’s not to say if somebody
approached us from a country we are not in we would say no, but Malaysia and South Africa are big
areas on our growth plan. The quality of the skill set there before we even put them through our
accreditation and training is so high, as is their communication, even when English is their second or
Finally, do you get your international partners together very often?
We have weekly webinars and a monthly online social so everyone can get together if they want. We
time them to accommodate everyone as best as we can and vary it to make sure that every geography
can attend at least one or two a month. Connecting our network is key as we continue to grow our
thriving partnership community. We want everyone to feel part of our business journey.