The Surprising Story of Jim Penman – Australia’s Backyard Millionaire
Jim’s Book tells the fascinating story of the man and the business that bears his name. Equal parts biography, history and philosophy, this book takes readers on a journey through one man’s remarkable life.
We all know Jim’s. Maybe you just passed a Jim’s Mowing trailer on the road; or maybe there’s a Jim’s Cleaning van parked across the street every Tuesday morning; or maybe your best mate is laughing all the way to the bank after quitting the city and starting his new Jim’s Fencing franchise, but do you know the true story behind the Jim’s Group and its founder, Jim Penman?
Brutally efficient, socially awkward, and a tireless perfectionist, Jim is as complex and fascinating as the Jim’s Group. This biography is a warts-and-all look at his colourful life, delving deep into how he ignored conventional thinking to turn a few mowing rounds into a corporate juggernaut built on always putting the customer first. Jim’s unique approach revolutionised Australia’s business landscape, providing thousands of people the opportunity to create and grow their own businesses.
In this authorised biography, I sat down with Jim and over one hundred people who know him — from franchisees and franchisors, to family, friends, and foes — to get up close and personal with the surprising story of one of Australia’s biggest brands and the man who made it all happen.
I first came across Jim Penman’s franchise when I was in primary school. It was a regular school pick up, we were stuck in mild traffic on the way home and in front of us was a Jim’s Mowing trailer. I remember gazing at the logo for a long time… I can’t remember why it stuck out, but it did. I certainly wasn’t thinking I may write the biography of the founder of Jim’s one day!
And here I am, fifteen years later. In fact, before writing these exact words I quickly went to the post office and driving home saw a Jim’s Mowing trailer on the road. Full circle.
The Research Experience
How did the Jim’s franchise grow to be so big?
And who is the man behind it?
Is there even a real Jim?
Interviewing Jim was an interesting experience. He would get very animated about customer service, about the rights of franchisees, and would get equally passionate about his children and his wife. He would sometimes answer questions very succinctly, too succinctly, and I would have to ask the same question in different ways. Other times he would talk freely and at length.
I remember asking him one day if firing people and terminating franchisees/ franchisors/ divisionals was a hard job to do, and he replied:
‘It’s easy, because the principle of looking after my franchisees is more important than the person I’m dealing with.
‘In a personality assessment I scored very high on things like flexibility and creativity, and zero on empathy. It doesn’t tempt me to be soft with somebody when I believe that will hurt the franchisees. I don’t find it difficult to make the decision to say, “No, I won’t reduce the complaint”, or “Yes, I will let you go”, because the welfare of the business, in particular of my franchisees, has to come first. I can be very ruthless, but I think that my overall motive is good.’
On a different day, during another interview, his tone was more gentle.
‘If somebody stops working out, I will let them go. It’s hard to do – but I will, including my sister.
‘You just can’t… you have to recognise that something’s not working. You give people the chance, but if they are not right they are not right, you just can’t fix it. I hate firing people. It’s always a kind of failure, and it upsets the people you are dealing with, and it upsets your other staff too.’
I realised that depending on the day he would be more abrupt or sensitive with his replies. In writing this book I took all of his various answers and moods into account to give you a full, honest account of who Jim is.
And of course, the picture would be incomplete without interviewing others to hear what they think of Jim. In writing Jim’s Book I interviewed over one hundred people; franchisees and ex franchisees, franchisors and ex franchisors, divisionals and ex divisionals, current and former staff, family, friends, and foes.
The answers were interestingly mixed. Some spoke very highly of Jim, others thought he was alright, some got very upset explaining past dealings with him. Some swore. Some asked for Jim to sign a document promising not to sue them for anything they told me. Some refused to be interviewed, despite my follow ups.
Over time, between everything they shared and all the hours spent interviewing Jim, a picture of his character and life story built.
Piecing together the facts – dates, names, business expansions – was a journey in itself. There was much digging into records and dead ends, as well as exciting breakthroughs; finding old documents, interviewing someone with email records or a recollection of old photos from the early days.
The people I interviewed to write this biography were very generous with their time, memories and opinions, and this book would not exist for you to enjoy without their support. I want to say thank you to them all here.
A Quirky Anecdote
One of Jim’s friends told me an amusing story. Jim and a group of friends used to meet up every Wednesday night, and normally punctual Jim didn’t arrive one night. They called him and he apologised instantly, explaining he was out with his family at a restaurant for dinner and had completely forgotten about their catch up.
Fifteen minutes later Jim arrived, and they were surprised to see him. He had instantly left his family and driven over to join the group – Jim hates being late or letting anyone down. Upon arrival, Jim thought out loud; ‘Now that I think about it, my family is at the restaurant, and I didn’t leave a credit card so they have no way of paying, and I took the car so they have no way of getting home.’
(They all decided to drive to the restaurant to join Jim’s family for dinner, and going out for dinner ended up becoming the new tradition in the group).
An Amusing Recollection
One of Jim’s former staff told me how he and others, a number of years ago, worked hard to secure a sponsorship for the Richmond Football Club. They succeeded and went to Jim full of excitement: “We got a great deal! We have Jim’s Mowing on Richmond’s uniforms, on their footys, and we’ve got photos in newspapers about it!” Jim was pleased until they showed him a footy. Jim demanded abruptly, “What’s with this football?”
“What do you mean?” They replied, looking at the footy that had ‘Jim’s Mowing’ on it.
“You told me we were the exclusive sponsor!” Jim burst angrily.
They were confused. “We did, it’s a great deal.”
“Then who is Sherrin?”
Who Will Enjoy Reading Jim’s Book?
If you are curious about the unusual story behind Australia’s largest home-service franchise, and the man who made it happen – sometime because of, and sometimes despite of himself, you will find this book a fascinating read.
If you want to learn how he made his millions you will enjoy reading about the surprising mistakes Jim made, as well as the things he did unconventionally; it is informative, at times odd, and at other times deeply inspiring.
If you are thinking of becoming a franchisee in any industry, this book will help you decide if it’s right for you.
The Good Old Days
Thanks to the Jim’s Group and Craig Parke for supplying me with these photos.