The story behind Jim’s mowing and other franchises.
Jim’s Book: The Surprising Story of Jim Penman, Australia’s Backyard Millionaire
By Catherine Moolenschot. Wiley, 284pp, $29.99
by ROSS FITZGERALD
The person who mows your lawn probably does a fine job, but is there a book in that? And who would imagine an enticing story behind the franchises of Jim’s Mowing, Jim’s Cleaning and Jim’s Fencing?
Subtitled The Surprising Story of Jim Penman, Australia’s Backyard Millionaire, this quirky, in-depth, warts-and-all book unravels the truthful tale of a bloke who built Australia’s largest home-service franchise.
Catherine Moolenschot explains how David J. (Jim) Penman, by ignoring conventional entrepreneurial wisdom, managed to turn a few mowing rounds in Melbourne in the late 1980s into a nationwide corporate juggernaut.
At the time of writing, Jim’s Group, of which Penman, 66, is director, boasts 52 divisions, with almost 4000 franchisees serving about 175,000 customers each week throughout Australia. The current turnover of Jim’s Group is half a billion dollars a year.
As Moolenschot points out, this phenomenal success has been achieved as a result of Penman’s passion for franchisees and customer service. Indeed this unrelenting passion for adding the personal touch has driven his business empire forward over the past 40 years.
Yet, as Moolenschot puts it, Penman’s “temper, unorthodox communication style, and some of his business decisions have put many off side”. These include his estranged sister Gill Moxham, whom he sacked.
All in all, Jim’s story is often inspiring and surprising. But as Jim’s Book reveals — in a work that is part biography, part philosophy, part history — at times Penman’s tale is also in some respects extremely strange.
Moolenschot is a writer, ghostwriter and TEDx speaker. Penman afforded her full access and he included his family, his current and former staff, and the welter of franchisors and franchisees that form part of Jim’s Group.
Moolenschot also read Penman’s 2015 book Biohistory: The Decline and Fall of the West. This tome, springing from Penman’s PhD in history at La Trobe University, theorises that Western civilisation is on a path to destruction.
In coming decades, economies will shrink, democracy will retreat and nations crumble. Penman seems determined to make hay while the sun still shines.
As well as studying his theoretical offerings, Moolenschot visited Penman’s home — he and his wife have 10 children — and his farm. She also attended Jim’s Group training sessions, staff lunches and his national conference at the Foothills, a 9ha property in Mooroolbark, 31km east of Melbourne.
She interviewed more than 100 people from all areas of Penman’s life and work. As she explains, while a few wished to remain anonymous, a number (including some of Jim’s enemies) declined point-blank either to be interviewed or to participate in the project at all.
Although he is considered to be ferociously ambitious, Moolenschot presents Penman as a theist and ex-Mormon who “lives a simple lifestyle and pours every dollar he can into finding a cure for addiction, depression and other ills”.
A key to this clearly written book is to be found in Penman’s early years. He was born in England on May 8, 1952. Three years later he moved with his family to Australia so that his often unfeeling but hardworking father, Tom Penman, could lecture in engineering at Adelaide University.
When Jim was seven, his much loved but hyper-anxious mother Margaret again suffered severe post-natal depression after giving birth to Gill. Another of Jim’s sisters, Lynne (who like his younger brother Chris refused to participate in this book), once said that “up to the age of about seven he was nice then all of a sudden he turned into a sour little boy”.
Highlighting the possibility of significant sibling rivalry, sister Gill added: “Now whether that was when his Asperger’s kicked in, or me coming along totally unexpectedly was the thing, I’m not sure.”
Unsurprisingly, young Jim was alienated from others, especially at school.
Be that as it may, his father had a push mower, and the backyard in their red-brick house in Glen Osmond, Adelaide, was the first lawn Jim mowed. It wasn’t easy: “Twigs from the trees were forever jamming the blades, and the backyard was terribly sloped.”
A formative experience came when a friendly next door neighbour, Mr Tapley, who had paid Jim to carry a pile of rubbish to the incinerator, found leaves and twigs dropped along the way. “If you’re not going to do it properly, I might as well do it myself,” Jim remembered Mr Tapley saying sadly.
The boy was filled with deep shame and a strong determination to never again let Mr Tapley down. As Moolenschot explains: “This was the moment Jim became obsessed with always doing an outstanding job, and to this day he is obsessive about his franchisees delivering excellent customer service.”
Jim puts it thus: “I am notoriously emotional … I feel very upset when any one of my customers has been let down.”
To this day, Penman believes his success is primarily due to his passion for customer service: “When I was mowing lawns I wanted to do a great job, I wanted to make [them] look terrific.” He adds: “I find that in business the people who succeed the best are not those who are most money hungry but those who are actually dedicated to doing things well.”
He tellingly concludes: “It’s not just that they don’t want to let the customer down, they want to do a fantastic job for their own pride and self-respect.”
Now there’s a business plan.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 40 books.
The Weekend Australian, March 23-24, 2019, review, Books, pp 22-23