Inspirational Woman: Penny Hopkinson | Founder of Manual Writers International

Penny Hopkinson

Penny Hopkinson is founder of Manual Writers International® and has an extensive background in journalism as a trade and specialist journalist, international editor, and in various correspondent roles.

She launched Manual Writers International® in 1986 to bring a fresh perspective to the operations manuals that underpin quality management systems for organisations that didn’t need BS5750 (ISO9001) accreditation.

She joined the British Franchise Association in 1989 as an affiliate professional advisor, having developed operations manuals for three franchisors, and in 2011 she was appointed a Companion of the BFA awarded ‘in recognition of an outstanding personal contribution to the development of franchising in the UK’. Her experience working with franchisors and franchisees in almost every sector has provided unique insights into the challenges faced by both parties and the power of a well-crafted Operations Manual that evolves with the times.

In her new book, Manual Magic: Create the Operations Manual Your Franchisees Need to Succeed, Penny posits that the traditional franchise Operations Manual must transform to remain engaging to the younger generations who are entering the workforce. Penny provides a step-by-step guide on how franchisors can connect with the values and expectations of millennials and Gen-Z, breaking down how to revolutionise existing processes and the Operations Manual by creating a knowledge-sharing environment that unlocks the potential of younger franchise team members – the future foundation of their workforce.

Please tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role. How did you get started specialising in writing manuals for business, namely founding Manual Writers International®?

I trained as a journalist on trade and tech magazine titles, then became the launch editor of Media International, the European Journal for Planners of International Advertising. By the mid-80s, I travelled extensively as a freelance socio-economics correspondent for Export Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and other prominent publications reporting across the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.

When the focus on the Middle East changed to political reporting, and the rapid development of the Gulf States slowed, advertising revenue slumped. So, with the 38-page supplements to which I contributed cut dramatically, I reached what some may view as a crisis – a crossroads.

However, introducing the new UK quality standard BS5750 (ISO9001) proved pivotal as I freelanced as a quality correspondent for Procurement Weekly and Purchasing & Supply Management to supplement my rapidly dwindling income. Many organisations needed certification to bid for government contracts. A Procedures Manual – for compliance and continuous improvement – is a critical component.

After proving the concept in 1987 with a two-year contract to develop the Underwriting Agents’ Procedures Manual at Lloyd’s for the Corporation of Lloyd’s based on the Lloyd’s Act 1983 and Multiple byelaws, I launched Manual Writers International® to serve the market that didn’t need formal certification.

I swiftly found my niche in franchising when I collaborated with a top international management consultancy on two Operations Manuals for a well-known health spa and health club franchising globally. I learned that the outcome is compelling when we combine well-structured, well-written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) with Total Quality Management (TQM) principles.

I set a gold standard for creating the Operations Manual with the British Franchise Association when I joined in 1989 as an Affiliate Professional Advisor. I worked closely with the BFA to update their Franchisor and Franchisee Guides. I subsequently edited the interpretation and extension of the European Code of Ethics and the BFA Member’s Handbook.

Since then, I have helped hundreds of franchised, licensed, and other business formats to create their Operations Manuals using a simple three-stage formula continuously improved and endorsed by my clients, including Prontaprint, Bang + Olufsen, Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, Kwik Fit, the AA/BSM Driving Schools, and Wiltshire Farm Foods.

In 2011, I was appointed a Companion of the British Franchise Association in recognition of an ‘outstanding personal contribution to the development of Franchising in the UK’.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t formally sit down and plan my career, but my dissertation on the Art of Hot Wire Cutting served me better than I could have predicted. In the margin, my college tutor wrote: ‘Have you considered becoming a technical writer?’ That was my lightbulb moment. I tried out numerous jobs as a short-hand typist, press cuttings agency assistant and cataloguer that could have led me into music or book publishing. Being in the right place at the right time seems to have been my only guide!

Have you faced any challenges along the way? How did you overcome them?

An introvert at school, I never put my head above the parapet. At Secretarial and Business Studies College, I found that I won friends by cultivating a sense of humour based on popular Radio BBC programmes of the ‘60s, such as I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Round the Horne, and The Navy Lark. I loved how language could be used to provoke laughter and make people feel happy. This gave me confidence and an always glass-half-full outlook. When I became a trade and tech journalist in 1969, women were as rare as hen’s teeth. Thanks to my father, a mechanical engineer in whose packaging factory I’d been willingly put to work in my early teens, I developed a system for understanding complex processes. Then, at 25, I became Launch Editor of Media International, representing the tabloid as the only publication of its type, and it was total exposure. The privilege of private education in the 1960s doesn’t mean you’re streetwise. So, as one of the very few female socio-economics correspondents in the emerging Gulf States in 1976, I had to be able to handle myself in tricky and often dangerous situations, notably in Baghdad and Beirut. By being observant, rationalising before reacting, and with a healthy understanding of the meaning of Maktub – Arabic literally for ‘it is written’ – ie, fate or destiny, I kept safe and learned a great deal.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Manual Magic CoverWithout a doubt, this is the publication of my new book, Manual Magic: Create the Operations Manual Your Franchisees Need to Succeed. It culminates my two careers – as an Editor and Operations Manual consultant.

Some years ago, over lunch with the then Director-General of the British Franchise Association, we discussed how my expertise might be passed on to future generations. I toyed with the idea of writing the definitive book on the Operations Manual, but with the Financial Crisis of 2008, the sponsorship I’d attracted vanished. I resurrected the idea during the COVID-19 pandemic, researching how it might be published and what I needed to do to achieve publication. In 2021 I was invited to join a US Mastermind group of ghost-writers, developmental editors, and seasoned authors, and a plan began to take shape. For the past two years, we’ve met twice monthly with a guest expert on the second meeting.

Rethink Press agreed to take me on as an author last January. But then I was hospitalised with COVID and had eight months of Long Covid where I struggled to write anything meaningful. Again, the delay was a blessing because, with the advent of ChatGPT from open.ai, I could incorporate hints and tips for using AI when I completed the book manuscript in June this year.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

To be the best I can be even though I may be out of my comfort zone. I don’t know where it comes from, but there’s always a challenge to rise to, something new to learn, and I’ll keep pushing those boundaries.

What is your favourite thing about your job? 

The entrepreneurs who develop incredible concepts for business format franchises. Some concepts are so simple you could kick yourself that you hadn’t thought of them! Being in the company of entrepreneurs who have become franchisors is incredibly energising. They love talking about how they got there, the challenges, the successes, and even the failures.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee? 

I love mentoring and coaching teams to produce exceptional content. I did this for The Costa System with Costa Coffee in 2006/7 and for the AA and BSM Driving School Manuals. Not everyone finds writing easy – far from it. Content owners tasked with creating Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and operational detail often find it challenging. It’s a very different discipline from writing reports. They mustn’t be allowed to fail because there’s no-one to provide them with motivational and practical support.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Give someone who’s passionate about what they want a chance, just as the one Dr Roy Owen, Editor, gave me when I was 21 and passionately wanted to become a trade and technical journalist on Health Service Hygiene & Equipment and Hospital Building & Engineering in 1969. He’d never considered employing a female – let alone one without experience. Northwood Publications was a Union House and should have employed a National Union of Journalists member. I owe my career to his decision to employ me as his Editorial Assistant and to coach and mentor me.

Employers need to be far more open-minded about whom they choose and why. Few formal qualifications shouldn’t mean you’re not the right fit. I left school at 16 with a handful of O’Levels. I wasn’t expected to attend university; few of my generation were. After gaining my Secretarial and Business Studies Diploma, I wanted to get on with the University of Life as soon as possible.

Passion, shared values, the right traits, characteristics, and attitudes are important, especially in small teams. Like interviewing a potential franchisee or team member, success is often down to the method and quality of training. Roy was a great teacher who allowed me to reach my potential as his deputy. Did I have qualifications specific to Printing Equipment & Materials, Print Room, Occupational Safety & Health, and Electrical Contractor & Retailer? Of course not. However, experience with these publications led me to become the Editor of Media International.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

The only failure is to give up trying. This was the inscription on a wooden plaque my grandmother gave me when I failed my 11+. After leaving college, I had numerous secretarial roles, none of which I enjoyed but gave me brief insights into music publishing, book publishing and periodicals. I often wonder what path I would have chosen had my college tutor not penned: ‘Have you considered going into technical writing?’ against my tutorial written on The Art of the Hot Wire Cutter! Or, if Roy Owen hadn’t taken that chance!

 

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My next challenge is ensuring Manual Magic becomes the definitive How-To guide for creating any Operations Manual – not just my specialism in franchising. It is easily customisable to a traditional business model. Remove the contractual requirement between franchisor and franchisor, and any business can use my three-step formula to create an exceptional Operations Manual to help their business succeed.


Read more from our inspirational women here.

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