Our Chat with Jim Penman: The Man in the Bucket Hat – Hope 103.2

Our Chat with Jim Penman: The Man in the Bucket Hat

Best known as the guy in the bucket hat, Jim Penman founded Jim's Mowing in 1982 with just $24, and turned it into a global organisation.

By Duncan RobinsonThursday 23 Mar 2017Hope BreakfastFinance and BusinessReading Time: 4 minutes

Listen: Jim’s Mowing founder Jim Penman chatted to Hope 103.2’s Duncan Robinson.

You probably don’t know his last name, but you’ll know his face: the one with a beard, moustache, and bucket hat, smiling at you from the side of trucks, trailers and vans all over Australia.

He is Jim Penman, the man who founded Jim’s Mowing with an investment of $24, and turned it into a global organisation.

Despite all his success, Jim has a deep commitment to living a humble life. In a chat with Jim, Hope 103.2’s Laura and Duncan, he explained why.

The Rapid Growth of a Global Franchise Business

Having started mowing lawns in the 1970s while studying at uni for a PhD in history, Jim’s business grew to what is now a multi-divisional corporation, turning over $350 million a year.

The company has 4000 franchises in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK, and now also offers cleaning, antenna installations, dog washing, fencing, building maintenance, test & tag services; in fact more than 40 different services.

“We’re just about to launch driving schools, kitchens, energy, they’re coming on fast,” Jim said.

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The company logo – a line drawing of Jim from the early 1980s – is one of Australia’s most recognised.

All of this business success is surprising considering Jim had high-brow ambitions to work as an academic. At heart he’s a thinker and a writer, and in his spare times he writes books with titles like Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West. 

But he got into the world of business simply because he couldn’t get a job as an academic.

“I was interested in a theory of society, the big stuff, merging history with cross-cultural anthropology with zoology,” he said. “The problem with that really radical way-out stuff is, it doesn’t get you an academic post as intended. So I turned to gardening to make a living.”

Jim’s Secret to Business Success

Business people in a meeting

Jim believes the key to success has been his deep care for the welfare of his franchisees, and his intense focus on customer service.

“I was successful because for all my many failings in business, I am obsessional about looking after my customers, giving them great service, turning up on time, making the job look immaculate,” he said. “So I was very successful as a contractor, picked up work very easily and started selling off lawn mowing rounds. Then I started franchising in 1989, focussing still on customers but also on franchisee service: what can make my franchisees successful and happy?”

Jim explained that the systems in place in his business are quite radical and different to most other businesses.

“For example we’re the only franchiser in the world that allows franchisees to vote out their franchisors if they don’t give them good service,” he said.

“With a big business you’ve got to learn different ways of doing things. I’ve never had [business] training, I’ve learnt from scratch, which means we do things in very unorthodox ways. In the end it’s worked out but I’ve had some very tough learning curves.”

Surprisingly, because of his drive to always do more and new things, Jim has run out of money several times. But his care for people has always lifted him back up and it’s the basis of his key advice for other entrepeneurs.

“Look after the customers,” he said. “Be obsessional about it. Never be satisfied with ‘good enough’.”

“In 2016, we knocked back more than 120,000 customers because the demand for our service is way beyond what we can handle, and that is because of our reputation.”

The Christian Values Behind Jim’s Business Philosophy

Even though he could live a very lavish lifestyle, Jim has chosen not to, instead holding to Christian values and a humble approach to wealth.

“I love what Jesus says about wealth,” Jim said. “He says it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. What he means is wealth is inherently corrupting.

“When we earn money it’s a loan from God to use for his purposes…if wealth comes it’s to do something worthwhile.”

“Even though I’m wealthy we’ve tried hard to live an ordinary life in terms of normal consumption. My kids complain that all the other kids have things that they haven’t. Instead we put our money into research … into troubles like alcohol and drug addiction.

“We live a very simple lifestyle. I’m a big believer in what people like Bill Gates have done. When we earn money it’s a loan from God to use for his purposes. I make my business better and grow it, and if wealth comes it’s to do something worthwhile.”

In Jim’s mind, the most important things in life are not wealth and worldly success, but rather relationships, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a sense of community. He donates millions of dollars to causes like neuroscience research and treatments for mental illness.

“Money can do great things but it can also be very destructive,” he said.

To hear Jim speak at the upcoming Pathfinders Breakfast event on April 12, go to Pathfinders.org.au.