Flying from Atlanta to Minneapolis recently, I was seated next to a soldier who was on the last leg of his trip home after a year-long deployment in Iraq. He had been flying for many hours by this time and was in a talkative mood as his excitement continued to grow. We spent about three hours visiting on the plane.
At first glance he seemed so young to me--probably a function of my age more than his. He was, in fact, a sergeant and had enlisted shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. As he spoke about his experiences in the Army, I was impressed by his maturity, confidence and composure. Though only 26 years old, he commanded a platoon of 36 other soldiers, organizing and overseeing their day-to-day activities and goals--just like a business leader would do with a group of employees.
In his case the stakes were often life and death, so the demands on his leadership certainly seemed more challenging to me than those of a business person worrying about the effects of a recession. Even with the pressure of this reality, he was charming and humorous as he told stories about managing his soldiers that any employer could easily identify with.
He was going home to see a son who had born while he was overseas and mentioned that he would probably be leaving the service after completing his current enlistment period in order to spend more time with his growing family. I asked him what he wanted to do after leaving the service and the answer was to start a business. I remarked how valuable the leadership training and experience he had received in the Army would be in the operation of his own business, and he mentioned that a retired officer he knew had told him the very same thing.
After retiring two years ago, this officer had started a business by taking advantage of a franchise industry program called VetFran. As a way of thanking them for their service, this program provides financial assistance to honorably discharged veterans by offering them discounted franchise fees. More than 400 franchise companies participate in the VetFran program and have assisted thousands of veterans in transitioning from military service to business ownership.
What is fascinating about this program is that for many of the participating companies, it has evolved from an effort to thank veterans into a very important recruiting focus in their long-term growth plans. These companies have learned that former military personnel can make great franchisees. The military provides these men and women with formal training and valuable experience in key business areas like leadership, planning and following a proven system. Soldiers are disciplined, they value teamwork and loyalty, and they are dependable.
I know about this training first hand because I have a son who is an Army officer. Attending his graduation ceremonies at the completion of Airborne School in Fort Benning and the Leader Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, I've had the opportunity to observe the quality and dedication of the personnel involved. I've also reviewed the curriculum and training focus of the military as they build leaders. You'd think much of their training had been designed specifically for business, and especially for the well-rounded leader needed to be a successful franchisee. The training covers subjects such as necessary skills, situational awareness, gathering timely and important information, decision-making, executing plans, motivating others, and improving and learning over time.
Franchise companies have had tremendous success with ex-military leaders as new franchisees, and they want more. In the case of the sergeant on the plane, the ex-officer he knew had recently contacted him about a new veteran support program recently introduced by his franchisor. Through this new program, the company will not only discount franchise fees for approved candidates but also offer direct financing for business startup expenses as well. They had asked all of their VetFran franchisees to contact others they knew in the service to help them find some strong new military prospects, and the young soldier I visited with was very interested.
This is the most aggressive program I know of for actively recruiting veterans, but everyone in franchising has learned that ex-military leaders can make great franchisees. As more and more franchise companies design assistance programs to attract them, this will change from a way to thank veterans to a viable long-term recruiting effort that can produce a huge win-win in the franchise industry.
Jeff Elgin has almost 20 years of experience franchising, both as a franchisee and a senior franchise company executive. He's currently the CEO of FranChoice Inc., a company that provides free consulting to consumers looking for a franchise that best meets their needs.