From the January 2014 issue of Entrepreneur

Bouncing Back from Illness

Woody Bedell, The Exercise Coach, Bannockburn, Ill.

Woody Bedell, The Exercise Coach
Woody Bedell of The Exercise Coach

After about 15 years in corporate benefits consulting, my wife, Joyce, and I decided we wanted to open a family business to share with our sons Tres, Michael and David. We looked at a few franchise options and found that The Exercise Coach, a fitness coaching service, was a good fit, partially because of my affinity for fitness and experience creating wellness programs. I planned to keep my day job while we got the franchise up and running. Once it provided a good income base, I hoped to join it full time, but there was no hurry.

But the best-laid plans can go wildly astray. We finalized the franchise agreement, then signed a lease for our space in June 2012. A week later I was diagnosed with aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A cancer specialist told me my prognosis could be grim depending on how I responded to the second round of chemotherapy--a key milestone in treating this type of cancer. In mid-July, I was terminated from my job for nonspecific reasons.

It wasn't easy, but I had to forget about all of it and focus on the franchise. We tapped our savings to survive. Michael, who is a contractor, moved back from Richmond, Va., to handle the franchise build-out. David got certified as a personal trainer. Joyce handled the administrative, technical, marketing and startup tasks. And I underwent a surgical procedure that removed part of my tibia, followed by 600 hours of chemotherapy.

Our Exercise Coach location opened its doors on schedule in September 2012, the same month I completed treatment. I was declared cancer-free in December. At the time, I had lost 50 pounds and 60 percent of my muscle mass. As a result of the surgery, walking is still a struggle. I wondered if people would want a trainer who wasn't the picture of health. They did. A year after opening, we have more than 100 clients--well beyond the 60 we had projected.

The experience has made me a better trainer. I have about 30 clients who have gone through cancer. I'm more empathetic, and my experience has given them an opportunity to tell their stories. They open up to me in ways they wouldn't open up normally, because I understand what they're going through.

 

Weathering the Storms

Len Cava, EmbroidMe, Delray Beach, Fla.

Len Cava of EmbroidMe
Woody Bedell of The Exercise Coach

Seeking refuge from New York's cold winters, I sold my Long Island packaging business and moved to Florida in 2003 with my wife, Gayle. Two years into a restless retirement, I decided to open an EmbroidMe franchise with my son-in-law Jeff Rosado, specializing in embroidery, screen printing and promotional products.

Two months later, Delray Beach was hit with the first of three major hurricanes. The worst was Wilma in October 2005, which devastated the area and left our shop without power for 14 days. Repairs to our shopping center took about two years. During that time, our fledgling franchise kept going; we worked on networking and drumming up business while we used personal savings to survive. But just as it seemed the business was catching on, we had an even bigger storm to face: the Great Recession.

We made a decision early on to keep going and not compete on price. I always believed in competing on service and being the best provider--that's how my packaging business thrived. So we got involved with the chamber of commerce and other business groups and started networking as much as we could.

To survive what we've survived, you have to be involved in the community. I don't mean just supporting nonprofits, but getting involved in business and in politics. Know the community leaders. You can't just sit in a corner and wallow. And if you cut your prices, you're just going to keep getting more people who expect cheap prices.

By building relationships with people who began to do business with us, we were able to survive the recession, and now the business is doing well, with a loyal customer base. We look at each customer from the standpoint of "How can we help your business?" People don't say, "Go see Len for the cheapest shirt." They send people our way because we're going to give them what they need and provide the best service. They say, "Go see Len. That guy can make anything." Once they get what they need, price becomes secondary.

My wife, Sharon, and I purchased an existing Buffalo's Cafe franchise in 2004, and our first challenge was to bring back the family atmosphere. Our location had become a hangout for college kids and had a reputation for being rowdy. We joined the local chamber of commerce and did a lot of work with various charities and organizations.

Soon we were able to bring in more families and were getting a reputation as a place with good food and atmosphere. Our business was also less seasonal--it didn't drop off as much when the college students left town.

For a few years we were enjoying double-digit sales increases every year. Then the economy crashed in 2008.

Sales fell off significantly, and we had cash-flow problems. Our labor costs were about 40 percent of our net sales, which is a high ratio. We had some difficult decisions to make. When one of our managers moved on, we didn't hire a new one. Instead, we restructured and cross-trained our employees. Everyone was going to have to wear more hats if we were going to get through this. They all pulled together. We got our labor costs down to about 27 percent of net sales, which is where we should be.

But the cash flow was still an issue. We fell behind on rent. Fortunately, the franchisor's management team was really supportive. They gave us a loan to get caught up, then came in and worked with us on getting back to the basic concept of Buffalo's, which is about great wings and burgers. We started doing more outreach to schools to get the kids to love us and drum up business with families.

It was a big challenge to get through that time, and the franchisor's support really made a difference. Sometimes the solution is there when you just keep going and work really hard. We're excited about what lies ahead for us.

 

Correcting Mistakes

Rick Roberts, Buffalo's Cafe, Athens, Ga.

Buffalo's Cafe in Athens, Ga.
Buffalo's Cafe in Athens, Ga.

My wife, Sharon, and I purchased an existing Buffalo's Cafe franchise in 2004, and our first challenge was to bring back the family atmosphere. Our location had become a hangout for college kids and had a reputation for being rowdy. We joined the local chamber of commerce and did a lot of work with various charities and organizations. Soon we were able to bring in more families and were getting a reputation as a place with good food and atmosphere. Our business was also less seasonal--it didn't drop off as much when the college students left town.

For a few years we were enjoying double-digit sales increases every year. Then the economy crashed in 2008.

Sales fell off significantly, and we had cash-flow problems. Our labor costs were about 40 percent of our net sales, which is a high ratio. We had some difficult decisions to make. When one of our managers moved on, we didn't hire a new one. Instead, we restructured and cross-trained our employees. Everyone was going to have to wear more hats if we were going to get through this. They all pulled together. We got our labor costs down to about 27 percent of net sales, which is where we should be.

But the cash flow was still an issue. We fell behind on rent. Fortunately, the franchisor's management team was really supportive. They gave us a loan to get caught up, then came in and worked with us on getting back to the basic concept of Buffalo's, which is about great wings and burgers. We started doing more outreach to schools to get the kids to love us and drum up business with families.

It was a big challenge to get through that time, and the franchisor's support really made a difference. Sometimes the solution is there when you just keep going and work really hard. We're excited about what lies ahead for us.