From Zero to Hero

Even the best franchisor has to start somewhere. Subway king Fred DeLuca reflects on 25 years of franchise success.

This is the 12th year Subway has claimed the top spot on Entrepreneur's Franchise 500®, and company founder Fred DeLuca is taking the time to reflect on how both his company and franchising as a whole have changed over the past 25 years. Ranked No. 219 on our first Franchise 500® listing, with 134 franchises in operation, Subway has grown and by press time expects to have 20,000 franchises in more than 70 countries. It's truly a testament to the power of franchising. "When I look back at it, it was the only way we could've grown to become a national chain," says DeLuca. "And so I have very excellent thoughts about franchising and working with franchisees from around the country. A lot of really talented people all over want to own their own businesses, and the franchise concept really helps them bring a recognized name to their town."

When Entrepreneur published the first Franchise 500® in March 1980, DeLuca's company was still very new to franchising. Though he founded his company in 1965, he'd only been franchising since 1974. "We didn't really know the franchising business, and it's [a very] different business from the store operations business," he says. "Just because we knew how to run stores didn't mean we knew how to run a franchising company-at that point, we were in the beginning stages of learning how to be a franchisor."

Learning the franchising business was a continual process, says DeLuca. He recalls the early days of attending meetings with the larger franchise community: "When we started franchising, I didn't even quite realize there was a franchising community." He soaked up a lot of knowledge from the more experienced franchisors at those meetings, and he says, in general, he and his franchise system were welcomed and accepted by the franchise community. He learned that the objectives of the bigger franchisors were very different from those of the smaller ones-and Subway was definitely one of the smaller ones at the time.

In the early days, for example, DeLuca remembers how much time and money went into creating franchise disclosure documents for each state. So DeLuca wanted to discuss with his fellow franchisors the possibility of creating a uniform disclosure document for all the states. When he went to the meeting, the others were less than enthusiastic. "One of the guys pulled me aside and said, 'Fred, let me tell you how it works here. To send somebody to this committee meeting costs money-only the bigger companies send people. These disclosure documents cost a lot of money to prepare, but the big companies aren't so worried about it, because they've got big budgets. They've got other items that are important to them,'" recalls DeLuca, laughing. "So while the community has always been very welcoming and helpful to franchisors of all sizes, depending on the size and maturity of the company, they have different things that are important to them."

The franchising community continues to be very welcoming, no doubt because of franchisors like DeLuca. "Now, as a big franchisor, I really enjoy going to the meetings and talking to the new guys and helping them out," he says. And the diversity of franchise opportunities encourages an even greater sense of community. "If you went to a meeting and everybody was your competitor, you'd perhaps clam up a bit," he says, "but because there's such a diverse list of industries involved in franchising, everybody seems very welcoming and helpful."

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This article was originally published in the January 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: From Zero to Hero.

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