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Portrait of a Franchise

It's been a rocky road, but Jack and Diane are finally nearing their destination: franchise ownership.

It's been a long haul for Jack and Diane*. During the time between finding a suitable franchise opportunity and the construction of their quick oil-change franchise, the calendar has clicked ahead two years, and our weary couple is still dealing with adversity and delays. These timing issues have to be considered. The more complex the business, the longer it takes to get established. While a hair-cutting business may take about six months from signing the franchise agreement to opening, a homebased tutoring business can take less than 30 days; it just depends on the challenges of the business you choose.

This is the last installment of Jack and Diane's story. We hope to catch up with them again one day in the future, as they man their new franchise, beaming and shaking hands with a satisfied customer, or ringing up yet another sale. These are the images they envisioned over two years ago, when they committed to take a chance on a franchised business.

These are also the images that franchise investors find in the brochures sent by franchisors. Franchisors know we seek independence, freedom and wealth. Franchising would not be so successful if it did not deliver on these points in many instances.

However, from my viewpoint, Jack and Diane's struggles, as well as the tales readers shared with me during the course of this column, bring to mind a vision of the painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. You know the picture-an Iowa farmer with his unmarried daughter standing stoically in front of their gabled farmhouse, pitchfork in hand. The image was accurate for 1930, but today, the new American Gothic would have Jack and Diane standing in front of their franchised business, oil funnel in hand. Likewise, all of you who are franchisees could pose in the same way, with the serious face and the sore shoulders. You are the farmers in our new economy, toiling to harvest goods and services from what was bare ground. Those of you who run a profitable franchise know the harvest is reaped only from hard work.

Owning a franchise is not like buying a security and waiting for the market to rise. If you fail to do a good job, someone in the strip mall down the road will take your customers away. So how do you set your franchise apart from other businesses? You can ask almost any franchisor in this country which franchises perform the best, and they'll tell you it's the stores where the franchisee is actively involved in the day-to-day business operations. Thus, all the serious faces across our franchised countryside.

Taking on the active franchisee role, Jack recently served as his own mystery shopper, getting his oil changed by his closest competitor-a national player in the oil business. "Driving onto their lot, I witnessed two employees engaged in a mock battle of martial arts using a broom handle," he says. "The other employees were standing around, watching, since there were no cars to service at the time. It turns out one of the employees in mock battle was the manager.

"Once I was directed into the service bay, I didn't even have time to turn the engine off before one of the technicians was at my door attempting to open it. I felt this could be intimidating to some customers, particularly women," Jack continues. "As I was directed to the waiting room, I overheard one tech say to another that one of my rear taillight bulbs was out. After the oil was drained and the oil filter removed, I was called back out to the work area to determine what services I required. No mention was ever made of my burned out taillight."

Banished to the waiting room as the technicians called around to auto parts stores, trying to locate a filter for his Volvo, Jack noticed a sign hanging on the wall stating this lube center was owned and operated by some company out of Omaha, Nebraska. "Long-distance ownership doesn't seem to be working very well," says Jack, "all the more reason why I'll be an on-site owner of my facility."

From the numerous messages I received from other franchisees regarding this column, the message from Larry Shirk, the former operator of five instant oil-change businesses, best reinforces Jack's decision to be a hands-on franchisee. "When I had five locations, I hired a general manager," says Shirk. "He had worked for the franchisor and was very knowledgeable about the business. The problem was that he was more concerned about being liked than being the boss."

As Jack prepares to grab his "pitchfork" and dig into his new business, he reflects on why he has chosen to abandon his white-collar career for a set of greasy fingernails. "A few years ago, I wrote a song titled, 'Shakin' It Up.' The lyrics were about challenging yourself, not settling for the status quo. The stanza of the song was this: "I don't want to look back and wonder/If I'd have lost or won/a race I didn't run."

Good luck, Jack and Diane. We'll be checking in on you.

*The franchisees' names have been changed.


Todd D. Maddocks is a franchise attorney and small-business consultant who is founder of Franchisedecision.com. You can reach him at yourcounsel@attbi.com.

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This article was originally published in the March 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Portrait of a Franchise.

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