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Leader of the Pack

A single mother from Belgium finds that good things come in packages of all sizes.

In February 2000, Urmila Patel, 46, knew nothing of postal, packaging and shipping services, and spoke very little English. But by that October, she was the owner of a PostalAnnex+ franchise in Fremont, California.

The single mother owned a clothing store in Belgium for more than 20 years before she decided to relocate to the United States to give her two children more opportunities. She was researching franchises while on vacation in northern California when she first heard of PostalAnnex+. "We don't have these kinds of stores in Europe," she says.

Patel began visiting locations and stumbled on the Fremont store while shopping with her sister-in-law just two days before her return to Europe. Unbeknownst to Patel, her sister-in-law left Patel's contact information with the owner-the next day, he called to ask if she was interested in buying his business. Patel immediately knew she could make the location work and rushed over to give him a $2,000 deposit.

The fact that she didn't know the industry and barely spoke the language didn't bother her. "I wasn't that nervous," she insists.

Patel initially selected PostalAnnex+ because of the flexible hours. While most food franchises required her to be open from early morning to late evening, Patel says she "can work [those] longer hours . . . or [just] from 9 to 6."

The road from Belgium boutique owner to U.S. franchisee was a short but challenging one for Patel. Unable to get an SBA loan because of her citizenship and residency status, Patel sold her house and store in Belgium to come up with the initial six-figure investment. She then moved with her children, bought the Fremont location and went to work.

"I didn't have anything left over. I had to make it work," Patel says. During the first few weeks, she was not only learning the business, but also had to deal with an employee who didn't show up for work during the busy holiday season. Patel credits the previous owner's two-week on-site assistance as well as franchisor support for pulling her through.

Less than four years later, the business is thriving. Patel employs a staff of three and expects 2004 sales to reach $500,000. "Most important is that you're friendly," she says. "Have confidence, and the customers will believe in you. And try to give the best service." Now that's great advice that translates into any language.

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This article was originally published in the November 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Leader of the Pack.

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