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Franchise Players: How This Pizza Chain Power Couple Balances Business and Romance

February 11, 2014
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/231372

Franchise Players is Entrepreneur’s Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. This week, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re honoring power couples in franchising. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email ktaylor@entrepreneur.com.

Phil and Denise Downing know their franchise through and through: both halves of the power couple began as delivery drivers at Toppers in the late 1990’s, when the pizza chain had under ten locations. The pair worked their way up to general manager and corporate marketing before taking the plunge to franchise in 2003. Today, Phil and Denise run four stores in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Here’s their tips for how to balance business and romance for other franchising power couples.

Responses have been edited for content and clarity.

Name: Phil and Denise Downing

Franchises owned (location):  Toppers in LaCrosse, Wisc., Onalaska, Wisc.,  Mankato, Minn., and Winona, Minn.

How long have you owned the franchise? 

We opened our first location in LaCrosse, Wisc., in February 2002.

Why franchising?   

We both worked for corporate stores and saw their success. We had an opportunity to franchise and start as one of the first franchisees at Toppers and we went for it.  

What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?  

Phil started with Toppers in Stevens Point, Wisc., as a delivery driver in 1997. I [Denise] started with Toppers as a delivery driver in Whitewater Wis. in 1996. In 1999, we met because Phil got transferred to be the assistant manager of the Whitewater location while I was working there. We both worked our way up in the company. Just before Toppers began franchising, Phil was a general manager of the Madison Wis. store and I was doing local store marketing for the three corporate locations. 

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Why did you choose this particular franchise?  

We knew the business, we liked the people and what Toppers stood for. Toppers was still a new concept at the time and we believed in the vision Scott Gittrich saw that Toppers was going to be great, and people will buy our pizza. It was hard at that time to really see ahead to what Toppers is today. I remember sitting in a room talking about how one day there will be 10 locations and thinking I can’t wait to be a part of this company when that happens. Now we talk about 200 and 500 stores and it just feels surreal. 

How was the process of becoming a franchise owner different for a couple versus and individual?

As a couple with combined experience in many different areas of the business I think we had an advantage. I was able to manage marketing and bookkeeping while Phil managed the day-to-day operations and growth of the company. With our advantages came some disadvantages. We spent years working opposite hours, so we had to learn to disconnect from work at home, and learn to trust each other to make decisions that are best for our company. Today we have our defined roles at Toppers, we have children that help us better manage our family time, and we also have the right people in place to help grow our business, which has all contributed to the opening of our fourth store in Winona, Wis. 

How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?

In 1998, Phil's father passed away and we used that to help fund about $40,000 of the $160,000 we needed to open our first location.  Back then we were purchasing used equipment and doing some construction work ourselves. We both worked part time jobs waiting tables up until a couple days before we opened our first store. It was much different than it is today; now, we use the Toppers system which has significantly evolved, and has given us a great platform for growth and success at the store level. 

Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?  

We turn to the people in our company who have done it already for advice. The other franchisees have become a great resource and I think we can learn from their successes or their fails. We also take advice from Scott Gittrich himself when we can. He is a great resource and has been through the ups and downs from opening his first franchise to growing the company to where it is today at 53-plus stores, 17 of which Scott Gittrich owns himself. 

What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?  

Disconnecting ourselves from our work when we are not on the clock and time management can be very challenging. It is a business that operates 17 hours per day, seven days per week. The stores are always on our minds, and we are constantly wondering how things are going during dinner rushes, and waiting for those calls about failed equipment. If we did not work every day at managing our time, it would be very easy to fall into that place where work consumes everything. 

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What have been the biggest challenges and positives of running a business with your spouse? 

One of the biggest challenges is finding time to communicate about our days. A normal working couple may come home and have a short conversation about how each of their days were. In our home, that short conversation can easily turn into a full blown conversation about what is/is not working in our stores. Because of that, we struggle with finding the appropriate time to communicate the things we are working on. 

One of the positives is we get to work together in the same office in our home. We have the flexibility with our schedules you would not find if we did not own the company. We are able to tag team parent, and tag team work so that both our children and work are taken care of. 

What advice do you have for individuals and couples who want to own their own franchise? 

Our advice to couples: have weekly lunch meetings to talk about work, discuss family issues and schedule one night a week after the kids go to bed to go on regular dates that don’t discuss the business. We do not always recommend it for everyone. It is tough on a relationship. With that being said, after many years of hard work, many tears and disagreements, we have made it through. Today we live the life we have only dreamed of. Our advice to anyone who wants to own their own franchise: Work hard and get experience.

What’s next for you and your business? 

We are excited to be on this journey with Toppers. We are passionate about this brand. We see the big picture and are excited to build more stores to help Toppers achieve their goal of 500 stores by 2020! 

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