How This Franchise CEO Learned to Lead By Making Mistakes

SpeedPro president and CEO Larry Oberly is haunted by some of his earliest missteps as a manager. But today, that's made him a better boss.

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How This Franchise CEO Learned to Lead By Making Mistakes
Image credit: Courtesy of SpeedPro
Magazine Contributor
Deputy Editor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When Larry Oberly entered the franchise world 29 years ago, he wasn’t a great leader — and he’s the first to admit it. But with nearly three decades of experience across such brands as Baskin-Robbins, RE/MAX and the sign and graphics printing company SpeedPro, which he joined as CEO in 2017, he’s learned that leadership is more about accessibility than strict processes. Now he listens — to his staff, to his 135 franchisees and to his customers — in order to build sustainable growth and spot fresh opportunities for the $74 million business.

When you joined SpeedPro, what were some of the first changes you made as CEO? 

I saw a chance to build a better onboarding program for our franchisees. We created an intensive program starting with one week of business training at our Denver HQ, which covers everything from maximizing our POS system to financial management to sales and marketing. From there, we pair new owners with a “buddy studio,” a nearby location where they can go and sell the products and services. Then we bring them back to HQ for another week of production training. And then when they open their doors, we’re there to provide on-site support. 

Related: The Most Important Career Lessons Are the Ones You Learn From Your Mistakes

What did training look like before? 

Just a week’s training and some online courses. What we have now is something I wish I’d had when I was a franchisee at Baskin-Robbins — especially the financial part. Having someone really help you understand how this business can and should make money is invaluable.

How much has your time as a franchisee influenced the way you work as a franchisor? 

My entire leadership style changed at Baskin-Robbins. I owned two stores in the ’90s and started it as a sideline business — I was working full-time under a union shop in the airline industry, and I was not a kind guy. But when you own your own business, you realize how easily you can lose your team members if you do the wrong thing. At my first store, I had an exceptional manager who one day left her clean coffee mug on the counter instead of putting it in the back. I’m embarrassed by this, but I left a note on it that said, “The next time this is left here, I’m throwing it out.” Almost immediately, I realized it was a mistake, one I never forgot. I was making myself vulnerable. It taught me to never be trivial or give people reasons to question what kind of person you are. 

So how would you describe your leadership style today? 

I really feel like I’m a servant leader. I have what I call a “no door” policy — I don’t want to be the bottleneck in the company, and I want my team to feel comfortable interrupting me if they need a fast decision in order to take action. Don’t be the guy who keeps progress from happening. 

Related: 5 Ways a Franchise Can Grow Fast

In addition to being a Baskin-Robbins franchisee, you spent nearly two decades in the corporate office of RE/MAX. SpeedPro’s services and customer base are very different from both of those businesses’. How did you get up to speed on this kind of client? 

Reading. And listening. I read about eight trade magazines regularly, and that makes it easy to understand developing trends and where business shifts are headed. You can build strategies around that. And last year, we did our first set of town hall meetings with franchisees. Listening to our owners — the folks talking to our customers each and every day — gave us a lot of ideas for initiatives that launched last year and more this year. From new marketing and sales initiatives such as targeting commercial interior designers as customers, we’re finding better ways to own our space and deliver the best service. 

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