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He's On First

This operator takes pride in being his system's first franchisee

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Michael Eisner knew if he was going to get involved with a franchise, he wanted to be as involved as possible, playing an integral role in the growth and development of his chosen system. Via a chance meeting, Eisner learned about Lapels, a retail dry cleaning franchise, and in the fledgling system found an opportunity to satisfy all his ambitions.

"I was looking for a franchise where I would have a voice, and have the ability to grow with the company and help others grow," says Eisner, 41. By joining a new system, he adds, "all those things are available to me."

Investing in a franchise without a proven brand name doesn't require any special attributes or personality traits so much as it demands a certain drive, at least in Eisner's opinion. "I just felt the need to go for it once in my life," he says. "After being so comfortable working for a company for 13 years, there was always something there within me that kept saying, 'What if I had my own business?' and I never wanted to go through life not knowing what it was like to take on that role."

Eisner worked for an audio company in sales and management, work that required him to spend more than 200 days a year on the road. After the birth of his first child, Eisner began thinking about doing something on his own. "For some reason, I always wanted to get into dry cleaning," Eisner says. "When I was in college, there was actually a dry cleaner in my dormitory, and I was amazed at the amount of business this guy was doing."

While lunching with a friend, Eisner discussed his interest in dry cleaning. The restaurant owner overheard the conversation and told Eisner that, as a former dry cleaner, he was happy to offer any advice or information on the industry.

After touring some available dry cleaning plants with his new mentor, Eisner decided against investing. "At that point, I didn't want to get into the cleaning side of the business," he says. "I wasn't really prepared. Without having any knowledge of the industry, I thought I was going to be biting off more than I could chew."

Though Eisner shifted his focus away from dry cleaning, the restaurateur's interest in the industry had been rekindled. Six months after their initial meeting, Eisner received a call. "He asked me if I was still interested and said, 'I'm now franchising dry stores or drop stores. We've put together this great program and I'd like you to come by so we can talk about it.'"

In the summer of 2001, Eisner became the Lapels system's first franchisee, opening a drop store in Hanover, Massachusetts. Within six months, he was a certified trainer. A year later, Eisner became an area developer. "I was always interested in helping others. I'm very interested in the success of Lapels and I found the best way to be a part of that," he says.

Of the 14 stores currently in the Lapels system, Eisner owns one and oversees four in his development territory.

Not only did joining Lapels provide Eisner with growth and involvement opportunities--it also supplied a ready-made business model. Even though the system was new, he didn't feel a lack of structure and support. "One of the reservations I had about owning my own business was the infrastructure. I was so used to being in an environment where I had people behind me, supporting me," he says. "Knowing that [Lapels' founders] have been through it already calmed any fears that I had moving forward. I was getting the proper training, and the marketing was being provided for me."

The one thing that was lacking for him as a first franchisee, however, was the major benefit of more established franchises: a known brand name. "The only downside was not having other stores open," he says. "It was very hard initially to brand the name when [mine] was the only store."

Despite Lapels lacking a known name, Eisner was content as a first franchisee just to concentrate his energy on growing his business. "I wasn't really focusing on the bigger picture at that time. My number one concern was just making my store successful," he says. "I was putting pressure on myself to make this a success for me first and for Lapels second."

It worked. And Eisner is now in a position to help the franchisees that came after him. Still committed to his original goal of being as involved as possible, Eisner was recently nominated to Lapels' franchisee steering committee. "Every franchisee is more than welcome to call me with issues. We discuss these issues and anything else we feel needs to be changed, and then present that to the corporate office for their review," he says. For example, the steering committee recently implemented a new shirt tagging system that Eisner says is more convenient for customers and franchisees.

Helping implement necessary changes, advising and guiding new franchisees, as well as running his own store are just a few of the perks Eisner has gained from joining a fledgling system. And though a more established franchise could also have fulfilled Eisner's aspirations, he knows being Lapel's first franchisee was a great move for him. "I probably could be as happy [in a larger system] if the same opportunities were presented to me," he says, "but I take pride being the first franchisee. I enjoy this role."