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Blimpie International Founder Tony Conza Find out how veteran entrepreneur Tony Conza survived--and thrived--while growing the Blimpie empire.

By Laura Tiffany

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Success stories don't come much sweeter than TonyConza's. In 1964, he and two high school friends came upon abrilliant new idea: selling submarine sandwiches. Granted, itwasn't a new idea, but it was a recent-enough restaurantindustry development to prove a unique and popular concept when thetrio opened their first store in Hoboken, New Jersey, with $2,000borrowed from a neighborhood businessman.

Thirty-six years later, Blimpie International has roughly 2,100franchised stores in 15 countries with total annual sales of $350million. It hasn't been an easy road-Conza hasexperienced setbacks as well as great successes-but throughit all, he's maintained his passion for Blimpie. Conza recentlycompleted Success: It's A Beautiful Thing (John Wiley& Sons Inc., $24.95), a combination of memoirs and lessons hehas culled from his lifetime career as an entrepreneur. We'veasked Conza to share some of the business wisdom he's gatheredfrom the experience of growing a multimillion-dollarenterprise. When you began your business in 1964,did you imagine Blimpie would become such a large, successfulchain? How did that goal develop?

Tony Conza: We knew we wanted to be more than singlerestaurant operators. Our immediate plans were to have a smallchain of these restaurants, but we never really imagined the scopeof what the operation is today, to have a presence in 15 countries.That was beyond our imagination at that time. Why did you choose franchising as theexpansion method for Blimpie?

Conza: Well, everything we did in those early days wekind of just did, without planning too much. We opened the firststore in Hoboken, and people immediately loved our sandwiches andlined up to buy them. After about three months, we borrowed somemore money to open two more locations. And again, customers linedup and they loved the sandwiches. Then, friends, relatives and evenstrangers started coming to us and saying, 'Hey, this lookslike great concept and product. How do we do this?'

At the time, there were no franchising laws like there aretoday, and no one really knew that much about franchising. Some ofthe old companies like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts hadbeen franchising, but it wasn't something there was such aconsciousness about. So we went to a lawyer and quickly puttogether a franchise agreement and we started awarding franchises.After we did that, we began to realize that this was a good way toexpand and have a lot of development going on by using otherpeople's capital. What other expansion methods have beeninstrumental in your growth?

Conza: What we started to call nontraditional venueshappened many, many years later. In fact, that only happened aboutsix years ago. Up to that point, all our stores had been intraditional locations. And then we got together with a conveniencestore, and it just seemed like a great idea [to] put our locationright inside the store. [Because of] that, we ended up developing awhole department just to deal with these nontraditional locations.A large number of them are in convenience stores, but they'realso in hospitals and on college campuses. We currently have anarrangement with Canteen Corporation of American where we'reputting our sandwiches in their vending machines.

The nontraditional venue area of expansion is [fairly]unlimited, although I think the big rush for convenience stores toput in branded food is over. I think there will always be a need todo that, but the major push in that direction is over at thispoint. What setbacks did you encounter whileBlimpie was growing? How did you avoid letting the failure of someventures get to you?

Conza: One major failure was when we got into operatingthese full-service Mexican bar restaurants called Border Café.It happened in the early 1980s. After we completed a small publicoffering for our stock, we decided to diversify instead ofexpanding the Blimpie chain nationally. So we started learning alot about tequila and forgetting about bologna.

I think the worst thing that happened to us was that the firstBorder Café we opened became very successful. So we did whatwe always did, which was open more. Well, the rest of themweren't so successful, and soon they were taking our time andour money and our energy. And we [finally] reached the conclusionthat this was a failure and that we had to close these operationsand get back to focusing on our core business which wasBlimpie.

Accepting a failure isn't always the easiest thing to do.For us, in our early years of business, we struggled through somuch and we were able to survive because of our tenacity and ourperseverance, and eventually create a success. When we were intothese Border Café restaurants, [we kept thinking] if wepersevered long enough, they'd become successful.

But what we eventually came to realize is there are two thingsabout failure. One is you lose money of course, but the other isthat you get set back in the time cycle. All the time you'reexpanding something that really should be declared a failure andended, that's time you could be spending with something muchmore productive. But the thing about failure is to not let itdebilitate you and to understand that the best thing that canhappen from failure is that you learn. Failures can be moreimportant than successes because you often learn more from afailure than you would from a success. You discuss a concept in your bookcalled "the 20-store syndrome." What is this? How does itapply to all entrepreneurs?

Conza: We discovered that when we have a newsubfranchisor take over a territory, they will have initialsuccesses in opening their locations. And then what generallyhappens is they get to a certain point-it could be 15 storesor 25 stores, but it's somewhere in that range when thingsstart to happen. The franchisees lose enthusiasm or lose theirpassion, maybe they weren't properly financed to begin with, ormaybe the location selection wasn't the best. So if [problems]are gonna happen, that's generally when they start happening.That's why we actually gave a name to it because we've seenit happen so many times. So what we try to do is prepare asubfranchisor for this. We tell them, 'This is what's gonnahappen so you have to be prepared to deal with it when it doeshappen and once you get through it, then everything's gonna befine.'

I use that as an analogy for people to anticipate what might becalled their own 20-store syndrome: a problem that might occur.It's like when you meet someone, fall in love, get married, andit's great, but you know, it's not always going to be thatway. There's going to be a certain point in the relationshipwhen [problems will occur] so you need to be prepared and notexpect everything to be wonderful throughout your relationship. What are some other challenges ofgrowth?

Conza: The most important thing-and it'ssomething I harp on very much in my book-is having passionand maintaining your passion for success. I've had the passion,I've lost the passion, and I've regained the passion. And Ican tell you that when you don't have it, the chances of yoursucceeding are lessened substantially. When the Border Caféthing was happening, I also was feeling very unfulfilledinternally. I kept asking myself, 'Why, when I started thisbusiness in 1964 with no money, no training and no experience was Iable to create a successful enterprise, and now why am I feelinglike a failure?' I couldn't figure out the answer to thatquestion for a long time, and then one day it hit me: I had lostsomething. I had lost the passion for success and the passion forBlimpie.

My first reaction was that I had to get out of the business.Then of course I realized I would have to do something else,whether that would be to start another business or another careerof some sort. I would have to get the passion for that, or thatwouldn't be successful. Wouldn't it just make a lot moresense to regain my passion for Blimpie?

And once I had made that mental decision, I realized I couldthen accomplish anything I desired. There are four main reasons whybusinesses fail, and the first one is negative attitude. And thatapplies not just to business but to every part of your life. If yougo into something thinking, 'This is not so great. Thisisn't going to work,' you're going to fail just becauseyou'll create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have a franchisee in Atlanta who owns a couple of stores andher name is Vicki Sheldon. A few years ago, Vicki won Franchisee ofthe Year, the award we give at our annual conventions. I was at thefront of the room giving out awards, and when she got to the frontof the room to receive her award, she leaned over to me and said,'Tony, I love Blimpie.' That's passion. How could shenot be successful? If she loves it so much, she's gonna bereally, really successful. And that's what I believe more thananything: Whatever is important to you in your life, get thepassion for it and you'll be successful at it.

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