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Corporate Climbers

What do you do when the next rung of the corporate ladder isn't enough motivation for you? These entrepreneurs transferred their climb to the world of franchising.

This story appears in the July 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Fed up with being the VP of marketing? Done with your days as the director of technology? The upheaval in the economy has brought layoffs and uncertainty, devalued portfolios and a feeling that no matter how hard you work in the corporate world, you may not have as much control over your career as you'd like. And all these factors have led to one trend: an increase in professionals leaving their corporate digs to try their hand at franchising.

"Since the Internet bubble burst, we've seen a dramatic increase," says Jeff Elgin, founder and CEO of Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based FranChoice Inc., a company that provides free consulting to consumers looking for a franchise. "A lot of people have been downsized two or even three times over the past 12 years, and they're sick of it." So sick of it, in fact, that they're moving into franchising with the hope of controlling their own destiny and not being at the mercy of someone else's balance sheet.

Why franchising? Probably because the leap from corporate employee to entrepreneur can be terrifying. Execs who used to delegate tasks to marketing, advertising and accounting departments can suddenly face the prospect of taking care of everything themselves. Franchising's appeal is that it offers the incentive of business ownership and cushions the blow by providing the training, assistance and structure ex-execs are accustomed to.

It's a combination that makes sense. "With a franchise system, there are some boundaries, [because the franchisor] has learned from trial and error," says Elgin. "Why reinvent the wheel?"

If you're ready to learn, willing to get your hands dirty and aching to build a company with a successful track record, this may be your gig. Meet three ex-corporate execs who found the dream was theirs.

Ready to make that leap from corporate denizen to fearless franchisee? Here are some resources to help you:

The Bread Winner

Carl Dissette knows what he wants--independence and the freedom to establish his own territory. Realizing the corporate world wouldn't give him those things, he opened two Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shops franchises in the Chicago area in 1996.

Dissette, 39, spent his 20s working in the food industry at the corporate level--he was regional vice president of a coffee-roasting company by age 27. Still, even with the success and job offers his high-demand sales and management skills were bringing in from all sides, Dissette couldn't reconcile himself to the fate many colleagues suffered. "I looked at how the corporate world hired people, ground them up and spat them out," he says.

"I was [young] and had this ability and talent," he says. "I thought, 'I could make some corporation a lot of money, or I could make myself a lot of money.'"

He tried his hand at a diner-type franchise and an independent champagne and caviar bar in Chicago before settling on the Jimmy John's system. Now with 2002 sales estimates at about $3.5 million for his six stores, Dissette continues to push past all boundaries. "[Corporate America] is extremely restrictive to an aggressive, fast-track person, which I was and am," he says. "Guess what? I love my job. I love being my own boss."

Ladder of Success

According to this former sales and marketing manager of a dry-cleaning franchise system, he is "pretty handy." Still, Matt Eggenberger, 45, knew he'd need a lot more than that if he was going to get his Mr. Handyman franchise off the ground. Eggenberger opened his franchise near Cincinnati in February 2001 after leaving his job in January. His division had been closing, and, with nearly 10 months of warning, he decided to go into franchising for two reasons: the value of a name brand and the support franchises provide.

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Visit Mr. Handyman in our Franchise Zone.

In fact, the franchisor was an indispensable resource during the earliest days of Eggenberger's business--they taught him everything he needed to know about fixing stuff. "I've had to learn about ladders," he says, laughing. "How to conduct safety meetings, how to maintain Material Safety Data sheets--I really didn't have to worry about that in my marketing job."

It was also difficult to adjust to doing everything himself. "When you're in the corporate world, you can plan your day," he says. "When you're starting a new business, everything you do is something have to be the accountant, receptionist, customer service--everything."

But the payoff is 2002 sales projections of $1 million. "It's fulfilling knowing you're building equity every day," says Eggenberger. "You can see the results of your decisions."

Prints of Akron

Willie Smith bought into an already established AlphaGraphics Printshops of the Future franchise in the tail end of 2001. Formerly working as a corporate exec at GE, Smith was in an AlphaGraphics location in Akron, Ohio, when something just clicked. "It was time to take a little more control of my [life]," he says. "[It was time] to look for my own venue."

Smith felt an instant rapport with the previous owner, who was selling because it was time for a change in his own life. In fact, Smith kept his predecessor on as a consultant to help guide him into the business.

That expertise and close training from the previous owner, as well as the franchisor, was crucial to Smith, who didn't have any graphics background, though he did have to struggle with his innate penchant for independence. "The biggest challenge is fully utilizing the franchisor," he says. Where he normally would have resisted help in the past, Smith found himself embracing the support.

Stepping into an existing franchise gave him a slight advantage as well. "I had a good idea of what I was walking into," says Smith, 38. "It was an existing business, so we already had a lot of information--I just had to tap into that." He's still tapping into it, to the tune of about $2 million in expected sales for 2002.

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