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Training Is a Final Test For Franchise Hopefuls

You may have heard of McDonald's famous Hamburger University, but did you know that all franchises require prospects to undergo training? And yes, there are tests.

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On a recent afternoon, I stood in a real bathtub and helped apply slippery acrylic panels to a fake bathroom wall. Luxury Bath Systems, a 13-year-old franchise company in Glendale Heights, Ill., had given me the opportunity to sit in on their training program and learn about franchise training from the inside.

There wasn't much sitting. Luxury's franchisees perform one-day bath remodeling by covering up old porcelain tubs and ceramic tile with acrylic liners and matching surrounding wall covering, so its training is mostly hands-on. I donned safety glasses, snapped a tape measure onto my belt and joined five classmates in bathtub-liner class. Actually my partner, Ronald Mules, a bathroom remodeler from Clinton, N.J., did most of the work on our assignment -- making a plywood display case look like a finished bathroom. But I helped measure and therefore shared the blame when our edging piece, called a bullnose, turned out too short.

All franchise companies provide training for new franchisees and/or their key people. The cost of training, which usually lasts from five to 30 days, is covered by your franchise fee. Franchisees pay for their own travel and lodging. "Training is the most critical part of buying a franchise," says Dave Hood, the former president of Auntie Anne's hot-pretzel franchise company and now a franchise consultant in New Holland, Pa. "This is when you learn about the philosophy and operating systems of the franchise. If you're trained well, you have a better chance of succeeding."

Training is also the last chance for you and your franchiser to make sure you're meant for each other, says Dan Levy, a Chicago-based franchise-training specialist. "This isn't game theory," Mr. Levy says. "If a concept is too hard to teach, it's not meant to be franchised."

Since training usually takes place in the franchiser's corporate headquarters, you can use the visit to take the measure of the company's executives, office staff and support systems. And the franchiser can assess whether you have the attitude and aptitude to operate his system. Yes, there are tests. "If you're not getting it, some franchisers would rather refund your money than add you to their system," Mr. Levy says.

The pre-eminent franchise-training site is Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Ill., where nearly 6,000 people a year learn to operate McDonald's restaurants in classrooms nestled around an 80-acre campus. The International Center for Entrepreneurial Development, in Cypress, Texas, trains for Kwik Kopy, Women's Health and four others franchise concepts at a complex that includes a rustic lodge and a replica of the Alamo. Luxury Bath Systems trains in a small classroom and the company's warehouse in Glendale Heights, Ill.

In addition to classroom instruction, all franchise training includes some kind of hands-on experience. Many restaurant franchises have franchisees practice grilling burgers or topping pizzas in prototype stores; other franchisers assign their trainees to work with experienced franchisees.

Luxury Bath's training has evolved, says company founder Davis Glassberg. "We used to take our trainees to a commercial property, like a hotel or an apartment complex...letting the trainee install bathtub liners and walls until he understood the process. But using a paying customer for training isn't ideal, because if a trainee forgets the caulk and a tub starts to leak..."

At Luxury, our classes were led by senior installer Richard Stachura, who also stars in Luxury's training videos. "See how I'm applying that bead of silicon?" Mr. Stachura says, pointing to the video, then stopping it to elaborate on his technique. He was reassuring -- "When you start out, each installation will take you 12 to 14 hours. But after 50 installs, you' able to do them in less than a day." And he peppered his talk with anecdotes, such as the time a novice spilled black rubberized primer all over a customer's white carpeting. "You can dab it up with WD-40," he reports, "but it takes hours." Mr. Stachura gives his cellphone number to every franchisee and installer. Whenever the phone rang in the classroom, he stopped teaching immediately and attended to the caller's problem.

Mr. Stachura also coaches trainees through three days of mock installations in the company's warehouse. "If you make a mistake, it's better to do it here than in a customer's home," he said. Although my partner, Mr. Mules, is an experienced tradesman, we did make a mistake and cut our bullnose, the top of the tub wall liner that wraps around the bathroom ceiling soffit, too short. "You'll have to use a lot of caulk to cover that," Mr. Stachura told us. Luxury trainees spend the last two days in the field installing acrylic bath systems in real homes, albeit the homes of Luxury's office staff and not those of paying customers.

By then, I was a training-course dropout. I knew I could never pass the tests. But the classes and exercises were obviously designed to help new franchise owners learn to do things right and to take pride in their new enterprises.

"We could never operate this franchise without the training," says Doug Murray, franchisee of Luxury Bath Systems of North Central Illinois in Streator, who completed the course a year ago. "They try to cover everything you may run into in the field."

Unfortunately, all franchise training programs aren't as successful, says Mr. Levy. He recommends a thorough investigation into the training provided by a franchise concept, including interviews with franchisees, especially new ones. If you hear a lot of negative comments, you may want to consider another franchise system.

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