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Rising Through the Ranks: What One Franchisee Learned Starting at the Bottom Amol Kohli used to wash dishes at Friendly's as a teenager. Today, he's an owner.

By Nina Zipkin

This story appears in the October 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Benjamin Rasmussen

When Amol Kohli took his first job at a Friendly's restaurant in Philadelphia, he was 15 and had one goal in mind: work his way up to manager, so he could beef up his college applications. He set out to become indispensable, learning every position in the restaurant. Need a server? Kohli was there. Down a dishwasher? Kohli filled in. Short a cook? He could do that, too. His bosses took notice, and he earned that manager position, working until he departed for college. After graduation, he returned to the business he knew inside and out, and became a franchisee. Now Kohli owns 12 Friendly's locations in the Philadelphia area, as well as four Tilted Kilt pubs. As the 29-year-old navigates the business world, he's learned how to connect with communities, motivate his team and help employees find their own paths to success.

Related: 5 Strategies for Avoiding the Most Common Franchisee Mistakes

How has your history with Friendly's influenced your approach as a franchisee?

If you're a waiter, you don't necessarily understand the pressures a cook feels, or a manager, or a host. Yet all these groups work together to deliver a great customer experience and get people to come back again. I started as a server and worked my way up -- I cooked, scooped ice cream, washed dishes. It gave me a real sense of how the business functions operationally, and it helped me appreciate each department. Now, at my restaurants, we've developed a culture where no job is too big or small. If you're going to tell somebody to do something, be prepared to show them how to do it yourself. This business is about managing people; it's not about managing a concept, or a brand.

Image Credit: Benjamin Rasmussen

Related: 3 Reasons Promoting From Within Is Better for Growing Your Business

What are some ways you help guide your employees into management positions?

When we have an internal job opening in management at a restaurant, we ask all our GMs to send recommendations from their teams. If our GMs come back and don't think anyone is quite ready, we'll go to the employees themselves and ask if anyone is interested in exploring a management role. That message lets them know that we're here to help develop their skill sets. A lot of our young employees are entering the work environment for the first time. We have to serve as coaches first, to help develop staffers. Your best employees often end up being your best managers.

You became a franchisee right out of college. What challenges have you faced as you've grown your business?

When I started, my age was a major factor -- people would think, Oh, he's just a kid, and I don't want to work for a kid. One of my first transactions was when I was 22, and I bought an existing block of restaurants. But what I completely underestimated was, the family I purchased it from had been in business for 15, 20 years, running these units in their community. I was so excited, but everybody else didn't trust me. The community didn't know who I was. I had no credibility.

Related: 10 Ways to Cultivate Credibility

What did you learn from that experience?

I realized very quickly that I needed to surround myself with people who would believe in me and in the organization, and then represent us out in the field. At the time, I thought simply buying the stores gave me credibility. They're mine! But you have to earn the respect of your staff, as well as your reputation in the community. It doesn't come with ownership -- and that lesson is something money can't buy.

Nina Zipkin

Entrepreneur Staff

Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.

Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.

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