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Franchise Frontrunners Female franchise leaders offer advice and encouragement to would-be entrepreneurs and franchisors.

By Eve Gumpel

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Entrepreneur's Franchise 500 includes a number of women-owned and women-run organizations. We've taken a closer look at several of the companies run by women to learn their secrets of success.

They operate in a range of industries, including male-dominated fields such as auto repair. The smallest had 59 franchises in 2007, and the largest had nearly 7,000 franchises worldwide. Several are adding franchises in countries around the globe.

Every franchisor enjoys what she's doing. As Fran Lessans of Passport Health put it, "Anyone who wants to be successful will be. This is America. All you have to do is want it." For more information, check out our recent Franchise 500 listing.

Passport Health
Fran Lessans, founder
Based in: Baltimore, Maryland
Description: Immunization clinics for international travelers and others
Began in: 1995; franchising since 1997
59 franchises in 2007

Passport Health started in travel medicine and has since expanded to immunizations. Only the U.S. government purchases more vaccines than Passport Health, which is the only company that has ever responded to a bioterrorist attack [the anthrax scare in 2001], according to Fran Lessans. She's always looking for new opportunities. Currently, Passport Health is working with companies on pandemic preparedness and is involved in clinical trials. Lessans is also looking into the medical tourism industry, which involves people traveling worldwide for plastic surgery and other operations, and she's in discussions with possible franchisees in Brazil and Ireland. She advises other would-be entrepreneurs: "Don't wait. Do it now. Do something on your list every day in terms of moving forward--even something that scares you."

Candy Bouquet International Inc.
Margaret McEntire, CEO and founder
Based in: Little Rock, Arkansas
Description: Handmade floral-like bouquets featuring gourmet candies and chocolates from around the world
Began in: 1989; franchising since:1993
1,022 franchises in 2007

Margaret McEntire's Candy Bouquet International Inc. is burgeoning around the world. "The dollar has fallen, and it's like a fire sale," McEntire says. Europeans, Canadians and even women in the Middle East are buying into the franchise, although the women in Egypt had to put their business in their husband's name, according to McEntire. Franchisees get discounts from a long list of suppliers--so much so, in fact, that one gift shop recently bought a Candy Bouquet franchise rather than sign on with a particular chocolate supplier. McEntire looks for franchisees "who are on fire," who want to own their own business and who want to have fun. "I really enjoy this business," she says. "It's fun to get up in the morning, and I thank God for that daily."

Young Rembrandts
Bette Fetter, founder
Based in: Elgin, Illinois
Description: After-school program that teaches drawing to children ages 3 to12 in partnership with pre-schools, elementary schools and community centers
Began in: 1988; franchising since 1997
65 franchises in 2007

Young Rembrandts franchises teach drawing to about 40,000 children every week. Founder Bette Fetter's goal is to reach 200,000 children per week all over the world. Young Rembrandts already has Canadian and South Korean franchises, with the curriculum modified for foreign cultures. For example, in South Korea, tai kwon do illustrations replace baseball or football.

Fetter looks for franchisees with strong management experience, sales experience and good relationship skills. "It's definitely a manager model," she says. The franchise owner then hires part-time teachers with college-level art training plus experience working with children. Fetter has a three-step process for anyone who wants to start a franchise: "Make sure you have a great product that's unique and there's a market for it. Then make sure you have a strong history of success in doing it before you start franchising. Third, build a great team."

Two Men and a Truck International Inc.
Mary Ellen Sheets, founder
Based in: Lansing, Michigan
Description: Moving services
Began in: 1985; franchising since 1989
69 franchises in 2007 in 31 states, Canada and Ireland

"Love what you do," says Mary Ellen Sheets, a bureaucrat for 20 years before she took over her teenage sons' business when they went to college. "Once I had a business, I loved it."

Other principles to live by include the following:

  • The customer always comes first, before franchisees or employees. You have to ask yourself, "Is this good for the customer?"
  • Always say yes to any opportunity because you never know what will happen.
  • Always give back to your community, no matter how small your contribution is.
  • Don't lose your focus. "We opened a box outlet in 1996. We were selling greeting cards and wrapping paper, and renting mailboxes. It cost us about $200,000." The outlet was dismantled.
  • Take lots of pictures, even if you're the only employee. These are useful for presentations, PR and web design.
  • If you're trying to start a business, work on it every day. Clean out your files or call on somebody. Keep going and be persistent.

Learning Express
Sharon DiMinico, CEO and founder
Location: Devens, Massachusetts
Description: Specialty toy store
Began in: 1987; franchising since 1987
115 franchises in 2007

Sharon DiMinico remains undaunted by big box retailers and the toys they sell. "I believe in small retail," she says. "I believe in one-on-one customer service and the relationship marketing that small retailers provide." To be successful, she advises, toy store owners have to understand what makes the shopping experience enjoyable and provide the services that keep them in business long term.

"If you walk into a warehouse store, there is no expectation of service. People are buying on price," she says. Small retailers can't get away with that, so Learning Express puts its stores in communities where people appreciate the type of toys the franchise provides and are less concerned about price. DiMinico calls Learning Express "a very entrepreneurial franchise." She says her franchisees' hearts and souls are in their business. "It's a fun business to be in. If you like kids, and you like toys and helping out people, it works." It certainly works for DiMinico, who says she can't wait to come to work every day.

Moran Industries Inc.: Mr. Transmission and Milex Tune Up & Brake
Barbara Moran, CEO
Based in: Midlothian, Illinois
Moran Industries also owns Multistate Transmission, Dr. Nick's Transmission and Altamere, and it's about to launch SmartView Windows Solutions
Description: Transmission repair and services
Began in: 1956; franchising since 1976.
146 franchises of Mr. Transmission in 2007; 36 franchises of Milex in 2007

Barbara Moran is a model of perseverance in a traditionally male-dominated business. Told early on that she would never run Moran Industries, she went her own way. Years later, she returned to the corporate office and also purchased her own Mr. Transmission franchise. When her father retired in1999, she was named CEO. "I had to learn to get a tough skin," she says. "If I thought someone was talking down to me or belittling me it wasn't personal, and I had to prove to them I deserved to be respected." That was especially true of the franchisees. "I had to prove to them that I had the skill and I wasn't just the daughter of the chairman." Moran says she was often lonely facing challenges as a woman in her industry. "As women, we need to stick together," she says. She acts as a mentor to women in business and to female teens. She was a co-founder of the Chicago Women's Franchise Network, a byproduct of the International Franchise Association's Women's Franchise Committee.

Margaret Kelly , CEO Based in: Englewood, Colorado
Description: Real estate agency
Started: 1973; franchising since 1975
6,973 franchises in 65 countries in 2007

"We've gone from a seller's to a buyer's market," Margaret Kelly says. "If you don't have to sell, don't." Still, she says, in 2008, about 6.3 million properties are going to change hands. "That's down compared with the past few, record-breaking years. But there are a lot of properties to be bought and sold." Kelly notes that many Re/Max agents seek professional designations when the market slows down.

A pioneering company, ReMax turned the realty industry on its head in the 1970s by offering agents 100 percent of their commissions. "Others had to copy us to compete," Kelly says. But Re/Max wasn't done innovating. For example, the Re/Max Satellite Network offers programming for Re/Max agents four hours a day, five days a week. For buyers, Re/Max provides extensive online property listings. "We're always looking at the next tool, the next innovation to help not only members but clients, to make the process as seamless and smooth as possible."

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