Women Franchise Owners Fear the PRO Act

Franchising helped them become small business owners, and they don't want to be forced back under the corporate thumb.

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By Kim Kavin

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

This story is part of Entrepreneur's Campaign For Our Careers, an effort to raise awareness about the harmful effects of the PRO Act. For more about the campaign, click here.

If someone wants to buy a franchise, but isn't sure which is the right fit, Megan Allen is the kind of person to call. Allen is a consultant with FranNet in Colorado; helping potential franchisees is her job. And these days, she's getting many calls from moms who don't want to return to the 9-to-5 grind.

"They are trying to figure out how to go from the flexibility of controlling their own schedule all day to going back to the office," Allen says. "They got a taste of it. If you don't feel well, you cancel something. If your kids come first, you go to the basketball camp. You can still do your job and make money, but also be there for the family."

These women want to be their own bosses, and Allen is excited to help them — which is why she's also angry about a looming law that could make it harder for them to achieve independence. The law is the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which is currently being considered by Congress. It contains language called the joint-employer standard, which some legal experts say could force corporate franchise brands to become the employer of their individual franchisees' staff. That would eliminate franchisees' autonomy.

If the franchise industry is disrupted, then many women's careers are disrupted too. Women now open one out of every three new franchises, in a business model where about 30 percent of the owners are women. Franchising is a growing segment of women's financial empowerment at a time when the nation's workforce is reeling from women dropping out at rates so high that the vice president called the situation "a national emergency."

"We can't allow this PRO Act to happen without a fight," Allen says. "America is about being able to own your own business."

Mary Kennedy Thompson couldn't agree more. She put herself through college working two jobs and served eight years in the U.S. Marines before becoming a chemical sales rep for private laboratories. She liked the job, but it wasn't enough. Having led teams in the Marines, she wanted to lead them in civilian life, too.

"When I saw franchising, I knew I could do it," she says. "You show me the system, I will make the system operational."

Her husband brought home a brochure for the Cookies By Design franchise, and Kennedy Thompson called the number—despite the fact that she didn't know how to bake cookies. In 1993, she opened her first franchise in Texas. In 1995, she opened her second. In 1997, her third. By 2004, she had sold them all and become president of the whole Cookies By Design company, a role that ultimately led to her current position as chief operating officer of franchise brands at Neighborly.

"People who know me well laugh mightily that I had bakeries," she says today. "I can't cook. I'm the perfect example of how franchising works. They taught me everything."

Michelle Nock feels the same way. She and her husband are both longtime registered nurses — they met at the hospital where they worked — and they thought their community in Sierra Vista, Arizona, needed more options for assisted living after patients left the hospital. While researching options, they happened upon BrightStar home health care franchises.

Nock had done home health care for a few years and enjoyed it because she got to work one-on-one with patients, instead of having to oversee multiple patients all at once in places like the hospital's surgical trauma unit.

"You're going into the house to do an infusion, or give someone IV antibiotics, or dress a wound, or teach them how to do insulin," she says. "It's uninterrupted. It's just you and them."

In 2008, Nock and her husband took every penny of their savings and opened a BrightStar franchise. She was the president, and he was the vice president—even though neither of them knew how businesses were run.

"I'd never had to ask anyone for money, or send out an invoice, or pay bills related to a business, or taxes with IRS rules and laws," she says. "If I didn't have the corporate office — the franchisor — to help us, with that CEO who is so business-minded and used to be an accountant, we wouldn't have made it."

Both Nock and Kennedy Thompson say they never felt like employees of their franchisors. They felt supported and encouraged to become the best small business owners they could be — a benefit they fear the PRO Act's joint-employer standard would strip from franchisees nationwide.

"I decided when I came into work and when I didn't," Kennedy Thompson says. "My children were big into drama. Sometimes they had plays I wanted to go to—and I didn't miss a single one. Imagine if there's joint employer, and they're telling me that I have to be in the office at that time. That would happen. Then I'm just a glorified manager. I'm not in charge of my own destiny anymore."

Nock, who will be 63 this July, says that if the PRO Act turns BrightStar into an employer of her whole setup, that would be the opposite of what she's been trying to achieve all these years with locally provided, personalized in-home care.

"It would corporatize everything," she says. "If they change the corporate structure, you won't have people like us trying to start businesses. The whole framework would be different and unjustifiably horrible."

And like all those women calling Allen in Colorado to figure out how to become franchisees, Nock wants no part of the PRO Act forcing her back into working for somebody else.

"I've been an employee for enough years. It's my turn not to be one," she says. "If this bill goes through, I'm done. I'll sell the business. You think enough small businesses haven't closed in the past 18 months? Wait until you see what happens if this goes through."

Here's how to contact your senator and U.S. House representative and tell them to vote no on the PRO Act.

Kim Kavin
Kim Kavin was an editorial staffer at newspapers and magazines for a decade before going full-time freelance in 2003. She has written for The Washington Post, NBC’s ThinkThe Hill and more about the need to protect independent contractor careers. She co-founded the grassroots, nonpartisan, self-funded group Fight For Freelancers.

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