Franchising's Best and Brightest
Printed in USA Today
by Nancy Rathbun Scott
Divorce, riots, exploding equipment, miles and miles of hair to sweep upthese franchise owners have seen it all. And they've come out on top, winning the coveted Franchisee of the Year award. Getting to the top of this heap takes guts-unflagging belief in self, dogged commitment to the system, life skills well applied, lofty goalsand a lot of long hours.
Paul Beck, associate director of marketing for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, which sponsors the award, puts it this way. "The award recognizes small business owners for facing the challenge, opening the door and making it work.It's what made this country and will keep it growing. The award to franchisees recognizes that a franchised business has a 66 percent greater success rate than any other new business."
Only four franchise owners in the nation can be Franchisees of the Year. The winners are selected from hundreds nominated across the country, but just being successful isn't enough. These people must demonstrate outstanding achievement in overcoming unusual adversity or obstacles in making a notable success of their business.
Some of their stories would curl your hair.
She took the heat and stayed in the kitchen
Winner Kerren Sargent has owned her Cookies by Design franchise for seven years. She has no debt and her store now ranks 11th in sales out of 200 franchises. This success didn't happen over night.
Sargent says she wanted a Cookies By Design store of her own from the time she first walked into the store in San Francisco where she lived. Finally, in 1990, she convinced her husband to relocate to San Diego, certain they could make a go of the newly minted franchise. The problems began with delayed approvals from city planners. "With so young a franchise, it was all guess-work and costing me a fortune," says Sargent.
Before long, the strain precipitated divorce. It was an ugly split and Sargent was left with all the debt and a brand new store to run. "I didn't know anybody. It was just me and my eight-year-old daughter and we had no income. I got five months behind on my rent, I was behind on my royalties, and I had the IRS breathing down my neck. I would always be late picking up my daughter from school. I cried every day."
Other little problems kept cropping up, too. "That first year the hot water heater exploded, my freezer failed, my air conditioner broke down constantly, my delivery van broke down several times, my mixer broke down in the middle of the night right before Valentine's Day, and my baker quit just before Christmas."
But Sergent kept cooking. "I was bound and determined to make this business go. I always knew that I was a strong person and I was always positive about the business, always smiled in the shop. People would joke about calling me when they were having a bad day. They figured my day was worse than theirs."
Today Sargent seems almost amazed that she has created a debt-free, successful business. She still works around the clock, but is grateful that the business enables her to support the many community causes for which she donates cookies. She's still struggling, though. Eager to purchase her second and third stores, Sargent can't get a loan because her ex-husband's bankruptcy ruined her credit rating.
Despite the hardships, Sargent feels good about the business. "I love what I am doing. Designing cookie baskets brings out my love for fantasy and fun."
Reward the people and keep the presses rolling
Jeanett Cordon purchased a PIP printing store in Los Angeles in 1989. Annual sales at the previously company-owned store were a mere $335,000. The store was in poor condition and the plant in disrepair. Substandard service was killing sales already affected by economic woes, racial divisions, and natural disasters besetting Los Angeles.
For some reason, Cordon wasn't discouraged. Her parents, immigrants from Central America, had always told her she had the power to dictate her future, so-even though she was short on cash-Cordon initiated incentive programs to boost employee morale. She wrote a business plan and started offering free computer graphics and customer training programs. She also invested in state-of-the-art printing equipment and upgraded her computers to accept jobs digitally.
Good relations with employees probably made the biggest difference. A former trainer for McDonald's, Cordon's understood the value of good training and fair reward. "She is very good with her employees and customers," says Ben Fretti, PIP's vice president of franchise services. "Her staff follows her, respects her and likes working with her. She gets people charged up and takes franchise procedures and executes them well with the whole staff working together."
Cordon also knows enough not to tinker with a good thing. "Her previous experience helped her understand the value of a franchise system and the importance of following the formulas," says Fretti. "The person who really excels is the one who simply follows the system and that's what she did so well."
Cordon's 1997 year-end sales reached $750,000 and she opened her second PIP store in Glendale this past September.
Sign up new markets
Michael Reagan had a background in sales and marketing. His wife, Donna, was a teacher. That's a winning combo for success, according to Don Dozier, executive vice president and COO of FastSigns. Back in 1991 when they purchased their first FastSigns store, the Reagans weren't so sure.
They opened in downtown Phoenix, in the midst of a sagging economy. At the time, the nearby large corporations were a relatively untapped market for signs. The Reagans worried, as they saw other franchise owners who had opened at the same time make a profit while they went without a paycheck.
But Mike knew how to develop a customer base in a downtown business district and he was determined. He looked for new sales opportunities and took some chances. At the nearby sports arena, for example, he provided signs in exchange for getting the FastSigns' name on arena dasher boards. "He's been very creative in applying all the principles and adapting the advertising and marketing materials that we provide to their unique market," Dozier says.
Meanwhile, Donna applied her teaching skills to business organization and training employees. "Teaching people is a critical part of a business like this and Donna does it very well," Dozier acknowledges.
The game plan felt so right that the Reagans took another risk. They relocated to a larger downtown facility, which they renovated at their own expense. That increased the store's drive-by exposure, and reduced their advertising budget. "The Reagans are now the recognized leaders of our network," says Dozier, "averaging three to four times the network average in sales." They rank fourth worldwide among FastSigns' 389 franchisees.
Build the best hair trap
Go-for-it entrepreneurial drive, creative energy, and a commitment to professional excellence distinguish Franchisee of the Year William Kaminski. Beginning with one Cost Cutters Family Hair Care shop in Madison, Wisconsin, Kaminski now owns 61 salons throughout the Great Lakes region. Eventually, he'd like to own 500 stores.
Florence Francis, who founded Cost Cutters Family Hair Care franchise with her late husband, Joe, in 1970, thinks Bill can do it. "He just doesn't give up. When he decides there is something that needs to be done or he wants to do it, there is no stopping him. He's relentless in pursuit of whatever he wants. But he's very charming and likeable and that makes a big difference."
Kaminski was only 20 when he joined Cost Cutters in 1969 as one of their first hair stylists. "My husband and Bill had a mission to become very famous hair stylists, and they did, by winning hairstyling contests all over the country. The business began to grow very fast so, we set up a franchise to share the profits."
Like other successful franchisees, Kaminski follows the franchise formula to perfection. "Bill has grown amazingly. Our company provides all the marketing, advertising and business guidance and he does what we tell him to do. He follows the franchise formula; it works like a charm."
Pampered Maids Clean Up
In 29 months, Bennett Robert Wisner, Sr., Maid to Perfection's Franchisee of the Year, grossed over $1 million in sales, leading the network of 138 franchisees in sales and growth. "My success is due to selecting the right franchisor and hiring the right people," says Wisner, who bought the franchise in March 1995.
The Baltimore-based operation differs from other cleaning franchises. "We enable a franchise owner to offer a diverse service mix under one, single-fee franchise umbrella. Franchisees can do residential and commercial maid service, and also enter specialty areas-carpets, windows and floors," says Benton Cohen, Maid to Perfection's franchise director,
Wisner agrees that referrals from residential to commercial clients-and vice versa-boost sales. But if new clients flow from marketing and a keenly supportive franchise system, account retention keeps profits up. That's why Wisner pampers his 25 well-trained employees.
"I attribute a large part of my success to the people I'm fortunate enough to work with. A family atmosphere is important to me. I try to make both our customers and employees feel cared about and it's created a positive cycle-good people get good results."
Wisner's employees guarantee their work to the company. "Employees are paid a percentage on the jobs they do and are responsible for customer satisfaction. Because they are well-trained, they don't have to go back and re-do things. Our customers are happy and our employees earn well because they are getting additional customers instead of trading customers. The mix of service enhances their ability to earn a good income."
In a tight labor market, Wisner offers flexibility and respect. "We can accommodate individual employee's scheduling needs. Plus, I'm always looking for ways to catch them doing something right and reward them, whether through bonuses for attendance, exceptional work or referrals."
Wisner also believes in promoting from within to attract and retain employees. "My vice president started out as a maid, then she became an office manager and then a general manager." One of his other office managers is now a Maid to Perfection franchise owner.

® copyright 1999 Nancy Rathbun Scott
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