Basic Training: Military Service Prepares Vets For Successful Lives In Franchising

Standard operating procedure, or SOP, is a term widely understood by those who have served in the armed forces.

SOP refers to a step-by-step method for how a mission or function will be carried out. Veterans understand the importance of implementing and following SOP for a task to be executed and the mission completed successfully. This systematic approach sounds very similar to the franchising model, and is why more and more veterans are finding successful post-military careers in the world of franchising.

Veterans are "transitioning" out of the military ranks at a rate of more than 200,000 per year, according to U.S. government figures. Many are looking for jobs, others for second careers. No matter what their motivation, many of these vets will make great franchisees--if you know about them and how to recruit them.

Many services available to assist franchisors in recruiting these veterans--the IFA's VetFran program and organizations such as RecruitMilitary (see sidebars), for example. But many franchisors are supplementing external services with their own efforts to identify former-military prospects and enlist them as franchise owners. We talked with a half dozen of these franchisors to learn more about their efforts.

Qualified and technically adept

"I like to say the military is the best franchise in the world," says Chris Loudermilk, director of military development for The Dwyer Group in Waco, Tex. "Whether you're at Fort Hood or Fort Carson, the system is the same." Others share this sentiment.

"Military people have been exposed to systems, and teamwork, and that translates into ownership in the civilian world," says Tom Hofer, Vietnam veteran and CEO of Spring-Green Lawn Care. Hofer has been so pleased with the veterans who have joined Spring-Green that he says, "Our top three system-wide franchisee performers over the last couple of years have been from the military."

Little Caesars also has discovered the benefits of recruiting veterans. Over the past couple of years, since launching its Veterans Program, the company has signed 46 vets and fielded more than 2,400 inquiries from others, says Rick Moreno, executive vice president of administration and strategy for Little Caesars.

"Our experience with veterans has been that they are excellent at customer service-related jobs," says Moreno. "They're great franchisees. In fact, we have several who have already opened additional locations."

CMIT Solutions, in Austin, Texas, also is active in recruiting former military personnel as franchisees, says President and CEO Jeff Connally. "Vets are great franchisees. They understand systems and how to make them work." They typically have a "can-do" attitude that helps them overcome obstacles and succeed despite the circumstances, he says.

"They are independent enough to have the moxie to get things done, but are disciplined enough to follow the system," says Connally. An added benefit for many transitioning veterans is technical knowledge gained in the service. That fits right into what computer-related companies like CMIT Solutions do.

"These guys are typically comfortable with technology and can just flow right into our system," says Connally. Technical in the military can be quite extensive and diverse.
Bryan Ward, co-founder and president of Las Vegas-based Friendly Computers agrees. "The military does such a good job of providing these individuals with technical training in all kinds of computer-related areas that when they come into our system it is an easy transition," he says.

But it's not imperative for these veterans to have technical skills to become a successful franchisee, says Ward. "The discipline, respect, and dedication often found in the military candidates are just as important." Connally and Ward also agree that vets tend to be very good at hand-on, service-oriented jobs.

"I see the value of military veterans because I was one," says Allan Young, CEO and co-founder of Marietta, Ga.-based ShelfGenie. "They are process-oriented and they've been cross-trained. They think in tactics, procedures, and adjustments." Just the kind of things that come in handy in franchising.

Getting the word out

One of the key problems many franchise organizations face is a general lack of awareness among military personnel of the opportunities franchising offers. Franchisors tackle this challenge in various ways. Some work with organizations like VetFran and RecruitMilitary, others form their own internal initiatives, and a few simply target some of their marketing efforts and dollars toward reaching veterans.

About two years ago, Spring-Green Lawn Care launched its own Military Assistance Program (MAP) to reach out to veterans. MAP is essentially a grant program that helps veterans get on board and up to speed with a Spring-Green franchise, says James Young, the company's president. "We will apply a portion of the initial franchise fee, up to $15,000, toward start-up expenses like equipment," he says. Spring-Green also offers a finance plan allowing vets to lease equipment over five years, if necessary.

To generate awareness of its MAP program and franchise opportunity, the company attends military-focused job fairs and advertises in targeted magazines such as Vetrepreneur and G.I. Jobs(where Young wrote a regular column for a time). For added impact and credibility, some of Spring-Green's franchisee veterans have made testimonial podcasts and been profiled in publications.

"We've even tried to develop relationships with the transition class instructors at some military bases, but they come and go pretty quickly and we haven't been as effective as we'd like," says Young.

In the coming year, Hofer and Young hope to increase spending aimed at recruiting veterans. "When we find someone with a track record of accomplishment in the military, it's a pretty good indicator of the kind of franchisee they would make," says Hofer.

The Veterans Program at Little Caesars has also been in effect for about two years, says Moreno. "We offer honorably discharged vets a number of discounts and credits on the franchise fee, cost of the equipment, and even help cover the costs of the grand opening publicity for their store," he says. Disabled vets get even more assistance: start-up benefits for honorably discharged, service-disabled vets can reach well over $60,000 at Little Caesars. Moreno says the company looked at other veterans recruiting programs to get ideas on how to build their own.

"We wanted to create a program that was innovative and sustainable, and we're always looking at ways to enhance and expand it," " he says. In recent months, the company has been working on a new component for its Veterans Program: matching vets interested in becoming store operators with vets seeking an investment opportunity. "We're helping veterans become business partners with other veterans in our system," says Moreno.

And on the financing side, with credit tight, Moreno says Little Caesars is looking at teaming up with some new banks and lenders who could help incoming franchisees with any financial needs.

There from the start

When it comes to military recruiting, the Dwyer Group (and its half-dozen service brands) has been there from the start. Founder Don Dwyer, Sr., created the VetFran program for veterans returning from the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Since then, the company has been a transitional spot for many veterans.
In early 2008, Loudermilk, the company's director of military development and a self-described "Army brat," helped spearhead the company's Program for Assisting Veteran Entrepreneurship (PAVE).

In addition to personal guidance from Loudermilk, veteran recruits receive a 25 percent discount off the cost of the initial franchise territory, partial financing incentives, and discounts with preferred vendors. "We work with banks and also help vets get plugged in with the SBA's Patriot Express Loan program," he says.

Generating awareness of programs for veterans is critical, he says, and that's why The Dwyer Group attends military-specific job fairs such as those put on by
RecruitMilitary each year. "We advertise heavily in publications like Vetrepreneur and participate in organizations like the National Veteran-Owned Business Association," he says. The Dwyer Group also teamed up with RecruitMilitary to create a customized lead generation system to help organize and maintain prospect information.

At Friendly Computers, "We dedicate a small percentage of our marketing budget exclusively to reach former military personnel," says Ward. The company relies on the IFA's VetFran program (which typically calls for a 10 percent discount off the franchise fees for military candidates), some military targeted publications (like Military Spouses magazine), and various industry trade shows for recruiting. But the company has also developed a great PR of its own.

"We've teamed up with a great organization, Soldiers' Angels, to give away free laptops to disabled U.S. military veterans," he says. Soldiers' Angels, which helps wounded soldiers and their families, selects a veteran every other month to receive a new computer courtesy of Friendly Computers.

CMIT Solutions, says Connally, "quietly supports" the Military Order of the Purple Heart--a group that provides resources to wounded vets and their families. "We contribute $1,000 to the group every time we up a vet into our system," he says--five in 2008.

Though not a direct recruiting teaming up with organizations like Soldiers' Angels and the Military Order of the Purple Heart can create goodwill and awareness in the military community. Ward and Connally say their efforts are not meant to capitalize on that goodwill so much as they are to respectfully recognize those who have devoted their lives to the military.

In addition to these efforts, Ward says his in-house sales staff, brokers, and in publications on and near military bases are important components of their marketing strategies.

"We stand behind the 10 percent VetFran discount off the franchising fee for qualified military candidates and we'll even work with individual candidates beyond those numbers if necessary," says Ward. He describes a recent new franchisee, with a military background, whom they allowed to work out of his home until he could arrange to lease a brick-and-mortar site.

Just standard operating procedure: do whatever it takes to complete the mission.

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