For customers, this duo does whatever it takes

Daren Patera and Brian Wernicke met in law school in Salem, Oregon, on their first day of orientation. "After about our second day, we knew we didn't want to be lawyers," says Patera, and they decided to go into business. "We wanted to be our own bossesâ€"not graduate and get a job working 80 hours a week for a law firm and hope to be a partner someday."

Later, studying for the bar exam, Wernicke learned about Rapid Refill Ink while it was still in the formative stages. He'd coached high school football in Eugene, an hour south, and had gotten to know the founder, Dan White. Years afterward, when White decided to start franchising, he called Wernicke, who talked to Patera. It was all systems go for the brand's first franchised store.

"We opened the business while studying for the bar exam," says Patera. "There was not a lot of time to study and we failed the bar." That was about three and a half years ago. They did, however, obtain their J.D.'s, and David also earned an MBAâ€"all of which came in handy for new franchise owners trying to save every dollar they could. The partners used their legal to do their own incorporation, and continue to write and review their contracts, review their leases, (and if necessary, they can call on friends who did pass the bar).

As the first Rapid Refill Ink franchisees, Patera and Wernicke had to help figure out what worked and what didn't and troubleshoot problems for the fledgling brand. Their participation in developing today's system benefits new franchisees of the brand, which has grown to more than 40 stores in 12 states. They said this early involvement, combined with knowing the founder, has given them a sense of ownership in the company.

Whether it's that sense of ownership or their natural inclination, Patera and Wernicke both go all-out for their customers, who are split about evenly between end-consumers and businesses (insurance agents, doctors, dentists, companies, and maybe even some lawyers).

Customer service is paramount for the duo, and the results show, with their stores consistently at the top of the system's performers. "It's what we consider built our business: going beyond the limits," says Patera. "We take that old Nordstrom's approach where the customer's always right."

When an 80-year-old customer was having problems with his printer, they went out to his house. He'd bought only one cartridge, but that didn't matter. He needed their help, and out they went. Another customer having trouble with a printer was convinced it was the cartridge. "I knew it wasn't," says Patera. "I bought a new one, brought it out, and it didn't work. Then I stayed on the phone for an hour with Canon."

"That's a common occurrenceâ€"whether it's us or an employeeâ€"and they become customers for life and tell 10 people about us. Customer service is number one, followed closely by quality control," says Wernicke. "Although the customer base has grown substantially, we're still hands-on and know all our customers. What makes us successful is making contact with the customers and making sure they're taken care of."

Service companies charge so much for a call, they say, people often find it cheaper to throw their printer away and buy a new one. With the company's emphasis on recycling and the environment (everything in their showroom is recycled, says Patera), they do all they can to keep the landfills free from cartridges and printers.

Patera and Wernicke seem to run a loose, freewheeling operation, but they are sticklers about some things, such as employees being on time. "That's a huge thing for us," says Patera. "We run a pretty lean ship so employees have to be where they're supposed to be. We've been lucky and have had no issues with that."

Name: Daren Patera, president; Brian Wernicke, vice president

Company: Paternicke Industries Inc., DBA Rapid Refill Ink

No. of units: 3

Annual sales: a hair over $1 million

Years in current position: 3.5

Years in franchising: Same

Key accomplishments: Lead franchise in sales for 3 straight years. Our Salem store, the company's first franchised location, is the top-grossing store in the franchise for the last 3 years, month in month out, and was store of the year in 2004, the last year they gave that out.

Biggest mistake: Not spending the money or time to dress our shop up. We were the first store for our franchise. There was not a lot of detail; it took awhile to get that. We've done a lot about lighting. We waited until we had enough money. We wish we'd done it sooner.

Smartest mistake: Haven't made one of those!

How do you spend a day, typically? Putting out fires and making sales calls. It's a mix between customer issues and employee issues; putting procedures in place so employees can answer more questions and do more troubleshooting on their own.

Favorite activity: Golf and fishing

Exercise: Walking machine in front of TV

What do you do for fun? Play and go fishing

Family life: Patera, 31, has 3-year-old twin daughters; Wernicke is 34, with one daughter, 2-1/2

Management method: We try to let people make their own decisions on some items, but there are certain things we are sticklers on. Within that, we try to let them operate within their own decision-making powers.

How do you do it? We observe our employees, have them keep us posted on what they are doing. And when they make mistakes, we are sure to let them know, but we use it as a learning so they don't make the mistake again.

How will you continue to do it? We will continue doing what we have done, it seems to work. We have very low turnover, and our employees (15 in 3 stores) appear to be in good spirits.

Greatest challenge: Staying focused on bigger-picture items, and not getting dragged down with the minutiae and details that can arise during the day.

Management style: Try to be lighthearted about things, and not turn molehills into mountains. Let our employees learn from mistakes, and allow them to take ownership in what they do.

Personality: We all try to have a good time around here. We stay focused, but a good joke or a little messing around doesn't hurt anyone, and doesn't allow our workplace to get stoic.

How do you hire and fire? We have had to fire only one person, and we just came out and told the person it wasn't working out, sorry. As for hiring, we have been lucky enough to have some good referrals for employment; also newspaper ads.

Find good people? I don't know how to find good people, we have just been very lucky.

Train them?: We don't do any of that :). We have them work alongside our existing employees and they learn by doing it.

Retain them? We treat people fairly, and allow them to use the brain they have been given.

"Growth meter" (how do you measure your growth?): On a scale of 1 to 10, we're at about a 7 right now. We had really good growth in the beginning. It has tabled off a little, but we are expecting big things in 2007.

2007 goals: We are hoping to open 2 more stores in 2007, with an extended goal of 1 more, giving us a total of 6. Then maybe figure out a way to buy more.

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