When Edwin Sarkissian and his family emigrated from Iran to the United States in 1996, he was a young boy who longed for a computer.
"When we arrived in America, we didn't have much. I remember being so excited to go to Best Buy and look at computers. I couldn't afford one. My mom tried to get a credit card, but because we hadn't been here that long she was declined. I was so sad that day," recalls Sarkissian, now 28.
Fortunately, a church member donated an older computer to him. "It had a lot of problems, but just moving the mouse made me so happy," Sarkissian says. "Now, my laptop and electronic devices are in perfect condition. I take good care of them because I learned how to appreciate everything I have."
To earn money for a bike, the young Sarkissian rode the bus to work at McDonald's. When he got his bike, he rigged it with a radio so he could listen to music while he rode and began saving for a car. When he graduated from high school, he went to work building out hotel franchises in Denver.
"But I wanted to do more with my life. I wanted to own my own business and make my parents proud and ultimately support them at some point," says Sarkissian, winner of Multi-Unit Franchisee magazine's 2012 MVP American Dream Award. As he learned about his new country, he began to understand the concept of franchising and how people are drawn to brands with a reputation for good food or products and great service.
He took the plunge, taking on Best Western and Fantastic Sams franchises in California near his family. The grand opening of his first salon in Turlock, Calif., was a huge affair with community marketing and direct advertising. Surrounded by Supercuts, he and his team started branding Fantastic Sams in the community even before it opened by using logo-emblazoned trailers, cars, and trucks and blanketing the area with stickers and flyers. Soon everybody in town knew about the salon and its young owner.
In June 2011, Sarkissian opened a second salon in Modesto, and less than a year later opened his third.
"Edwin is a branding guru, whether he's directing his advertising on a market level or on the individual salon level," says Scott Colabuono, president and CEO of Fantastic Sams Hair Salons International. "He uses all the tools available to him, follows the Fantastic Sams System, and has developed a very strong team with high standards. He features the brand and his salons on everything he touches, whether wrapping his vehicles or partnering with movie theaters. Edwin's three salons and three hotels--plus two hotels he manages for investors--are gems in his portfolio. I wish I had dozens of Edwins in our system."
Sarkissian says franchising has been the best path to success for him. "I knew from the start that the chance of failure with a franchise was much less than with another kind of operation. The franchisor's job is to make sure you succeed, so even though franchisees pay the price (royalties, etc.), we're all in this together."
Despite his seven-day work week, the young franchisee says he is grateful every day. "I come from a country where people aren't given these chances. Yes, there are economic and political problems in this country, but those mean nothing to me. At the end of the day, we have a nice, comfortable bed and a nice meal and we get up in the morning and do it again. Fifty percent of the world doesn't get to do that. It's important to appreciate that."
Name: Edwin Sarkissian
Company: Six Nineteen Management
Brands/units: 3 Fantastic Sams Hair Salons, 3 Best Westerns
Years in franchising: 10
Years in current position: 10
It means the most to me that my parents can see my success and are proud of me.
I don't dwell on mistakes--I think of them as learning experiences.
Can't think of one.
How do you spend a typical day?
I start by checking the TV for breaking news and updates about what's happening in the world. Then I read and reply to emails and call my managers to check in and see how things are going. From there, I go over to the locations and start my day.
Favorite fun activities:
Hiking and going to the lake.
I go to the gym when I can.
Favorite tech toy:
What are you reading?
The new Steve Jobs biography.
Do you have a favorite quote/advice?
I have a couple related to failure. Henry Ford said something like, "Failure is the opportunity to start again more intelligently." The other one is, "Try and fail, don't fail to try."
Best advice you ever got:
I get a lot of my best advice from my mom, especially about dealing with my employees. She said, "Edwin, have people do stuff for you because they love you, not because they fear you."
Moving to the United States in 1996 and getting into franchising.
How do you balance life and work?
I work a lot, but I also like to spend time with my mom and dad and sisters. They live nearby but I don't get to see them as much as I'd like. I wish I could be with them every day.
All of us work and spend our money. When we spend it at any business, we want to get what we pay for because we work so hard for our money. I want to provide good service and good value to our guests because in this economy, every dollar and penny counts. I also believe in giving back to the community, so we give a lot out. We can't be too greedy and just hold on to everything.
Are you in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business? Why?
Customer service has to be first. We live in a customer service world, especially in America. If we have no customers, we have no business. The great thing about franchising is that we're all in it together on the same concept. Every place our customers go, they know they can find the same products and service.
As an operator, what are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Buying power and resources, like support with real estate, marketing, and branding.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The surprise of what the day will bring. I like to live day by day. People want to schedule appointments for weeks to come, but I think if you plan so much and work so hard, you forget about living. If you plan your whole life, you become a machine. I want to live happy, because we don't live forever.
What's your passion in business?
It's like a science project. When you create this thing and it's working you want to continue to make it work. We humans like to challenge ourselves, especially with something where there's a chance of failure. I like that challenge and trying to make a difference in the world.
Management method or style:
I don't believe in treating one person less than the other. We all have the same value and respect as a person. My dad says, "We came into this world naked, we'll leave naked." That's why I try to lead by example. I'll get down on my knees and scrub the floors or the toilets because I want people to see I will do everything I ask of them. If you treat people well and take care of them, they will love you and work harder for you.
Keeping all my businesses going well.
How close are you to operations?
Very close--that's why I work seven days a week. I'm involved every day. I'm not just the guy who drops off checks and says thanks and goodbye. I want people to know that I care.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
A little bit. We're always finding new sources and adjusting to prices and products we're serving. There aren't that many jobs, and no jobs means less money for people to spend. So we have to adjust to accommodate them.
How is social media affecting your business operations?
Right now, we're not doing a lot of that because it takes so much time to monitor, update, and deal with feedback.
Hard-working, fair, good sense of humor.
How do others describe you?
Hard-working, fair, caring.
How do you hire and fire?
Lots of times I meet potential employees following their interviews with the managers. I'm really less interested in what degree they have than what life experience they have. I hire based primarily on personality and attitude. I try to make interviews less serious so they can relax and show me who they really are.
As for firing, if it's at all possible, I like to keep who I have and work with them and make things better. If there's not a big problem, I like to give people a second chance, because where I grew up not many people were ever given second chances. We're not there to fire people. A lot of times, people fire themselves.
How do you train and retain?
I pair new people up with some of the best employees in the company for training. I also spend time myself to see how they're doing and how quickly they're catching on. To better retain our employees, I train my staff and supervisors not to yell or raise their voices and to treat people well and not look down on them. It goes back to what my mom says: Treat them well and if you make a mistake, man up and say sorry--even if you are the owner or the supervisor.
How do you deal with problem employees?
Like I said, we believe in second chances as long as we see that person has the right attitude and is really trying.
Our biggest goals for 2012 are to stay in business and to try to increase revenues and provide great service. By around 2013, depending on the economy, we'll be looking at other franchises in the restaurant industry.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
We go three years back and compare month to month, year to year, and hope to come up with a 3 to 5 percent increase in revenues.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
I want to grow, but not too quickly, because once you get in the habit of working seven days a week you become addicted to work. Where there are new opportunities, I'll take them.
How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers?
Because of the economy, we try to cut back on certain things, like finding new ways to use energy and newer, less expensive companies for supplies. It's sad to say, but most of the time, the first thing companies cut back on is payroll. We try not to do that. We try to give our people as many hours as possible. If you cut back on payroll, your people will start looking for new hours elsewhere. Our employees have obligations to their families and I don't want them to worry. Their feelings are important to me.
Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market?
Yes, it has gotten a little better. It seems like people are coming back, but they're smarter and managing their money better and being more careful about what and where they spend.
What did you change or do differently in this economy that you plan to continue doing?
We'll continue to look for places we can save money.
How do you forecast for your business in this economy?
Where do you find capital for expansion?
Our own cash flow.
Is capital getting easier to access? Why/why not?
No not really--it's harder. You have to use your own capital to do anything.
Have you used private equity, local/national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
Not lately. It's too expensive and banks aren't doing much lending to small businesses.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
I'm only 28 so I haven't thought about that.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We provide healthcare, incentives, bonuses, and a 401(k) with 100 percent matching by the company.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, healthcare, etc.)?
Some things you just have to absorb.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
We offer bonuses and also put them in the spotlight--let everyone know what they did and give them a plaque and put their name on our break room board.
2012 MVP - American Dream Award
For achieving remarkable success in his new country
Why do you think you were you selected for the American Dream Award?
I could say I am living my American dream. I am thankful for living in this country. Otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten the chance to be where I am right now. When we came here, we weren't rich people. I've worked so hard to get what I need, one step at a time. Through those little achievements, I've learned to appreciate everything I have and all the opportunities I've been given. Every morning and every night before I go to sleep, I think, "This is a blessing, be thankful for what you have."
Give us an example of innovations you have created and used to build your company.
When I was opening my first Fantastic Sams, my family and friends knew about it, but in central California, most people knew a lot more about Supercuts. I knew I had to do something about branding--to get Fantastic Sams stuck in people's heads. So we got multiple trailers, trucks, and little cars with graphics on them and put stickers and posters everywhere you could put them. We got great feedback from customers, many of whom said they just came by because they liked the name and wanted to see what was going on.
I follow the franchise system but sometimes I try to come up with little, creative ways to stand out. I'm not afraid to do new things. When I try and experience something, I learn what works and what doesn't. One thing we've done is that all our menus in our salons have gone digital. This is important since every kid has an iPhone or iPad. When I was in high school, we had pagers. Now even little kids have cell phones, so we have to consider that we're in 2012 now.
As a multi-unit franchisee, how have you raised the bar within your company?
We continue to do more branding and advertising. We do commercials at movie theaters and send out crazy stuff to random places. We want people to know we're here, part of the community. When a customer walks in, we immediately treat and greet them well, offer them a beverage. We're trying to impress the minute they walk in, because every second we lose, they may not come back.
What core values do you have that you feel led you to winning the MVP Award?
Working hard is most important. From what I hear, building a business is like having a newborn baby that you created. You love it and do everything you can to get it what it needs. I didn't just open my businesses to create money.