Just as history has a way of repeating itself, Ralph Askar has a way of leaving his mark on organizations. He's doing it again with Instant Imprints.
In his more than 25 years in franchising, the former civil engineer from Chicago has been one of the most successful area franchisees and international master licensees for Mail Boxes Etc. (MBE) and The UPS Store, working to build the brands in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. He's also been on both sides of the fence, as franchisee and franchisor. At MBE, he was a corporate executive, serving as vice president and as president and CEO for the brand in Canada. In 2005, under his leadership, MBE rebranded as The UPS Store and went on to enjoy significant growth as a franchise.
In 2008, Askar became a shareholder and board member of Instant Imprints Franchising, and in May 2011 became president and CEO. And now he has growth on his mind again.
Throughout his career, Askar says he has been consistent in his approach. "I have never sold a franchise," says the 67-year-old. "But I have presented opportunities to the right people who then desire to be a part of the brand." He's also worked hard to create franchise cultures that people believe in and want to be part of--and that's just what he's doing today at Instant Imprints.
The brand dates back to the 1950s when co-founder Lev Kats began screen printing with homemade equipment. The family business grew to include multiple locations in San Diego. Today the "one stop branding shop"--which began franchising in 2002--offers its customers embroidery, screen printing, heat transfers, signs, banners, wraps, and promotional items. And thanks to Askar, there are big plans for growth and expansion.
In 2012, Askar launched a five-year, strategic expansion plan to grow Instant Imprints from its current 40 locations in North America to 500 locations globally. The strategy projects new units in Instant Imprints' North American markets, as well as crossing into new international territories.
To execute these plans, Askar has handpicked an executive team and begun making the kind of bold moves that have become characteristic for him. "We've completely redesigned our stores," he says, "and reduced the cost of startup by 35 percent." The brand also has introduced more advanced and efficient technology and equipment for the stores. And new vendor relationships are making it easier for franchisees to stay focused on their business. With these fresh changes in place and existing stores doing well, the expansion is on.
He says that one of the draws of the brand for its franchisees is enjoying a business that provides not only great products and solutions, but also a healthy work/life balance, because the centers are typically open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week. He says their products and services are generally sold at a "very attractive gross margin, and the large average order transaction is also an appealing advantage of our franchise concept." The model allows franchisees to build significant repeat business and ongoing relationships, and to keep growth on an upward trajectory, the brand provides both up-front and ongoing franchisee support and training.
Askar says the company is focused on the area developer model as the primary mover for its U.S. expansion efforts. "It's the best method for us, giving us support on the ground and still allowing us to be involved in recruiting," he says. However, the company also will work directly with single- and multi-unit operators.
Whether it's been as a franchisee (he still operates his own franchise location in downtown San Diego), an area developer, or franchise executive, Askar says, "I love to create and be a part of something I really believe in."
Name: Ralph Askar
Title: President and CEO (aka Team Leader)
Company: Instant Imprints
Brands: Instant Imprints and The UPS Store
Family: 3 children, 5 grandchildren
Years in franchising: 25-plus
Years in current position: 2
What is your role as CEO?
Coaching and mentoring a team of great people who are instrumental in seeing through my vision.
Describe your leadership style.
I believe in horizontal organizations whereby all members of management team are treated with utmost respect and on an equal footing. Using "we" as opposed to "I" is my style. Together we are smarter and achieve more!
What has inspired your leadership style?
Teamwork creates rewarding learning opportunities for all members of our organization. My role is to facilitate and encourage brainstorming and sharing of ideas. There is nothing more inspiring than when we are successful as a collective unit. The creation of winning teams and building rewarding lifestyle opportunities for my team and our franchisees also brings tremendous joy.
What is your biggest leadership challenge?
Need to listen more and communicate more effectively.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees?
Sharing and exposing my vision through open communication with our management team gets our culture exposed to their respective team members.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ?
In my opinion, having OTJ training (getting in the trenches) is the most effective approach. Having basic education in management training and attending self-improvement courses/workshops is also very important. Technology and communication advancements will require further education and training.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions?
We learn and grow from our mistakes. Tough decisions need to be made by every member or our team, but the ultimate responsibility is mine and I accept success or failure of all decisions.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
Advice to CEO wannabes:
Don't be afraid of exposing yourself. Be open-minded, delegate responsibility at every level, and lead by example. Be caring, recognize and reward often.
Describe your management style:
Leading by example.
What does your management team look like?
We have a small team with key people in responsible positions. However, we all wear multiple hats.
How does your management team help you lead?
Sharing joint responsibility in every aspect of our business makes my job easier.
Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books?
My favorite management gurus are Michael Gerber and Robin Sharma. Sharma's approach is: first improve the quality of your life, which in turn will help you achieve success in your business life. Sharma's The Leader Who Had No Title is one of my favorite books. Gerber's The E-Myth Revisited is a great business book. Other favorite books are: Steve Jobs, The Mirror Test by Jeff Hayzlett, and The Colour of My Underwear Is Blue by Danny Lyon.
What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"?
When our franchisees are jazzed and happy, when our customers see value in our services, and when our management team is praised for their uncompromising support, I say Yes and Yes!
What time do you like to be at your desk?
Around 6:30 a.m. I am an early riser and get approximately six hours of sleep. With my heavy travel schedule and having two offices in two time zones, I start my work from home and get to the office between 8:30 and 9 a.m.
Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch?
Yes I do exercise regularly, and no wine at lunch!
Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office?
Yes, not as often as I would like to. We play golf once in a while, and do lunches more often than after work activities.
Last two books read:
The Go-Getter by Peter Kyne and Discover Your Destiny by Robin Sharma.
What technology do you take on the road?
iPad and my laptop computer. I recently traded my BlackBerry for an iPhone.
How do you relax/balance life and work?
I like walking and playing with my dog, yoga, and golfing when I have some spare time. Work hard and play hard and relax by taking a power nap.
Favorite vacation destinations:
Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes:
Acknowledging when they follow through with timely completion of tasks. Also around birthdays and holidays!
Favorite company product/service:
We offer six core services. My favorite is embroidery. Our team is proud of our logo and we wear logo apparel that features our brand. We make people look good with fine logo attire!
What are your long-term goals for the company?
My long-term goal (vision) is my "5-5-5" Plan: award 500 franchises within 5 years with each doing $500,000 in annual sales.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company?
It gave us an opportunity to change and test our new model. We are building good momentum and are ready for any challenge.
Where can capital be found these days?
Smaller banks and third-party financial institutions are a good source.
How do you measure success?
By getting and keeping satisfied franchisees, satisfied customers, and satisfied team members.
What has been your greatest success?
Creating thousands of jobs and raising a wonderful family.
No regrets, but I would like to spend more personal time with my family and friends.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months?
Double the number of franchised units, and create 100-plus happy lifestyle opportunities.
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