When it comes to operating multiple brands, Craig Comer has discovered that differences can attract--profits, that is, for his two very different service brands.
Comer, who owns five Liberty Tax stores in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs, was itching to diversify when a postcard arrived in the mail from Mosquito Joe. Comer had considered the pest control company as a potential brand. Then a summertime phone call to his dad to discuss the opportunity sealed the deal.
"My cell reception in the house wasn't very good," says Comer. "So I went outside in the evening to talk and I got bitten alive by mosquitoes."
In July 2013, Comer took a road trip to Virginia Beach to meet company founder Kevin Wilson, who had launched the franchise system earlier that year. Comer was quickly sold on Mosquito Joe's system, leadership, and a seasonal operation that begins when the need for tax services ends.
"I liked the concept--and that I could take my employees from the Liberty side and give them year-round employment," says Comer, who has a background in accounting. "This is exactly what has happened and has worked out even better than I thought."
Since signing on with Mosquito Joe, the 39-year-old has hit the expansion ground running, snatching up six territories to combat critters in five counties between Detroit and Lansing, Mich. Along the way, he discovered creative avenues for operational crossover and a solution to combat the biggest obstacle in running a seasonal business: employee retention.
"One of the challenges with these businesses is losing people and then having to retrain and rehire every season, which is normal," says Comer. "Each year that goes by, retention will get higher. It just takes a lot of effort now to find the right people."
Comer has five full-time employees, including a Liberty Tax general manager who also is the office manager for Mosquito Joe. With projections for 10 full-time employees next year, he will continue to seek ways to create full-time jobs for key employees--a strategy that is good both for business and for his employees.
Comer, who has embraced the chance to provide opportunities to the people who work for him, recounts the journey of one employee he is particularly proud of: a single mother who faced hardships growing up in the inner city. Three years ago, she started with Liberty Tax in an entry-level position. Through hard work and Comer's mentorship, she recently became certified in tax preparation. She also worked wonders at Mosquito Joe, helping Comer reduce receivables from $40,000 to $4,000. This tax season she will serve as a manager and transition to Mosquito Joe as a supervisor of the call center. "It is exciting to see people grow like that and be able to help," says Comer. "That is one of the things I really enjoy."
The Michigan native has yearned to be an entrepreneur since junior high, when his father (who was also his fourth-grade math teacher) opened a mutual fund for him that Comer still has today. In December 1998, he earned an MBA in professional accounting, taxation, and finance from The Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at Michigan State University, then joined the corporate tax office of Deloitte & Touche in Detroit.
At the public accounting firm, one of the "Big Six" at the time, Comer got an exhaustive crash course in entrepreneurship, working with small businesses and family-owned companies. After one 20-hour charge day, where he slept at his desk, he was ready to pursue his business dream. On Jan. 1, 2003, Comer walked away from a promotion and six-figure salary to open his first Liberty Tax location. He bought his carpet, computer, and office desk with money the firm partners gave him at his going-away party. "I never looked back," he says.
Comer, who opened one Liberty Tax store annually in his first five years in business, is also an area developer in northern Indiana and northern Ohio for the brand, considered the fastest-growing tax preparation business. A top Liberty Tax franchisee, he wrote the training manual for the franchise and has traveled the country to assist with franchisee training and bringing new prospects to the brand.
With business brisk at his Liberty Tax stores, Comer has turned his attention to hiring 50 technicians and call center employees for Mosquito Joe and expanding the brand's presence over the next three years with at least six new territories in Michigan.
Still, Comer isn't taking his business success for granted, due in part to a hard lesson learned at age 12 when his father advised him, "Always fear the underdog." A passionate fan of baseball and all things sport, Comer watched his beloved Detroit Tigers--a "sure thing" in 1987--lose the division playoffs to the Minnesota Twins. Today, Comer happily believes he is on the winning side of those words, which still stick with him.
"'Always fear the underdog.' That is how I feel as a small-business owner with Liberty Tax going up against H&R Block, and Mosquito Joe going up against the big guy," says Comer. "We are the underdog--but we are hungrier."
Name: Craig Comer
Title: President of Liberty Tax (franchisee), and area developer for Liberty Tax; managing owner of Mosquito Joe
Company: Comer Inc.
No. of units: Liberty Tax, 5 units; Mosquito Joe, 6 territories
Family: 4 kids and 2 dogs
Years in franchising: 13
Years in current position: 13 with Liberty Tax, 1.5 with Mosquito Joe
Maintenance member at the local golf course. I did cart maintenance, bartending, and learned a lot from the business owner. I worked there from the age of 15 until college.
My father has been my main influence as my mentor. He told me to always fear the underdog. I also have a good friend I worked for during college who taught me a lot about business. One of the pieces of advice he gave me was, "The more you give, the more you get."
I was salutatorian of my high school, ranked top 10 in my MBA program at Michigan State, and I had the most charge hours at Deloitte. With Liberty Tax I have won various awards such as Top Gun, Lead 18, and the Choose Your Attitude Award. With Mosquito Joe we were Top Franchise.
Biggest current challenge:
Employees. My small businesses are seasonal, so hiring and having enough qualified employees for each season is a challenge. Therefore, it's important that once we find good employees we take good care of them.
Next big goal:
To reach $1.2 million in revenue for Mosquito Joe this coming season.
First turning point in your career:
Leaving Deloitte to buy Liberty Tax was a big step for me. In 2002, I walked away from a promotion and a big raise that would have given me a six-figure salary.
Best business decision:
Same as above: buying a franchise. Both the franchises I have invested in have great systems and leadership teams.
Hardest lesson learned:
Not getting rid of bad employees fast enough.
It's all over the place. I used to work seven days, but now my rule is that working on Saturdays is optional and Sundays are off limits. Monday through Friday I work from sun-up to sundown.
I play basketball from time to time. My life is consumed by kids' activities and work.
Best advice you ever got:
My dad: Always fear the underdog. If you're on top, don't take it for granted because it could turn on you in a heartbeat. The same philosophy applies if you're at the bottom--if things aren't going well, that won't last long either.
What's your passion in business?
Given how I was raised and coming from a small town, I like helping people. I really enjoy helping to better the lives of my employees. For instance, with my financial background, I like to help them save for retirement. I work hard at making my employees feel like they're a part of the family.
How do you balance life and work?
I made the rule of having Sundays off for my family and for myself. I started Liberty Tax when I was 25-26, so I worked ungodly hours and I sacrificed a lot. Now that I'm 39, I'm focusing on investing more time in my children and myself.
Steak and potatoes every day--and a beer.
What do most people not know about you?
I hold the free-throw record for my high school.
People who complain.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
In junior high, I wanted to own my own business. My uncle in Florida has been self-employed his whole life, and my dad has always been semi self-employed, so they had an influence on me while growing up.
Besides the one I'm on right now in Orlando with my family, it was a road trip I did last October for a Mosquito Joe conference in Washington, D.C. I got to watch a Tigers game and attend a friend's wedding.
Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
It's a tie between two people: Derek Jeter and Ronald Reagan.
Work hard and treat people the right way. I believe it is important to empower employees and not to micromanage. Allowing employees to make decisions makes for a more fulfilling career for them. It's also important to have career goals. Sports has had a heavy influence on my life, and I have implemented a scorecard system for my team members so that we're all on the same page in terms of our company's goals. For instance, to reach my goal of $1.2 million in revenue for Mosquito Joe, we have a scorecard of how many people we should be servicing per day to achieve that goal. It helps us to figure out if we're falling off pace so we can act promptly. With seasonal businesses, I don't have 12 months to generate revenue--I only have four months, so if we are off track we have to correct the issue straightaway.
Management method or style:
It was hard at the beginning, but I've learned to delegate and empower my staff to produce better results.
Finding the right employees for service-based jobs. We don't have an inventory or food costs, so our focus is on employees. It's a challenge to hire enough people, train them, monitor their progress, and retain them for the next season. The goal is to retain at least 40 percent of employees for the next season to alleviate the hiring challenge. To maintain that retention rate we do a lot of activities to keep our employees happy. We have an employee event at least once a month, such as going out to dinner, bowling, or barbecues. The key employees from Liberty Tax also work at Mosquito Joe, so they have a year-round job, which helps with retention.
How do others describe you?
I'm very competitive and stubborn, but compassionate. I am a nice guy, which is why it's hard for me to fire people.
One thing I'm looking to do better:
It's in progress: investing more time in my kids and myself. As I'm getting older, I am really focusing on enjoying life more.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
I don't bark commands. I constantly ask my team members for their advice and input because they're the ones in the battlefield and the community. I also have contests for best ideas among staff members. For example, my Liberty Tax employees come up with great marketing ideas, such as giveaways.
How close are you to operations?
Very close. I'm in it every day. Even on this vacation I've contacted my general manager three to four times throughout the day.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
Strong leadership and a good operating system. Both Mosquito Joe and Liberty Tax have these qualities.
What I need from vendors:
Quality products delivered in a reasonable amount of time.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
Yes, since starting Liberty Tax 13 years ago, things have changed a lot. Direct mail and Yellow Pages don't work anymore. When the economy was bad and people were out of work, they stopped filing returns, but that's changing for the better now. We do more online marketing for Liberty Tax and we're texting and using social media to reach our customers. The stronger economy has also meant that the housing market has improved, so there are more homeowners and more of a demand for our services with Mosquito Joe. We rely on referrals, especially through social media. The key thing is that we prove ourselves and provide a good service so that we get more referrals.
How is social media affecting your business?
We encourage our customers to give us positive referrals on social media.
How do you hire and fire?
I have managers who handle this, and we provide tools for them to monitor the progress of staff members.
How do you train and retain?
We do a 10-week class for Liberty Tax that is low cost. We hire people based on their attitude, so if you have a good attitude and know how to deal with people, you're the perfect fit. We also help with licensing and educating our employees throughout the tax season because there are certification levels they need to go through. With Mosquito Joe we interview for three months and have a training session before the season starts. We also assist with licensing. We hold weekly meetings with the Mosquito Joe team to keep them up to date.
How do you deal with problem employees?
As soon as we come across a situation. Again, with the seasonality of the business, if we don't correct something and take action, it magnifies for the rest of the season.
Fastest way into my doghouse:
Lie, cheat, and/or steal.
$1.9 million between Mosquito Joe and Liberty Tax.
$1.2 million in revenue for Mosquito Joe.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
For Liberty Tax, it's the number of returns in revenue. For Mosquito Joe it's the revenue and number of clients we retain.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Grow my total revenue to $4 million to $5 million for both companies.
Total revenue of $8 million to $9 million.
How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers?
More disposable income and more home ownership have driven the demand for mosquito and tax services. As the economy gets stronger, employment has been higher, and there has been more of a demand for tax services. Also, our client base has increased with Obamacare, because fewer people are filing their own returns.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
They have affected how we do our marketing. We rely less on old-fashioned marketing such as radio and TV. We rely on referrals, reviews, partnerships with nonprofits, and fundraising events. We have dozens of ways to get a client without spending a dime.
How do you forecast for your business?
With my finance background, I like to budget a few months before business begins. I have been able to forecast pretty accurately with Liberty Tax based on my experience.
What are the best sources for capital expansion?
I have a credit line at my bank that I applied for a long time ago--before I needed it. Getting money when you need it is harder than being prepared. I also have my parents and the franchisor itself.
Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions?
The only experience I have is with my local bank, where I have developed a long-term relationship with the manager. Based on that relationship, I can walk into the bank and ask for something and it happens. My business partner is close to 80 years old, so he has a retirement fund, which is a form of private equity.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We go on monthly outings, and I have season tickets to the Tigers and take my staff to the games.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
It is adjusted into the pricing of our services.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
I like to celebrate employees in front of other staff members to create a positive atmosphere and recognize them for a job well done. We give small rewards, such as grocery cards, dinners, and movies. We also give bigger rewards, such as sending them on trips.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
Given my age and where I'm at, I don't have an exit strategy, except that I want to retire by 50. One of the benefits of being a franchise means that the business is more marketable and there's an existing system I can sell to.
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