A Brush Stroke of Genius. Fresh Coat's Tara Riley is a one-of-a-kind leader
Name: Tara Riley
Company: Fresh Coat Painters
Years in franchising: 37
Years in current position: 6.5
Tara Riley has served as president of Fresh Coat Painters since December 2014. Before that, she held executive-level leadership positions with several franchise brands. Her introduction to franchising came as a field service manager for McDonald’s after graduating from Texas A&M University with a degree in management. She later earned her MBA from Kennesaw State University. When she isn’t busy leading her team or supporting franchisees, she spends her time playing guitar, riding her motorcycle, and creating delicious meals on her grill.
With home upgrades on the rise, Riley led the company to one of its best years ever. Fresh Coat added 36 locations in 2020 and ended the year with 4 straight months of record-breaking revenue. And, as a way to further expand its customer base, the brand added disinfecting services and began focusing on commercial painting.
Times were changing during the pandemic, and, like many franchisors, Fresh Coat adapted. “We had to rely more than ever on virtual tools to support our franchise owners, and we also had to encourage them to do the same as they continued to interact with their customers,” says Riley.
With more than 30 years of executive management and operations experience with brands that also included Sport Clips, she is leveraging her expertise to drive a surge of growth. She says Fresh Coat is planning to more than triple the size of its business in the next 5 years, capitalizing on the momentum gathered during the pandemic.
“We have a defined strategy to accomplish this goal through profitable growth and scaling our existing businesses, onboarding excellence, and brand expansion through franchise recruiting,” she says.
What is your role as president? I am thrilled to have been at the helm of Fresh Coat since 2014. I have assembled an amazing and capable team of people who work with me to support our franchise owners as we all strive to meet and even exceed our franchise performance goals in all areas—from franchise development, operations, and network sales to the overall strategic vision for the brand.
How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? While the pandemic certainly had a significant impact on businesses everywhere, it did not substantially change the way in which I typically lead. My leadership style is well-suited for the uncertainty we experienced during the pandemic, along with the need to react quickly and decisively to successfully navigate all the new information and changes that were coming at us daily.
When I stepped into this role, I committed to providing prescriptive assistance to the franchise owners. This is exactly the path I continued during the Covid-19 crisis. We addressed the concerns of our franchise owners on a case-by-case basis. Our business coaches continued to be available to help them navigate the “new normal” brought on by Covid-19 safety precautions.
Since Fresh Coat was deemed an essential business, any disruption we experienced was short-lived. Despite the pandemic, we added 36 locations in 2020 and ended the year with 4 straight months of record-breaking revenue—a trend that has continued in 2021. In addition to record sales, the pandemic has made us nimbler and more savvy in the digital space. We had to rely more than ever on the use of virtual tools to support our franchise owners, and we had to encourage them to do the same as they continued to interact with their customers. Learning how to provide the same level of support and customer service through online interactions was a challenge we all overcame successfully, and it has made us a stronger team and brand.
Describe your leadership style. My leadership style centers around creating a shared vision for the brand and empowering my team to make that vision a reality. Key to this is finding the right people for the right positions, setting clear expectations, and then trusting them to execute their roles accordingly. I seek input from my team regarding the goals we set and plans of action to achieve them, and I strive to support their goals for personal development as well.
What has inspired your leadership style? I have been fortunate to have had many great mentors over the years who have inspired me to be the kind of leader who engages her team by involving them in the decision-making process. In this way I create teams that are more engaged and invested in reaching our goals because they have a feeling of equity in the outcomes.
As president, how do you help your vice president of marketing develop and grow? It is important to understand the strengths of the leaders on our teams and not only leverage them, but also encourage them to build on them. One way to do this is to invest in their development by giving them the time and opportunity to participate in continued education through conferences, classes, etc. It is incredibly important to stay informed about changes and developments in the business world, especially in the field of marketing. Fresh Coat is part of the Strategic Franchising family of brands, which are all housed in the same building. There is ample opportunity to collaborate with the marketing teams from the four other brands. We share best practices and resources regularly, which allows everyone to improve their skills and add to their knowledge.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership, an MBA school or OTJ? While I do have an MBA, I am a strong supporter of on-the-job training. The MBA gave me a broader understanding of the many aspects of leading a business and the tools needed to perform at a high level. However, I believe my leadership skills have been acquired over time through each role I’ve held thanks to the mentors I have had. I think both forms of education have their place, but for me on-the-job training and mentoring had the most impact.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? When I am faced with the need to make tough decisions, I do not make them unilaterally. I seek out perspectives from the leaders on my team so I can evaluate the situation from several viewpoints and address potential outcomes I would not have anticipated on my own. While this can seem like it would be time-consuming, it really does not take very long, and it is a vitally important step. Ultimately, I must make the final decision and take responsibility for it, but I wholeheartedly appreciate my team’s perspective and assistance in helping me arrive at the answer.
Do you want to be liked or respected? Being respected and liked are both important to me. However, it is more important to be respected than it is to be liked. I understand that it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time, and if you are trying to do that you likely are not making very good decisions for the business. I seek to be respected for my vision for the brand and the actions I take to achieve that vision.
Advice to people who aspire to lead a company? Leading a company well requires you to understand all the disciplines in the business world from operations, marketing, and sales to financial management. You must know how all the different parts come together to create a successful business. Even though you have experts on your team, such as a CFO, it is important to understand these functions so that you can use the insights from your experts to ultimately make the best strategic decisions. While my background was primarily in operations, I took the time to learn about the other business functions, which has proven to be very valuable knowledge. My suggestion to anyone aspiring to lead a company is to spend time with the leaders across the different functions to gain an understanding of their everyday workload and the challenges they face. In this way you can lead from a place of understanding, allowing you to take that information into account when making decisions and creating new strategies.
Describe your management style. Better business decisions are a combination of following your instincts and then considering the data. Data-driven decisions lead to continuous enhancements and improvements in systems and processes. This approach can also be linked to a rise in better accountability and transparency among team members because it takes away much of the guesswork from decision-making. Ultimately, a data-driven management style can improve morale, leading to a more positive, more productive workplace.
What does your management team look like? I have a strong team by my side. It includes a vice president of marketing responsible for brand awareness and lead generation; a vice president of franchise operations in charge of all things directional to the franchisees; a vice president of sales focused on bringing new franchise owners into the system; and a vice president of commercial and national accounts whose duty it is to acquire relationships to drive business to the franchise owners. We meet regularly to discuss all areas of the business so there is strategic alignment across all the functions.
How does your management team help you lead? My team allows me to lead more effectively by taking care of their disciplines so I do not have to handle the day-to-day decision-making and tasks associated with their roles. I added two management positions at the beginning of the year, and it was a breath of fresh air. Before that, I was directly managing those departments. Now I can oversee the big picture. Instead of working in the business, I am able to work on the business. This is exactly what we encourage our franchise owners to do as well.
Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books? Most recently I read Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman. Another book, Profit First for Contractors by Shawn Van Dyke, happens to be on my desk right now. I am a big fan of Peter Drucker, who many, including myself, consider to be the father of modern management. I have read quite a few of his books over the years. Like my approach to leadership, I take insights from a variety of authors to influence my leadership style and drive my decisions.
What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? I am reminded of this every time I see franchise owners hit milestones they never thought possible. A great example of this is the story of a franchise owner who, shortly after signing his franchise agreement, encountered the feelings of uncertainty that many new business owners face. Through customized one-on-one business coaching and the strength of our business model, he was able to grow his business and was named Franchisee of the Year 4 years later. Since then, he has further expanded his territory and increased revenue and profitability. It is always a feeling of great achievement when we can inspire franchise owners to follow our proven systems, grow their businesses, and create a legacy for their families. This is why I love franchising. We have the opportunity to change people’s lives.
What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your industry? The home improvement industry saw a significant increase in demand following the overwhelming impact of the pandemic. The stimulus created higher discretionary spending combined with unprecedented savings because people were not spending their money on travel and entertainment. Instead, they poured that extra money into their homes, which they were forced to spend more time in. If they had to be home, they wanted to enjoy their surroundings, and that has been driving the home improvement boom. The increased demand for residential and commercial services has allowed many of our franchise owners to grow and scale their businesses. We expanded our commercial division during the pandemic, further cementing Fresh Coat’s position and reputation as a recession-resistant business opportunity.
What time do you like to be at your desk? My days start around 6 a.m. when I begin checking emails and anything urgent from my home office. The morning hours are my time to reflect and work on things with no distractions before heading into our corporate headquarters at 9 a.m.
What technology do you take on the road? I usually carry my laptop, but with the power of today’s smartphones, I find I rely on it less and less. When flying, I find noise-canceling headphones to be a huge benefit.
How do you relax/balance life and work? Work/life balance is something I have only recently mastered. I have finally learned to take one or two days off per week without worrying about work. It has only been in the last couple of years that I have been able to do that successfully. I have always been active, playing golf, softball, going to music jams, riding my motorcycle. These are all ways I separate from the stress of my business responsibilities.
Favorite vacation destinations: I have several favorite vacation destinations. Sanibel Island in the winter, Minnesota lake country in the summer. I also love Mackinac Island, Michigan, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area around Gatlinburg. One of my pastimes is riding motorcycles, and there is some great riding in that area.
What are your long-term goals for the company? Our objective is to more than triple the size of the business in the next 5 years. Our momentum has been fueled by achieving great success and growth despite a pandemic. We have outlined a plan to accomplish this goal through three pillars: 1) profitable growth and scaling of our existing businesses, 2) onboarding excellence, and 3) brand expansion through franchise recruiting. Ultimately, we want Fresh Coat to become an iconic brand and a household name in even more markets across the U.S.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company? The economy has not negatively affected our goals. If anything, our targets and expectations are accelerated based on the tremendous amount of expansion and growth in the home services industry. The pandemic shifted our focus in some areas though, resulting in more efficient systems, increased focus on additional lines of business, and increased profitability at the franchisee level.
How do you measure success? One measure of success is making note of the sheer number of people who Fresh Coat has turned into business owners and seeing how that has changed their entire family’s lives for the better. Success is also measured by the growth of our franchise owners and how well we help them achieve and even exceed their business goals.
Any regrets? Over the course of my career, I have certainly made decisions that did not turn out the way I wanted them to. However, instead of just regretting the mistake, I adjusted and moved on. I like to think of mistakes as an opportunity to learn and do better and not think of them as just failures.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? Explosive growth in the number of franchise locations across the country. We are poised to expand our footprint very rapidly, and we have built the foundation for that to happen strategically and profitably.
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