The 14-year-old Michael Knobelock was not just selling newspaper subscriptions in his native Houston but he was racking up awards as top salesman, earning between $400 and $500 a week in the 1970s. He was a born salesman.
After high school he sold ads for the Yellow Pages where he was again a successful bell-ringer. But the real twist of fate in Knobelock's sales life came when a friend approached him about purchasing a convenience store.
"My parents loaned me $10,000 to purchase a closed-down convenience store and reopen it," says the 50-year-old Knobelock. It turned out to be a life-changing move. For the next six years he made the store more profitable than it had ever been, and in the process realized that he knew how to run a business. Of course, after making it successful, he turned around and sold the store for a hefty profit. He was just 29 years old.
The convenience store was his first taste of operating a business, but there would be much more to come. In the early 1990s, Knobelock looked at a variety of franchise brands. "There were a lot of company-owned franchise stores in Houston back then," he says. "Some of the franchise opportunities I could have had at the time were in other cities and states, and I wanted to stay in the Houston area." He says it was also important for him to sell something he believed in. "I loved the Church's Chicken brand. I ate there, and I knew I could sell that."
So he sold his home, his car, and his convenience store and used the proceeds to purchase and open his first Church's unit in 1992 in Houston. In fact, he was Church's very first Houston franchisee. And how did that work out? He recouped his initial investment in the first 8 months of operation. He continued to add Church's units, then in 2003 began adding Little Caesars Pizza to his portfolio. Today he has 34 Church's and 15 Little Caesars locations across five southern states (Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida). And in the Houston market, he has a commanding presence with both brands, with 18 Church's and 13 Little Caesars. And he's served as president of the Houston area Church's Chicken Marketing Co-op since it was founded.
Knobelock will be the first to tell you that he has ADD tendencies. "I discovered that what I like to do is search out locations and potential sites, get the deals going, get the units built, and then move on to the next project," he says. This character trait helped him discover that he needed great people and managers around him to oversee the stores once they were open. Knobelock says he has a great crew, which frees him to focus on his sweet spot: expansion and growth. His company, MSK Enterprises, even has its own construction department, which does about 90 percent of the building themselves, he says. "This allows us to do it for about half the cost that a typical franchisee would have to pay to get started."
His ongoing quest for development recently led him to test the waters of opening his own restaurant concept in Houston, Dekkers Mesquite Grill. The idea began when a friend approached him with the idea of converting a nearby burger joint into something more. "I knew he was a great chef and so we teamed up, bought the property, and built a new restaurant from the ground up," he says. Dekkers, a fine dining establishment with a large mesquite grill and rotisserie, opened in September 2011. The concept has done so well (Knobelock estimates sales will top $3 million in the first year) that he's already planning to build and open a fine Italian restaurant nearby in the near future.
He hasn't turned his back on franchising. Next up for Knobelock are more Little Caesars locations in Arkansas, Florida, and Alabama. All the deals are already inked.
"I like to keep moving," he says. "I have hired the right people in the right positions to handle our operations and that lets me do what I like to do."
Name: Michael Scott Knobelock
Company: MSK Enterprises, Inc.
No. of units: Church's Chicken (34), Little Caesars Pizza (15), and 1 Dekkers Mesquite Grill, a full-service seafood/steakhouse restaurant
Family: Wife Patty and two teenage daughters, Torrey and Kally
Years in franchising: 21
Years in current position: 21
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