Making the most of every opportunity
For Joe Lindenmeyer, the path to TSS Photography in Atlanta led from New York through Iraq. When he was growing up in the 1970s as the youngest of seven (five older brothers and an older sister), upstate New York was not exactly an economic hotbed. The family had a landscaping business, but Joe chose to join the Marines (Tank Corps) and later served in Desert Storm.
But he wasn't going to make a career in the military-nor in landscaping either, although he taught horticulture for about four months in a medium-security prison in New York. "Most of these guys were not growing plants that were on the approved list," he says, laughing.
He laughs a lot, and with good reason. When he decided to move to Atlanta, the family sold the landscaping business, and he joined his brother playing for a local softball team that had a couple of members from TSS Photography (then named The Sports Section). The company covered sports and other events for schools, handling the photo processing for franchisees.
At the urging of his teammates, the company invited him for an interview, and he "hooked up pretty quickly" with TSS. It was, in any case, a quick end to his job search. In the 14 years since-"14 years of fun and excitement," he says-Lindenmayer has moved from field rep to sales chief to owner (with founder and chairman Carl Hansson) and president.
When Lindenmeyer started with The Sports Section, there were just under 50 owners. "I was the first road warrior," he says. After two years, the company asked him to go to Tampa and run a franchise for seven months, which he calls an "outstanding" experience: living and breathing it, and seeing it from a franchisee's perspective."
When he came back to Atlanta, he took over the franchising division. At first he thought it was a bit strange, "going out to train and receive a fee from someone in their 50s or 60s who had lived a lifetime longer than I had, and telling them this was the best decision they ever made," he says, because "some might look me in the eye and think what do you know."
"So I was a jack-of-all-trades and master of few," he says. "I felt my strengths were in sales and marketing, and I did that for about five years." About a year and a half ago, he made an offer to buy out one of the founders and become partners with Hansson. About the same time, the company changed its name, and TSS Photography was formalized and launched.
He had, he says, two important things going for him in making the decision to buy into the company: 1) the support of his wife ("We were pregnant with our first child at the time, and that was a big challenge."); and 2) having one of the founders on hand for the transition. Also, he says, "My age  and commitment to the future looked good to the franchisees."
Carrying it on
Lindenmayer is quick to give credit to others for helping him in the beginning. "People like Charlie Chase (CertaPro Painters), Linda Burzynski (Liberty Fitness), and Tom Wood (Floor Coverings International), when I was very new to this, welcomed me and all have been good friends."
The Marine Corps also gave him useful values and approaches to running a company that is growing at an impressive clip. From that start 14 years ago, the company has grown to 240 franchisees, close to a third of them multi-unit franchisees.
"You think you measure your success by the number of units, and franchisors will throw out a number, but my answer is 'as big as makes sense for our organization.' It would be nice to double the size over the next five years. We're very proud that we have still our first-ever franchisee. We're proud to see some second-generation owners. One of my old college rugby buddies has bought one. It's really neat to say you've got something that has stood the test of time."
His greatest challenge, he says, involves hiring. "I think one of my biggest weaknesses is interviewing," he says. "I want to get to know more about the person than their competencies. I have to have someone else filter through that. I'm more about the culture and the fit and will they be good representatives."
In this, he turns to his Marine background: "My recruiter in the Marine Corps said, 'We don't try to make Marines, we try to sign Marines who haven't been identified yet.' One of our team leaders uses the term 'teachable spirit': you find the right person no matter the age, people who are willing to make mistakes and stick their necks out. It's about finding the people to fit your culture."
This cultural fit is important to Lindenmayer. When he's hiring headquarters staff, he first asks what's important to them. "If someone is just about the bottom line, that's important, but as a franchisor you're in it to satisfy the needs of the franchisee. They need to be focused on trying to be dedicated to the network, and if it's positioned properly everyone should feel that way."
Above all, he says, there must be an alignment of the personal with the business. He doesn't think it's possible to work every day with someone without having some commitment to the personal development of the associates.
"We talk a lot about family. We ask what they don't like about their past lives and what they hope they get out of this kind of career. We want them to see us as a company where they wouldn't mind spending some time." Lindenmayer says he wants people to feel passionate about the organization they work for.
That passion works both ways, and is rewarded. "You have to have job security and you want to feel welcome and appreciated. I'll let someone go at 3 if they want to catch their son's baseball game or something. Those things are very important to them."
As for franchisees, he says it's important to keep your promises and make them feel supported. "It goes back to the culture the franchisor establishes. We provide a lot of flexibility for our owners and let them make the decisions. It's like the Marines where there is an intent, and you are the commander to choose the best one for your situation. Franchise owners like that kind of flexibility."
It has, he says, made for a business that has staying power and can support the kind of life franchisees are looking for.
"I went out there and brought on a new franchisee who had cashed in his entire retirement, with penalties, to buy the franchise," he says. "He was our rookie of the year that year, and had close to 300 percent return on his initial investment. His wife had lupus, and when he came up to the stage to get his award, we both had this emotional moment to hear him talk about how TSS has changed his life and made such an impact on him-that he could spend more time with his kids, and his wife was healthier because he could be there and support her treatment."
At one point, a top franchisee who had been with TSS for 15 years felt that his business was going downhill and that it was time for him to get out. Lindenmayer, his CFO, and his production manager went to the location and spent more than a day looking at the operation.
"We wanted him to know that we thought he was important." What they discovered was that an employee was falsifying reports and deposit slips and stealing considerable amounts of cash. After that employee was gone, Lindenmayer says, the franchisee "has now gotten the business beyond any level he had before in one year."
Years in current position: 2
Years in franchising: 14
Key accomplishments: Following my oldest brother's footsteps in the Marine Corps (surviving Boot Camp); a great wife and beautiful daughter, Riley.
Books of note: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (recently finished and loved); Freakonomics (currently reading)
Favorite web sites: bostonredsox.com; weather.com (for our business forecasting); TSSPhotography.com
Where you find your business news: FastCompany; msn.com; radio
Biggest mistake: Over-correcting. Situations come up and you know you need to make a change, but in an effort to make that change, you turn the wheel too much and find yourself at the other end of the spectrum with different, but equally challenging, problems. If you move quickly enough and can get your ego out of the way, you face the facts and make another change/decision to get back on track and accomplish the objective. Otherwise, you lose the respect of your team and dig a deeper hole.
Smartest mistake: Volunteering for Desert Storm (my brothers told me never to volunteer in the service!). Turns out it was a great experience, and one that led me to fully appreciate America and our liberties that too many folks take for granted. All too often, we forget who is truly responsible for how we are able to do what we do in life and in business. My overall service in the Marine Corps was the best thing I ever did.
How you spend a day, typically? Up at 6:30-6:45 (try not to wake my wife but usually do). Get to work (listening to loud rock 'n' roll to get me pumped up) and hit the day running. Clean up emails by 8 or 8:30, attend our morning production meeting to gauge our activity, then manage TSS by walking around and talking with our managers and team between appointments, phone calls, and projects. I usually try to talk with our founder and my partner (Carl Hansson) each day and make sure we're on the same page with key decisions (we usually are). My day ends with our ritual of putting Riley to bed and trying to catch up on the scores or a good sitcom before heading to bed around 11.
How long is your work week? If you ask me, it's about 50 hours. If you ask my wife, it's about 80. (I'm also on two other boards, so I have much going on outside of TSS.)
Favorite activity: Spending time with my wife and daughter (oh yeah, and golf)
Exercise: Anything but running-I need a ball in my hand or someone chasing me to run! And I love to kayak on the lake. I'm playing in a rugby tournament this summer over Father's Day with a college alumni team. (I think I need to start running!)
What do you do for fun? I love to spend time with my daughter, friends, and Kristen. We have a lake house that we try to get to as much as possible.
Best advice anyone ever gave you: My mother and father were 50 and 55 when they started their own business. They taught me that if you have a vision and a dream, don't wait for the "perfect" opportunity. Make your opportunity and live the life you see for yourself. There is no perfect time for anything.
Best advice you ever gave: You control your happiness. People don't make you feel a certain way (successful, happy, upset, discouraged, etc.). You make yourself feel a certain way.
Growth meter (how do you measure your growth)? I feel true growth (business and personal) should be measured by the number of people you can rely on and who can rely on you. My hometown growing up was very agricultural and economically stagnant, but the folks there had the best character you could find. Every year, we have a tour consisting of four charity golf tournaments that my high school buddies and I organize, with the biggest being back in upstate New York every July. We have over 200 people play every year and we raise money for children's charities and families/friends in need. We don't raise tons of money, but I feel my "growth" is measured by how I can live and manage my life to make the biggest positive impact on others, whether it's business or personally.
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