Married with Donuts: Attorney-Turned-Franchisee Builds on Family Tradition
Robert Branca, Jr., and his family of Dunkin' Donuts multi-unit franchisees offer the kind of advertisement for franchise success that money can't buy.
Case in point: Branca and his close family own 60 Dunkin' Donuts in New England. His extended family, including in-laws, their siblings, spouses, children, and cousins, own more than 700 Dunkin' Donuts in all and dominate the brand in New York and New England.
"We're all multi-unit franchisees," says Branca, who is married to the former Lisa Batista and was the family lawyer for years before he joined the family business. He learned about franchising and Dunkin' Donuts from the best: his father-in-law John Batista, a Dunkin' pioneer who came to the U.S. from the Azores and today owns the first-ever franchised Dunkin' Donuts store.
"He came from Portugal with nothing and worked for his brother in Rhode Island before he went to Worcester in Central Massachusetts to open his own store. He's been in the business for about 40 years," says Branca, who holds a biology degree from Boston College and a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School.
As a young attorney, Branca specialized in commercial transactions and represented a lot of banks. "As bank counsel, I got involved in learning about the borrower's business. I was fascinated and spent a lot of my own time learning about how they got where they are," he recalls. "I learned a lot from clients about a lot of different businesses."
One of those businesses was franchising, and Branca soon represented many of the successful franchisees in the Batista family. "They're strong business people who helped build a strong Dunkin' franchisee base," he says.
When Branca, whose father taught him the value of both entrepreneurship and being an employee, decided to join the Batista family operation, they began to grow more aggressively and also became a real estate development company. "I knew going in that I had my father-in-law, my wife, and her sisters as resources, and I've learned so much from the Dunkin' franchisees who were my former clients," he says.
Branca attributes the success of the family to the way in which they've leaned on each other. "There are huge resources among these franchisees. We have our own independent franchisee association with strong educational components and other assistance. Profitability for us with this concept has been good. If you do it properly, it works," he says.
Branca, who jokes he is Italian by birth and "intensity," went into business with the largely Portuguese family with his eyes wide open. "When people ask me about working with family, I say, 'Know what to expect before you do it.' I'd also remind that regardless of the business, you're going to be with these people forever. Keeping that in perspective is most important so you don't let business disagreements overwhelm the bigger picture."
Since Dunkin' Donuts is largely built out in New England, except for airports and college kiosks, Branca is looking at opportunities to expand west of the Mississippi. He's also developing an original concept "based on European tradition" that he'll grow through franchising. "With our family resources in-house, we pretty much have everybody we need to do that now except a CPA," he says, as he departs for the annual family vacation in the Azores. "There'll probably be 200 DD shops represented on the flight over."
Name: Robert Branca, Jr.
Title: President, General Counsel, Director of Development
Company: JLC Donuts, Inc.; Branded Realty Co., LLC; Batista Management Co.
No. of units: 60 Dunkin' Donuts and 5 Baskin-Robbins with direct family partners; with extended family, 700 units.
Family: Wife and three daughters
Years in franchising: 25
Years in current position: 10
Key accomplishments: Father, husband, business owner.
Not leaving a full-time legal practice sooner and following my father-in-law and his family members into Dunkin' Donuts franchising.
Deciding to lead three Political Action Committees. Both humbling and empowering at the same time; exhausting at all times.
How do you spend a typical day?
It ranges from working in a restaurant to negotiating a property acquisition or new financing, working on various franchisor national committees for new products, and negotiating new franchise agreement components. I also meet weekly with family member partners/managers, since I can't do any of this without them. Other typical activities include training new employees, designing and implementing local marketing plans, managing problem employee situations, and lobbying on state and federal legislation and regulation.
Favorite fun activities:
Playing in the pool with the kids, skiing, and snowboarding.
I'm currently doing the "Insanity" DVD series with my wife. It's brutal, but effective.
Favorite tech toys: The iPad 2 that I won at the Multi-Unit Franchisee Conference held last April at the Venetian.
What are you reading?
Imperium by Robert Harris.
Do you have a favorite quote/advice?
My favorite related to current events: To wrap your head around our federal expenditure numbers, realize this: a million seconds takes 12 days to elapse; a trillion seconds takes 31,000 years. (Lobbyist Rick Berman, aka "Dr. Evil" of K Street)
My favorite general quote/advice:
If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.
Best advice you ever got: Become a Dunkin' Donuts franchisee.
I was lucky to have my former client base, multi-unit Dunkin' Donuts franchisees, who showed me exactly how to succeed as I worked closely with them in the DD growth spurt of the 1990s and 2000s, especially my father-in-law, John Batista, who owns the first-ever franchised Dunkin' Donuts. My father, Robert, now retired, was an entrepreneur and taught me how to recognize and seize opportunities.
How do you balance life and work?
The demands of having children pretty much forces its equilibrium on a daily basis. But overall, I love what I do, so it is rare that I feel I am out of balance. The only problem I feel acutely is that there aren't enough hours in the day to do all that I love to do.
My philosophy, dictated by my father-in-law, a DD franchisee pioneer and leader in our community: Every person in the enterprise must know the smallest detail of operations duties in the restaurant, regardless of position. There really is no better way to know how you are performing.
Are you in the franchising, real estate, or customer service business? Why?
All of the above. To succeed, you need strong competencies in each. Getting even one of these wrong will endanger your whole enterprise.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
New challenges and, of course, seeing my kids' faces.
What's your passion in business?
Creating new opportunities with people that you genuinely like to be around and learn from, and learning new things or discovering that knowledge gained elsewhere provides a perspective or solution to a new problem.
Management method or style:
This is difficult to answer. I'm adaptive depending on the people involved in the project or the challenges faced by the effort.
Maintaining the current constructive relationship with the franchisor.
How close are you to operations?
Very! I was behind a counter today after a closing.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
We do even more local marketing than ever before. We are very involved with local aid and veterans' assistance groups. Our area was recently struck by severe tornadoes, which was very unusual for here. We were compelled to act to raise relief funds and to use our media resources to highlight the need for additional help from the community.
Intense, Italian, and everything that implies.
How do others describe you?
I just hope that it isn't as a "typical lawyer."
How do you hire and fire?
Existing employee referrals are some of the best hiring sources. Firing is generally direct and after careful review of the circumstances and gathering of facts and opinions.
How do you train and retain?
We involve every crew member in the training of new team members in existing units. And we do a lot of role-playing in training new crews in new shops. Our most senior people--and that includes me--are routinely involved in training. Our group believes that is it is essential to lead by example and to demonstrate that everyone at every level must be willing to perform each duty proficiently and to be observed doing it.
How do you deal with problem employees?
Coaching, along with careful documentation, in the event that they don't respond to coaching. But most importantly, asking about the real-life reasons behind performance issues and what we might be able to do to help them get past the issue. Most people want to perform at a high level, especially if they know that you believe they want to do it. The folks who respond to this approach can grow to be your most valuable team members.
Prefer not to answer.
To develop and build our new concept, using (what else!) franchising to expand it. To open more new DD units in our Midwest expansion markets and to introduce nontraditional DD units in these markets.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
EBITDA, of course; customer counts, guest satisfaction surveys, and the personal satisfaction of our family members who run the enterprise. It never is just about the increased unit numbers.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
Fully developed in our expansion markets and entering new markets. Developing new units of our own proprietary restaurant concept nationwide.
How has the most recent economic cycle affected you, your employees, your customers?
We have invested in newly available systems that more closely and specifically manage costs to make us more nimble in response to rapidly changing environments. We have been through other downturns, but we didn't have the same software tools then that we do now. These new tools enable us to react more quickly than ever before. Gas prices seem to be the biggest impact factor for our customers.
Are you experiencing economic growth/recovery in your market?
We have been generally unaffected by the disruption in terms of sales, but increasing commodities costs have hurt our margins. Our absorbing the costs has largely been rewarded by our loyal guests with continued patronage and sales growth. We clearly communicate that we are part of the community and experience the same effects our guests do. We believe that this has resonated in the communities in which we do business.
What did you change or do differently in today's economy that you plan to continue?
We worked with our franchisor to implement new tools--some theirs, some our own--to more nimbly react to the economic environment and to the new metrics on guest perceptions that we never had available before.
How do you forecast for your business in this economy?
We rely on our experience. My father-in-law has been in business for 40 years and his knowledge is helpful. We also have data on sales, weather patterns, seasonality, and software that helps us forecast how much to produce.
Where do you find capital for expansion?
We have nurtured lending relationships over the years. We also partnered with our banker, who left the bank to expand to Ohio with us. He can analyze the lending environment and shape focused, cost-saving credit proposals in ways that we could never achieve before.
Is capital getting easier to access? Why/why not?
Yes. The difficulties we encountered with excessive paperwork in 2009 have eased for the bank's more reliable customers.
Have you used private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
We've used regional and national banks because of their predictability and consistency with requirements.
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