Massage, Tan, Joints, and Lashes
"Significant growth is imminent"
Randy Merrill feels good about the health, wellness, and fitness space he operates in. He says the business models work for him, the client base works for him, and the ROI works for him. It's tough to beat that combination.
When we last visited with Merrill (Q2 2011), he was busy operating a single Massage Heights spa and 14 Solar Dimensions Tanning salons (non-franchised) with his partner, Alex Royter. He also had one Cartridge World store, which he sold because, he says, "It was a lot of work and the margins were just too small." Meanwhile, he's opened a second Massage Heights and has added four The Joint chiropractic clinics--all since 2014. An Atlanta native, he has kept his operations close to home, all in the Greater Atlanta area. The Solar Dimensions Tanning salons he operates with Royter have grown to 19 locations between them, with 4 exclusively under Merrill's control.
Merrill, who spent his early years in the military and as an athlete, is now 53 and says he may just be on the cusp of some substantial growth. "I'm at a place where my experience, expertise, and money are all coming together at this stage in my life. I have a feeling significant growth is imminent," he says. "All of the brands I'm in right now are a perfect match for my operating style. They are clean, efficient, streamlined models that are membership-driven and simpler to succeed with, as compared to a food franchise," he says.
Even with his recent expansion, Merrill is not content to sit still. "I've just signed a deal to open four Amazing Lash Studio units in 2015," he says. "These should be a perfect complement to the brands I already have." He hopes to have the first two open in June and the next two in October.
Merrill also has taken on a new role, working closely with his franchisors to assist new franchisees new of Massage Heights and The Joint. "I've been working as a kind of business consultant with both brands. So when someone new comes into the system I can come alongside them and help them, from the build-out process all the way through to the grand opening," he says. The corporate offices love the kind of support and dedication successful franchisees like Merrill bring to the mix.
On the personal front, Merrill and his wife, Mary, an executive with Coca-Cola, have two boys, 9 and 4, and he says he is enjoying the domestic side of life more than ever. "That's one of the reasons I like keeping my businesses in my own backyard."
Merrill recalls growing up working in his father's United Rentall business (he was just 8 years old when he started) and how that experience helped propel him out on his own. For more than 25 years now, he has established and operated his own businesses, both franchised and non-franchised, and is, perhaps, most proud of the fact he has been able to have a healthy work-life balance that has allowed him to enjoy his family and a successful career.
I started out helping my dad in his United Rentall store at the age of 8.
Obviously my dad, along with my mother, were key influencers in my early stage, and their influence continues to this day. They were hard-working and dedicated and insisted that I be the same. In the ensuing years, I have also had the support and partnership of my brothers, who are big parts of my life. Along the way, of course, all my experiences, the good and the bad, have helped shape me.
I am most proud of being able to be successful in business and in life, maintaining a work-life balance that lets me enjoy my family and still operate commercial entities at the highest levels.
Biggest current challenge:
My current challenge/goal is to elevate the level of operation and perception of The Joint in the public's view. It's a powerful concept that I believe can really take off if executed properly.
Next big goal:
We are planning to debut a multi-unit operation of Amazing Lash Studio in Atlanta this summer.
First turning point in your career:
I started a tanning salon in my early years and will always remember how much my friends and family supported me. It made me realize that the character of the operator has a big influence on the operation and on the willingness of people to help. I'll never forget what that meant to my first business and to all my subsequent businesses.
Best business decision:
When I started really listening to my wife's business counsel. She's my best partner in life and in business. She has great insight into both business and people.
Hardest lesson learned:
Early on I trusted some people I shouldn't have, taking them at their word and expecting them to live up to their commitments, which they did not do. It was an important lesson that will stay with me forever.
The nice thing about our operation is that while I'm always "on," I have flexibility in my work hours and great people in my operation.
I exercise every day. It helps keep me mentally sharp as well as in shape.
Best advice you ever got:
The basics of "Please" and "Thank you" still count for a lot, but my guiding principle is "Never give up."
What's your passion in business?
Touching people's lives in a meaningful way, both staff and clients--people who are involved and committed to their organization, and who know they have the owner's support do a better job with customers.
How do you balance life and work?
I have been fortunate enough to find people who agree with my outlook and operate at high levels to be part of my team. That allows me the time I need to be an involved husband and active in my kids' lives every day.
I've given up most of those!
Malcolm Gladwell has a unique way of looking at things that we can all learn from. All of his books are favorites of mine.
"Guardians of the Galaxy." Haven't seen it? Watch it. Seriously. Great movie.
What do most people not know about you?
I'm so transparent with my friends and associates that I doubt there is anything they don't know about me!
Excuses. 'Nuf said, I'm sure.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A major league athlete, but not just in one sport. I wanted to be a pro in every sport and every season!
Disney World with the family.
Person I'd most like to have lunch with:
Jesus. How could you not want to ask Him a few questions?!
All I need from my associates is a good attitude and a belief in accountability--that and performance!
Management method or style:
I support all of my associates, provide guidance, and remind them of what our long-term goals are when we are faced with short-term situations. Sometimes those on the front line can have their perspective skewed. A reminder of the view from 30,000 feet can be helpful.
I find it hard to be patient sometimes. To me the vision is clear.
How do others describe you?
I think most of them would say I'm smart, but I'm hoping they would say I'm humble too, as I always appreciate the fact that my personal success is the result of a team operation.
One thing I'm looking to do better:
I always strive to improve how I train leaders in my organization.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment:
I'm always willing to take a shot on a well-thought-out strategy. If it works, we see if we can replicate it. If not, we try something else. I am fine with delegating the authority that goes with the responsibility as long as we continually assess the results. From that review point, we can modify what we do next.
How close are you to operations?
I oversee through daily numbers, every day, every time. I'm never far from my phone or computer.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
A legitimate national plan and ongoing support. Some are better at this than others.
What I need from vendors:
Products and services that are timely and effective, and No Excuses!
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
Yes. We are much more controlled and precise in our marketing than we used to be. The old days of throwing a lot of stuff against the wall are gone.
How is social media affecting your business?
It's critical. We use it in all our operations extensively.
How do you hire and fire?
I like to hire attitude and aptitude. Skills can be taught. Firing? Reluctantly and with compassion.
How do you train and retain?
We start by making sure they understand the long-term mission. Then we continue to educate, hold them responsible, and reward them.
How do you deal with problem employees?
Write 'em up and ride 'em out. While we give them opportunity at every stage to improve, sometimes the job we have them in is just not the right slot and we have to let them go.
Fastest way into my doghouse:
Lie to me. That will do it every time.
Open three Amazing Lash Studios.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?
By net members and net dollars.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
I plan to keep rocking and rolling for 5 years and hope to be relaxing in 10!
How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers?
The economy comes and goes, but our operations are solid and hanging in there.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market?
Yes, we are. I give a lot of that credit to our concepts and our teams.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
More money in consumers' pockets is good for us.
How do you forecast for your business?
We always forecast growth and plan percentage increases. We don't want concepts that don't have a strong growth element to them.
What are the best sources for capital expansion?
We self-fund and we have a good relationship with our bank.
Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not?
Our relationship with SunTrust is awesome, others not so much. We keep them in the loop and involve them frequently in our plans.
What are you doing to take care of your employees?
We pay top dollar and provide a great work environment, training, and support.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
We just have to keep growing and making more money to buy best-in-class performance.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
Well, money is always popular, but we also provide opportunities for personal growth and recognition among peers.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
My plan is to build 'em and sell 'em! We always plan our operations around setting them up right and running them right. That makes them attractive to people who would rather step into established businesses.
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