Las Vegas, home of the high rollers, once again played host to the annual Multi-Unit Franchising Conference this spring at Caesars Palace. For the 16th consecutive year, multi-unit franchisees, franchise brands, and third-party suppliers gathered in the high desert to share ideas, exchange information, and of course do a little business.
This year's event was another home run, with attendees at an all-time high and a long waiting list for booths in the Exhibit Hall. More than 650 franchisees attended this year, a new conference record. Their aggregate numbers were impressive: more than 11,000 operating units, revenues topping $11 billion in the past 12 months, and 120,000-plus employees in the U.S.
The conference, which ran from Wednesday through Friday, kicked into motion on Tuesday for the nearly 100 attendees who showed up a day early to participate in the event's annual fundraising golfing tournament. The beautiful Arroyo Golf Club at Red Rock hosted the scramble-style tournament, which has become a signature event, not only for a chance to play golf and have some fun in the beautiful Nevada desert, but also to participate in raising significant sums for charity in the process. Combined with the Silent Auction, held in the Exhibit Hall throughout the conference, the tournament helps raise tens of thousands of dollars for worthy causes, notably the Little Rock Foundation, an organization of parents with children living with blindness, visual impairment, and other disabilities.
That evening, a welcome reception at Carmine's Italian restaurant inside the Forum Shops in Caesars Palace served as the official kick-off event for the conference. The reception featured cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and plenty of lively conversation. The first hour offered first-time attendees an opportunity to meet Conference Advisory Board members and learn more about the conference before the veteran attendees showed up to reconnect.
The registration desk opened early Wednesday morning and the hallways began to buzz with anticipation as attendees fueled up on coffee and a light breakfast before heading into the first general session. In her opening remarks, Therese Thilgen, CEO of Franchise Update Media, welcomed what she called a "stellar group" of multi-unit franchisees and panelists. She noted that this was the first time the conference had attendees from every state; that there was an uptick in the number of franchisees in their 20s; and that 75 percent of franchisees said they were looking for new brands.
Michael Kulp, chair of this year's conference and a multi-brand franchisee with more than 350 units, added his welcome message to the roomful of franchisees, thanking the golfers for their charitable contributions the day before and setting the tone for the coming days. Kulp said this conference differentiates itself by being "truly the only conference in the industry geared toward learning" versus those geared toward the deal and the sale. (Still, plenty of deal-making takes place during and soon after the conference.)
"I think it's the best time ever to be a franchisee," he said, as he challenged franchisees with a flurry of questions to continually strive to do better, such as: Do you have the systems, tools, processes, and strategies in place to expand, raise profitability, provide opportunities for employees, and participate more effectively in local communities? This conference, he said, was a great way to ensure that they would.
World-renowned leadership guru and best-selling author Jim Collins started the day on a high note as the conference's first speaker. He was introduced by Cheryl Fletcher of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, which sponsored his keynote address. Returning for a second time as a keynoter, Collins adapted 12 questions from his Good to Great project to help attendees unravel some of the secrets of business success. (The 12 questions can be found in a PDF on his website.)
He began by saying, "We don't study success. We study the contrast between those who went from good to great and those who didn't; between those who were able to scale and those who didn't." Like any good teacher, he wove thought-provoking questions into his examples of what makes businesses succeed or fail, such as "What are you doing to scale yourself?" He also discussed five levels of leadership, dismissing the notion of a "natural born leader" in the process: "The vast majority of great leaders grew into it," he said. The single most important leadership skill to master, he said, is the ability to make superb people decisions and have 90 percent of your company's key seats filled with the right people. "You build a great company by building great people. There is no other way," he told the crowd.
Collins also discussed ROL: return on luck in business, using Steve Jobs as example of "who" luck. Three years after Jobs was fired by Apple, and with his new company (NeXT) floundering and Pixar not yet in the picture, Jobs was "in the wilderness," said Collins, which he said is "a good time to meet a great person." So Collins, who was teaching at Stanford, called Jobs and asked if he'd join him in the classroom. Jobs accepted. Soon afterward, came the luck: Apple was struggling and Next just happened to have the OS they needed to move forward and become the largest company in the world.
Jobs, said Collins, was a great example of a "20-mile marcher," someone who got up and went to work every day, despite external circumstances. "What if in the midst of all the bad stuff he quit?" asked Collins. "True creators stay in the game, no matter what hand they're dealt. Play every hand, luck favors the persistent. That's what Jobs did and he enjoyed a great comeback."
Collins finished his keynote by reminding attendees that "the greatest leaders don't focus on success; they focus on taking care of their people." He closed with the following exhortation: "How will you change the lives of others? How will some peoples' lives be better and different because you are here on this planet?" He suggested viewing franchising as "an honorable path--not just building units, but touching lives that you change. I can think of no greater legacy or testament to how life could be spent."
Following his keynote, Collins joined a group discussion called "Growth Evaluation & Implementation." Supercuts franchisee Gary Robins moderated the panel, which also included Aziz Hashim, managing partner of NRD Capital and IFA chair; Michael Kulp, conference chair; and Carin Stutz, president of McAlister's Deli (now COO at Red Robin). With questions from Robins leading the way, the high-powered panel covered issues ranging from essential leadership traits and characteristics to finding and building talent within your organization. "There's a difference between having a job and having a responsibility," said Hashim, of people inside an organization and, he added, it's essential to be able to tell the difference.
After an inspiring, action-packed morning, two separate luncheons followed, one exclusively for franchisees, the other for franchisors and exhibitors. The franchisor/supplier luncheon featured a discussion focused on "5 Deal Killers for Multi-Unit Franchisees." At the franchisee-only luncheon, multi-unit franchisees relaxed in a "pitch-free" environment where they could rekindle old relationships and build new ones, as well as engage in frank discussions about the pros and cons of adding specific brands and their level of satisfaction with third-party partners.
A new offering, The Money Room, debuted that afternoon, providing an opportunity for growth-minded franchises to meet one-on-one with potential lenders to discuss financial solutions and expansion strategies. At the same time, numerous breakout sessions were under way, covering topics ranging from attracting, recruiting, and retaining good talent to securing funding under $10 million and above $20 million. Breakout panelists represented food and non-food brands, large and small operators, and retail and non-retail brands.
As the day drew to a close, attendees headed to the Exhibit Hall, where more than 200 franchise brands and third-party suppliers were on display to discuss franchise opportunities, products, and services. The Exhibit Hall served as the central gathering place for attendees to explore new brands and supplier solutions, as well as to meet and mingle with fellow franchisees to compare notes and evaluate brands and vendors.
Coffee and continental breakfast awaited attendees on Day 2. Conference Chair Michael Kulp welcomed the crowd back before introducing FRANdata President and CEO Darrell Johnson for his annual report on economic trends and their likely effect on franchising.
Johnson provided insight into the labor picture (tight), capital markets (improving), and the effect of the global economy on franchising ("not a whole lot or excitement but nothing eminently a challenge for worldwide growth"). And while the U.S. has seen its longest consecutive bull market in the past 100 years, "It doesn't feel like much of a bull market," he said, with GDP growth expected to remain low in the next couple of years (2% to 3% at best), following a dismal 1.4 percent rise in the fourth quarter and an anemic 0.5 percent growth in the first quarter of this year. And the Fed, he added, is "just about out of tools and energy to stoke growth."
Still, he said, it's not as bad as the numbers might indicate. The year following a presidential election tends to be a fairly good one in the 4-year election cycle (no matter who the president is). Pairing that with consumer optimism about where the economy will be in the next 24 months, along with financial factors--such as low interest rates and multi-unit franchisees being the "darlings" of lenders these days--the capital market side is playing to the strengths of multi-unit operators.
As he's said before, with the pie growing so slowly, the "real battle right now is for market share." Strong brands and savvy franchisees stand to gain, as performance will matter more in today's business climate. "The economy won't bail out a bad business decision, but will punish it," he said. The good news? The opposite is true for good decisions.
He reminded attendees that franchising is the largest vocational training program in the country for unskilled labor. "We're the biggest solution for that," he said, and expressed concern about external factors such as minimum wage increases. With all this in the mix, he told the audience of multi-unit franchisees, "This year and next should present you with a pretty good environment in which to grow."
Next up was the recognition and presentation of plaques to honor this year's MVP (Most Valuable Performers) Award winners--multi-unit franchisees who have taken advantage of the opportunities life and the economy have presented them. The annual award celebrates multi-unit franchisees for their contributions to their brands, their community, and their employees. Profiles of the honorees begin here.
Then it was on to Day 2's keynote speaker, Joe Theismann, one of pro football's all-time great quarterbacks. Following an introduction by Greg Vojnovich of Arby's, which sponsored the keynote, Theismann thrilled and energized the crowd with tales of his 12 years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins. The 1982 Super Bowl champion, two-time Pro Bowler, and league MVP saw his playing days cut short in 1985 when a severe (and dramatic) leg injury ended his career. He went on to become an NFL broadcaster and restaurant owner--as well as an active member of his community. "It's only when you start to give back that we truly appreciate what success is," he said.
Theismann shared entertaining, educational stories from his own life about overcoming adversity and creating success. "I never had a failure in my life--just an educational experience that didn't go my way," he quipped. "Change is just a part of life."
But, he pointed out, people can't be their best without help. "You have great teachers and mentors in this room," he said. However, he added, you must be coachable, something he struggled with early in his NFL career when he thought he knew it all. "You really don't know everything."
Theismann spent the remainder of his time outlining the importance of having goals ("What price are you willing to pay for being special?"); maintaining a good attitude ("What do you say when you look in the mirror in the morning?"); and being motivated to achieve ("Competition is what drives us. I am not a fan of participation trophies.").
Theismann's inspiring talk was followed by a general session panel called "How To Select a New Brand." Tom Garrett, CEO of GPS Hospitality (Burger King and Popeyes franchisee and former Arby's CEO), led a star-studded panel consisting of Eric Werner (president of Texas Subs, a large Subway franchisee); Dave Goebel (Pie Five Pizza franchisee and former Applebee's CEO); and Matthew Kelly, partner and managing director of North Point Advisors, a financial advisory firm. The panel touched on what criteria they use to evaluate a new brand; the importance of starting with a strategy (not a brand) in mind; the importance of timing in both the marketplace and within one's own portfolio; the pros and cons of going with an established brand or an emerging one; and once the decision is made, how to finance the new growth.
Lunch in the Exhibit Hall followed, after which franchisees had another crack at one-on-one meetings in The Money Room, while concurrent breakout sessions fired back up. Sessions included "Mergers & Acquisitions: Buying a Business"; "Labor Environment: NLRB, Minimum Wage"; "Mobile & Loyalty Marketing"; and "Professional Athletes in Franchising: Tapping Into a New Source of Capital and Brand Expansion."
That evening, a closing cocktail reception in the Exhibit Hall provided attendees one last chance to meet with brands, vendors, and to move deals to the next level.
The event wrapped with Friday morning's closing session, "Open Forum with Successful Multi-Unit Franchisees," in which successful multi-unit franchisees told the stories of their own journey, with lessons aplenty based on what they encountered along the way and what they'd would recommend to others seeking to build up their own organizations. Mara Fortin, the first franchisee of Nothing Bundt Cakes who now operates seven bakeries, led a panel that included Greg Cutchall, a multi-brand franchisee based in Omaha, who last year became a franchisor (Lolo's Chicken); Cheryl Robinson, who with her husband Joey, operates 37 Supercuts salons; Tony Lutfi, with eight brands, who began with food brands and has added Sears stores; and John Hotchkiss, who operates 42 Little Caesars and 3 Firehouse Subs.
Each described their life in franchising, how they started, and how some things had gone as planned while many others went in completely different directions--for better and for worse. Their stories were surprisingly frank about mistakes they'd made and the lessons they'd learned, and all were generous with advice for aspiring, growth-minded attendees. It was an enlightening conversation and the perfect way to send everyone home to their own franchise businesses, reenergized and ready to apply the lessons and inspiration they'd soaked in over the past few days.
"This is my second year attending this conference and I would not miss it," said Allan Boomer, a Retro Fitness franchisee and managing partner of investment firm Momentum Advisors. "Every year I mark my calendar, and I'll certainly be here next year."
Jim Hannan, vice president of operations at Schostak Family Restaurants, an Applebee's, Del Taco, and MOD Pizza franchisee, said, "I really liked all the presenters and panels I've been to and the networking I've been able to do in the Exhibit Hall."
For more information on the conference, photos (you might be in one), or to learn about next year's event, visit multiunitfranchisingconference.com.
A quick summary of some aggregated statistics from the 16th annual Multi-Unit Franchising Conference in Las Vegas this past April:
The only publication dedicated exclusively to the hottest topic in franchising - Multi-Unit and Multi-Brand Franchisees.
A unique event because it is highly influenced by its advisory board, consisting of the very best multi-unit franchisees. The board works diligently to ensure that the conference delivers on its promise of being the best platform for franchisees to learn how to grow their businesses.