She's About a Mover

Linda Fong moves ahead in her own special way

With her high energy and positive attitude, it's no surprise that Linda Fong is a successful multi-brand, multiunit franchisee. However, like many franchisees, she's not one of those who made a plan and followed a straight line to that success. But it's the detours and her individualism that have taught her what she needed.

"I remember getting a review from one of my bosses, and they indicated 'Linda is a valuable asset, but needs to mature a bit more to...' I think I was all of 22, and I didn't pay attention to the first part of the sentence because I was so insulted with the latter part. What do they mean I need to mature? I know of what he spoke now," she says.

Her meandering route, which took place in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, included working for PG&E (a large California utility company) for several years before joining her husband at his salon, kenz!, in Alameda. She attended "just about every East Bay city college, but couldn't get solid footing on any one subject, so I took very subject-specific classes. I still do that to this day via conferences, seminars, and workshops. I learned the most from the school of hard knocks."

Her most valuable training, education, and business experience came not when someone critiqued or reviewed her technical skills, but her attitude, she says.

"I am also a Vidal Sassoon trained hairdresser, and I remember the first week when I was resisting learning new methods, and the instructor said, 'If you want to do things your way, then go save yourself some money and go home. You didn't pay us to let you do things your way.' Ouch!"

These hard-won lessons are useful today when Fong, now in the position to do the criticizing, has to train and manage employees at her two Fastsigns and one Plato's Closet locations. "These are strong franchisors who have a proven system." (She used to own three Liberty Fitness locations, but sold those.)

Being a multiunit, multi-brand owner, she says, forces her to step back and look at her business as a business -- and not as what I initially created for myself when I had one unit so I could have a job," she says. "It makes you appreciate the systems put in place by each concept. And because I have two concepts, I can cross-reference the strengths of each franchise."

With Fastsigns, for example, she can share in direct mail marketing by including both locations on her collateral, and she can have one piece of equipment produce for both locations. "It keeps the machines running," she says.

She's not drawn to food franchising, fast or otherwise. "I was afraid of food concepts, and these two have no perishables," she says. "Also, I enjoy business-to-business relationships with Fastsigns, while Plato's Closet provides a twofold benefit: recycling and providing teens a place to learn. I was just kidding with my husband that Plato's Closet, in a way, teaches folks how to trade commodities."

Fong, who entered the U.S. at age two and grew up in Oakland, has settled in the East Bay area and currently resides in San Leandro. Her three locations are in Oakland, Dublin, and Hayward. "I know myself well enough that I don't care to commute, especially in the Bay Area, so each location is no more than 15 to 30 minutes away from my home."

She sees her strength as problem-solving--seeing each person's strengths and weaknesses and attempting to bring them to a higher level. I have hired a professional coach, and I am beginning to implement how I'm being coached to, in turn, coach my managers to coach their employees."

She also sees herself as "the big picture person, giving my employees the tools to manage the details of how to accomplish my goals."

Fong is still refining her support team and company structure. "It's a work in progress, but I am in the process of creating an organizational chart. And as I am planning for future growth, each of my people's roles is changing."

She attributes her success to "knowing that adversity is a part of life, and not letting that keep me from putting one foot in front of the other."

More stores and possibly more brands are likely for Fong. "At this time, I would love to have more than one Plato's Closet, but my pursuit of systematizing my real estate investment business is taking precedence." Stay tuned for her next adventure.

Name: Linda Fong
Title: President
Company: Justipher Inc.
No. of units (by brand): 2 Fastsigns, 1 Plato's Closet

PERSONAL

Years in current position: 14
Years in franchising: 14

Key accomplishments: Other than raising two of the sweetest young men, I think my key accomplishment is learning to diversify my industries.

Biggest mistake: Creating chaos when I finally had my businesses running smoothly because I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that things were running quite smoothly.

Smartest mistake: Is there such a thing as a smart mistake?
Work week: About half is spent on marketing, planning, and paperwork. I also have my 14-year-old I plan my days around.

Favorite activity: Playing Bejeweled on yahoo.com. I do my best thinking playing a mindless game.

Exercise: Running between stores or moving boxes of records. Seriously, I enjoy the Reebok "step" exercises, and I have a bike I haven't ridden in a couple of years. Mostly, I walk a lot.

What do you do for fun? Attend conferences. Just kidding! I enjoy comedy clubs, dinner with friends and family, and shows and concerts.

Books/magazines recently read/recommended: Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now.

MANAGEMENT

Management method or style: Sink or swim. But I'm seriously learning to systematize and provide better feedback, hopefully with consistency.

How close are you to operations? I talk with my managers at least weekly, if not almost every other day. I am constantly learning to better interpret reports to get a better picture of each of my store's strengths and weaknesses.

Greatest challenge: Self-discipline.

Personality: Leap before I look.

How do you hire and fire? HR has been my biggest challenge because I am not a very good teacher, and I am extremely impatient when I need to repeat myself. Over the years, most of the employees I've had to let go were not surprised when it was time to move on, because I try to provide frequent feedback.

Find good people? Referrals have been my best resource, but I have also used craigslist.com with good results.

Train them? I utilize the corporate training offered as often as I can. I believe my employees enjoy advanced training away from the office distractions, and get to see a bigger picture than I can provide in my individual centers. Besides, read above: I am a poor teacher.

Retain them? I believe I offer a competitive health benefits and retirement plan package.

"Growth meter" - How do YOU measure your growth? By my bottom line. If I can run my stores more efficiently and be lean and mean with highly qualified people whom I can train and pay well, then it makes everyone's job easier.

Annual revenue: $1.3 million for two units (Fastsigns of Oakland and Plato's Closet Dublin; Fastsigns of Hayward was not open yet).

2008 goals: $1.7 million with a modest 8 percent growth for the first 2 stores, plus the revenue of the additional Fastsigns. I'm a little wary of the economy.

Published: August 11th, 2008

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