IFA Hall of Fame Award Winner Russ Frith, CFE

Russ Frith, CFE, the 2016 IFA Hall of Fame inductee, talks about challenges and opportunities in franchising.

By Radim Dragomaca
Russ Frith, CFE, took the stage before a room of around 4,000 members of the franchise community at the IFA Convention in February, and the applause was thunderous. In that sea of faces were hundreds who have known Russ over his 30-year career as President and CEO of Lawn Doctor, a position from which he retired in 2011. The enthusiasm, appreciation and respect for this man was palpable. A 30-year tenure overseeing a 10-fold growth in the company is an achievement few ever manage in the business world, and not all those who do emerge from that journey with the friendship, admiration and affection of so many of their peers. As he began to speak, the attention in the room was rapt, and his speech — at times emotional, at times inspiring — left no doubt that Russ was humbled to be inducted into this elite group of franchising’s best and brightest. Some of the past winners have been his mentors, some his mentees, and many his friends. 
How does a 30-year presidency of a major franchise company begin? For Russ, it began with a curious gardener who took care of the lawn at his first house in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. This fellow from Lawn Doctor picked up on Russ’ franchise expertise and started coming around on Saturdays to ask him questions and advice and eventually said that “Lawn Doctor could really use a guy like you, you ought to call up the president.” And that’s just what Russ did. The next Tuesday, he spent six hours interviewing with Lawn Doctor’s president, only to be told to come back for another six-hour chat the next day. Not many of us have endured a 12-hour interview in a 24-hour window, but this was no ordinary interview — it was the start of an extraordinary business journey. Within a week, Russ was the new marketing director and though he didn’t know it at the time, the man interviewing him had a hunch that he was really hiring the company’s next president. Sure enough, within two years, Russ was the company’s vice president and from 1986 until 2011, served as the CEO.  
After 30 years at the helm of a major franchise company, Russ has invaluable insights into business that today’s generation of leaders and those aspiring to his kind of success should take heed of. For those just starting out, Russ’ advice is to build a model that can be successful and sustainable in the early stages, rather than thinking too far ahead. “Franchisors that are just starting out tend to develop their business model with a large-scale operation in mind,” he says. “They develop a model that works great and is profitable at a large scale. They think to themselves, when I have, say, 100 units, this will work great.” Growing fast is desirable, but having a plan for sustainability in those early stages is a must, he continues.
For CEOs like Russ, it’s important to stay closely involved in the selection of franchisees. At some point, he recommends building out a professional system — a process — that not only screens and selects the best partners, but shepherds them through the early stages and sets them up for success.
How does Russ see the future of the franchising business model in the 21st century? Some of the challenges, like a more competitive and globalized economy and the revolutions in technology and communications have certainly changed the field, but the opportunities are still there — in some ways, more so than ever before. Russ remains optimistic: 
“I think that franchising is the last bastion of capitalism. As there becomes more and more government requirements, disclosure requirements, technological requirements etc., would-be entrepreneurs will find it increasingly difficult to go into business from scratch. These have the potential to be so overbearing that you really can’t focus on the business, and you spend more of your time focused on compliance. Just failing at a couple of those things, even out of ignorance, could destroy your investment. In order to get through that first year or two, [franchisees] will need guidance on what to do and especially on what not to do. Having a franchisor on your side in that time and throughout can really make the difference between success and failure.” 
Radim Dragomaca is the Associate Editor of Franchising World and IFA Publishing and Government Relations Consultant.