A Tale of Three Success Stories

Operations & Training

By Kara LaGrassa

We’ve heard it said that franchising provides career and economic opportunities for women. Just how far can a woman go in franchising? Here are the stories of four women who have built big businesses, one small-business franchise at a time. These entrepreneurs share their strategies for multi-unit operations, their styles of management and their thoughts on women in the workforce.

Battery-Powered Success

It was an afternoon golf game that changed the lives of Susan Manwaring and her husband, Dan, forever. Dan was teed off because he couldn’t find a specific battery he had been searching some time for. "My husband was talking about it to a friend on the golf course who said, ‘I have a friend who has a battery store.’" The seed was planted, but it would take Dan falling victim to corporate downsizing for the couple to make the entrepreneurial leap.

Dan began a consulting business, "but we kept thinking now would be a good time to start a business of our own," Susan remembers. "So, my husband called his friend to see about the battery idea." That friend of Dan’s putting partner happened to be Ronald Rezetko, chairman and CEO of Hartland, Wisc.-based Batteries Plus. It was 1992 and Batteries Plus didn’t have a single franchisee and was still putting together its offering circular, but the Manwarings agreed to meet with Rezetko anyway. "I couldn’t believe you could make a living just selling batteries," Susan says frankly. But, they liked what they heard during their meeting and forged ahead.

"We knew from the beginning that a single store would not support our lifestyle, so we wanted to really grow a business that we could one day sell or bring our kids into," Susan asserts. Speaking of kids, she built her chain of stores while dealing with four teenaged children. "Our oldest was a freshman in college and the other three were freshmen and sophomores in high school.

Dan continued to work full-time as a consultant while Susan worked to get their new business off the ground. "I wrote the business plan, I looked for real estate, I got the first store open in Ft. Wayne, Indiana," she remembers. Today she oversees operations at seven stores and Dan has left his consulting business to join her at the helm of their mini franchise empire. While the couple has no major expansion plans, "we haven’t said this is it, either," Susan hints.

Ms. Livingston, I Presume

Twenty-year hospitality industry veteran and Days Inn franchisee Lanora Livingston was taking care of four small children and one very ill mother when she decided to acquire her first Days Inn property. The less stout-of-heart would buckle under the responsibility, but, believe it or not, Lanora says running a hotel allowed her to "take care of all the eggs in the basket" because she was able to live on site and stagger her hours to meet the needs of her family.

After some time, when her children had grown and her mother passed on, "The basket became empty, so at that point you’re faced with a choice of what to do with yourself and your life," says the entrepreneur who at one time owned her own advertising agency. Livingston decided she liked the hotel business. And she likes it even more, now that she operates a Days Inn and a Howard Johnson’s Express and is looking at a piece of land on which she plans to build another Cendant property. And she isn’t going stop there. "I’m always looking for land and a bargain with an eye toward expansion," she says.

Just-A-Thriving Business

In the 1980s they were full-time moms, but in the early 1990s Eileen Caccavone and Jan Pitman were ready to start a small business. They met and became friends during an Exxon convention - their husbands each owned service stations in New York’s Hudson Valley region. The two friends took a chance as franchisees of the new Just-A-Buck store concept, which had no other franchises at the time. With virtually no business experience - Caccavone had never had a job and Pitman had some experience in retail before having children - they entered a competitive industry and flourished to five stores in New York and Connecticut. Today, their units consistently rank in the top 10 on the chain’s weekly list of highest average sales per customer. As for their husbands, they have sold their service stations and gone to work for their wives.

It’s All In How You Manage It

The key to juggling multiple franchise units, according to these entrepreneurial women, is the ability to delegate the daily operations to well-trained managers. And, there are as many ways to go about that as there are entrepreneurs.

For Susan Manwaring, the devil is in the details. "I became a road warrior in the beginning, running between all the stores as they were growing and I was trying to get them all open," she said, almost seeming exhausted at the memory. "I’m kind of a Type A personality and very hands on, so it’s hard for me to give up control," she admits. "I used to have hands-on time in all the stores and was in the field, but I became so busy getting the stores up and running that I couldn’t spend the time doing it anymore." Susan says getting back into her stores to focus on service has been her top priority for the past six months.

"You know, other people don’t have the same passion for the business as you do," Susan says of the necessity of hiring managers. "Sometimes things that are important, as far as service, go by the wayside. So, lately we’ve really been putting the focus on paying attention to these details and making sure our managers are on board."

Then again, there is a more laissez-faire way of managing operations, according to Livingston. "I have managers, many of whom I’ve mentored myself and who understand exactly how I want my properties to run, so that I can go ahead and expand," she says. "I know property owners who are bogged down in the minutia of running their business; who are tied to the office and micromanage every detail, but once I learned about the bottom line and what could be done through acquisition, that’s what I did: I bought and sold properties and the sales provides capital for further expansion."

On a typical day, Livingston arrives at her office between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and heads for home around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. "I can work from home and I’m available if my management’s not," she says, adding, "I have learned every aspect of the business from maintenance on up and I still do it sometimes, but I’m not tied to the property."

It’s A Woman Thing - Or Is It?

"The huge issue [for a woman who wants to start a small business] is getting someone to loan you the money," asserts Livingston, who remembers wrestling with lenders to secure start-up capital for her first hotel. "If you’re not determined, if you’re not savvy, if you don’t network, they could stop you cold," she says of those who hold the purse strings.

"When it came to banks, my financial statement was better than some others I had seen, but they were given larger lines of credit - my interest was higher and the term of my loan was shorter." But, Livingston says she made this barrier work to her success. She watched her male counterparts overextend themselves and learned from their mistakes. She began early on to diversify her investments in order to protect herself financially. "The hotel industry is seasonal, so I’m into stocks and bonds so that I can leverage the industry cycles," she says.

Manwaring says she did not experience the same gender bias when applying for capital to start her franchise. "Because we were the first franchisee in our system, I don’t think the stuff we encountered with bankers was because I was a woman. We had the assets to do what we wanted and they loved the business plan, but they didn’t want to take a chance on a new concept. We had a good relationship with a small local bank and that’s how we got our initial financing."

Manwaring does admit that in her line of work, however, there are perception issues about women from male clients and business associates. "When people see a woman working in a store like ours, they think, ‘what would you know about putting a battery in a car?’ for example. It’s a perception issue. But hey, there’s a woman who works in our Ft. Wayne store who fixes fighter planes with the National Guard."

A Means To An End

Though their goals for expansion and their approaches to management vary, one thing these women business owners agree on is that franchising is a fine way to build a business.

"Women should be pulling women and men up in the workforce, and men should be pulling women and men up," Livingston asserts, regardless of gender or even of business format. It just so happens, in her opinion, that franchising is a great way to do that.