Small Business and Franchise Success Stories

Buying a franchise is not quite like buying a small business. When you buy a franchise the system behind it has been tested time and again and deviating is most often not a recipe for success. This is not to say that franchisees can’t take any creative control, but for Chris Zook, a franchisee of Crestcom Training, sometimes the best model truly is the one that others have established—especially when you are just beginning.

Zook had a background in education first as a coach and teacher. When he entered the business world, he excelled in sales which allowed him to move through the management ranks. Eventually, he was combining his business expertise with his educational background as a trainer and business developer internationally.

“I worked in London on three different occasions and in the far east and continental Europe. My role was often times to establish an office in a particular country or city, build the infrastructure, get the people in place, and then move on to another territory and do the same thing in a two or three year period. In essence, what I was really doing was developing people, developing my succession plan, and getting the right people in the right seats, giving them skills to be successful.”

Being mobile, encountering new people and new cultures, and sometimes being caught up in the turmoil of mergers and acquisitions made Zook very adaptable, but he eventually began to consider going into business for himself.

“I realized as I was entering my fifties that jumping around from job to job isn’t fun, especially in a tough economy. I felt like I didn’t have control of my future... I looked around at different businesses. I toyed with consulting and I realized that I wasn’t the explorer; I was more of a farmer. And I wasn’t someone who was going to come up with some new widget or new method or new technology. The idea of getting involved in a business that already existed, that already had the process in place, made sense.”

Zook began looking at options with a franchise broker. Through the broker’s coaching, he was able to eliminate many paths that didn’t really match his skills, such as retail. Management and leadership had been Zook’s strongest points for years, and this led him to Denver-based Crest Com, which provides leadership development and management training worldwide through franchisees.

“Looking at my background, what I had done and enjoyed was developing people. It kind of went back to my roots as a teacher and a coach when I was developing kids, whether it was in the classroom or out on the athletic field or on a wrestling mat. This is the same thing except I’m not developing kids anymore I’m developing adults to help them become better managers and leaders.”

Zook started Zeta Management Training in June 2006 as a Washington state franchise of Crest Com International. Zeta Management offers a 12-month training program that helps managers at every level with essential skills for successful business, including big issues for upper management—from communication, to negotiation, to delegation, to strategic planning—and subtler matters that people at every level might find problematic—better communication through voice mail and over the phone, presentation, stress-management, dealing with difficult customers and different personalities—and more. Participants come in for one four-hour session a month that focuses on two different essential skills. The experiences of the participants vary widely, but all can benefit from the program, based on Zook’s experience. This diversity has in turn proved rewarding for Zook, who has a very diverse background himself.

“People participating in our program might be managers who moved through the ranks self-taught and haven’t received any formal training, or people who were trained so long ago that they have forgotten it and haven’t been applying it...I meet with people on a regular basis from different companies, different backgrounds, different experiences, so I’m constantly learning from people I meet with on an initial basis, but I also lean an awful lot from my participants because these are managers that are young and old and in between who have been all over the place: different companies, different cultures, different background, different experiences. So it’s a two-way street: They learn from me and I also learn from them.”

An advantage of buying a franchise instead of a small business is the network of franchisees that comes with the package in addition to the proven model. This network, too, has provided Zook with diverse input and experience which he has used to improve his business.

“Once or twice a month, I talk to three other [Crest Com franchisees] about our monthly sessions—what the topics are, what new and better exercises and activities we can do that would benefit our participants. That keeps me sharp because these people are all over. One person is from Texas; one person is from Atlanta; the other person is from California. And there are other people I’ve met through Crest Com that are all over the world. They’re in China and in Vancouver, and we are constantly comparing notes.”

With all this diversity and innovation and with Zook’s background in developing businesses in new areas and markets, it seems to easy to arrive at the idea of deviating from the franchise’s business plan, but, according to Zook and the lessons he has learned with other franchisees, trying to force a new approach can be a big mistake for new franchise owners.

“Before I bought the franchise, I contacted existing franchisees, and one of the first questions I asked was, ‘What were the mistakes you made and what would you have done differently?’ The majority of the people said the biggest mistake they made was I not following the script. They said to themselves, ‘I am a good enough sales person, so I’ll try my way versus the Crest Com way!’ and after six months not making any sales and not being very successful, they would go back to the Crest Com style. When I heard this from enough people, I realized that there must be some validity to it.”

Zook stuck to the Crest Com plan, and sure enough, his business was up and running in the time that he and others had estimated. No one anticipated the dive in the economy, but he and others are working through this tough time, too, adapting the plan and expanding on their program as needed.

“Crest Com has a proven model that works. They cover everything from initial contact and marketing, and they’ve done a very good job of tuning that model globally...Unfortunately, the economy took a dive that has hurt my business as it has hurt many companies and franchisees. Perhaps it hasn’t affected people internationally as much, but it has hurt, and it has changed things. We just have to plug along and do things a little bit different, such as looking at different markets that maybe have not been affected by the economy, that have the money and are willing to spend on developing their people.”

In a struggling economy, where businesses need to operate as efficiently and cohesively as possible to succeed, the training at Zeta can prove vital, and one of the biggest rewards for Zook—a man who has been developing people of all ages and backgrounds for his entire career—is seeing his participants flourish personally and professionally. Every day is a new challenge, though, and the combination of challenge and personal and professional reward keeps Zook going even in the down times. It has given him more control over his own future while helping others reach their full potential...a dream prospect for many potential franchisees.

Zook was qualified in every way by his experiences, but like many potential franchisees, the biggest obstacle was financing. Zook overcame this by using retirement funds through Guidant’s 401(k) small business financing plan.

“Without the tools from Guidant I would not be where I am now. I’m very appreciative that Guidant is constantly reminding me of when things are due because it hasn’t been engrained in my mind as much as when your tax is due in April. It’s a very complex plan—reinvesting the money and, how much you have to reinvest, the different things you need to be doing—but Guidant has provided the guidelines and the help and support to make process much easier.”

When you buy a franchise, remember that you are buying more than a business: You are accessing a network of franchisees and acquiring an established plan for success. It can be extremely helpful to be in contact with other franchisees, to compare notes and learn to adapt as the business environment changes. At the beginning, however, no matter how diverse and expansive your experience may be, if you deviate from the franchise’s business plan, you are tossing aside one of the larger reasons to buy a franchise in the first place. If you are the sort of person who wants only to forge your own path, buying or starting a small business may be a better option than buying a franchise. Either way, finding a model that matches your skills and then being persistent is absolutely essential. Of course, funding the purchase is another big step, and Guidant’s 401(k) small business financing plan is one solution. There is much to consider, so allowing an expert such as Guidant Financial to lead you through the process just as a franchise establishes your business model may be your best guides to personal, independent success.