Veterans Find Franchises a Great Fit for Business Ownership

When it comes to running a business, many franchisors know that military veterans have what it takes (and then some) to make a business succeed. And with the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq coming home soon, more retiring military personnel are coming back looking for jobs in a flailing economy. And some are finding opportunities: in franchises.

A recent Census Bureau study shows that more than 66,000 veteran-owned franchises in the U.S. provide jobs directly to 815,000 Americans and generate more than $41 billion in gross domestic product. With 11.7% of the nation’s veterans unemployed--a startling increase from the 9% overall unemployment rate in the country, and 22% of vets under the age of 25 living without a paycheck, franchise operations provide an opportunity for veterans to not only become self sufficient, but to take ownership of their careers.

“A lot of people thought job security was going to work for a corporation and staying there for 20 years. The world isn’t like that anymore today,” said Brian Miller, president of The Entrepreneur Source, a business ownership and franchise consulting business. “People are starting to think of entrepreneurship and starting a business for a career opportunity,”

On Thursday, the International Franchise Association (IFA) and franchise business leaders joined First Lady Michelle Obama to launch Operation Enduring Opportunity, an industry-wide recruitment campaign to offer returning veterans career paths in franchising, including increased employment opportunities and incentives for ownership of franchise businesses through the IFA’s VetFran program.

There are three basic pillars to a franchise operation, according to Miller: brand name, operating system and ongoing support.

Franchisors “want people who have the capacity to follow a system because what a franchise has done is institutional, the end user experience has made it a replicable process,” said Miller. Most veterans are “very used to following an operating system. Military personnel are trained to follow standard operating procedures. What most franchisors have found, is veterans have initiative, they have drive…and they like to stick to a system.”

Plus, the discipline training they receive in the military makes them a “perfect fit to a franchise system.”

Established franchises that offer support to franchisees and do a lot of the legwork when it comes to product development and purchasing, marketing, obtaining discounted prices on product, research, and other aspects of business ownership, allow veterans to hit the ground running.

“I would definitely recommend purchasing a franchise because of that support net that you have,” said Army Lt. Col. Kim Lawler, who serves as a veterinarian and food safety inspector for the military, and is the owner of a Once Upon a Child, a children’s store franchise. Lawler noted that in Clarksville, Tenn., where her franchise is located, many mom-and-pop baby stores have opened without the brand recognition offered by Once Upon a Child, and didn’t last long.

“They don’t have that brand name, they don’t have that support net, they don’t have that pricing – they go out of business,” she said.

Once Upon a Child sells gently-used children’s clothes, toys, equipment and other accessories. Last year, when Lawler’s only daughter was pregnant, the soon-to-be grandmother found herself frequenting various Once Upon a Child franchises around Fort Campbell Army base, where she is stationed, looking for baby products. One day, when she was in the Clarksville location, the owner mentioned she was looking to sell. “It was like a marriage made in heaven,” Lawler said.

“I wasn’t quite ready to purchase a business at that point but it was so perfect for me. I was looking for something that is not so stressful, had flexible hours and something fun, yet challenging. This store just did it all for me.”

Lawler was unexpectedly deployed to Afghanistan shortly after buying the business and relied on her new husband to run the business while she was gone. Recently returned from her deployment, she spends the hours she’s not working with the Army at her shop. She plans to devote herself to the store fulltime once she retires from active duty in six years.

Lawler credits the skills she honed in the Army: developing budgets, managing people and other human resources functions and managing inventory, for helping her grow the business exponentially in the short time since she took it over. 

“The skills that you learn in the military are so beneficial, especially in operating a business,” Lawler said. “The leadership skills, especially – bringing groups together and working as a team – I just carried that over into children’s apparel and equipment.”

Retired Air Force engineer Mike Buchs got a job as an aerospace engineer with Sundstrand Aerospace right out of college, but a merger with Hamilton 16 years later eventually led to his facility in Long Beach, Calif., closing down. Not wanting to uproot his wife and her job in California, Buchs took a severance package and starting searching for other work. Not finding satisfaction with any of the corporate options he explored, he eventually decided on the Allegra print and imaging franchise in part, because of the support it offered, and its philosophy.

“Allegra’s philosophy is, you don’t start a franchise location from scratch without anything … buy an existing business and turn it into an Allegra,” Buchs said.

Buchs used money from his 401(k) and benefited from a franchise fee discount offered from Allegra for veterans – a common perk many franchises offer veterans – and started his franchise in June 2004. The production and operation skills he gained at Sundstrand translated well to running his new business, and his military experience was an added bonus when it came to how to work with people.

“Probably the biggest key is teamwork and that’s what the military is all about. Great training all around for that.”

Buchs recommended veterans thinking about starting their own business or getting into franchising, to do some soul searching first.

“I went through, I’ll call it a ‘psychological evaluation,’ to determine what businesses fit my skill set and my mental approach to life. Everybody should go through that before they jump off into some kind of business. They could, inevitably, pick something they just don’t want to do – and it’s a formula for failure…you have to really do the research for what really makes sense for you.”

Lawler cautioned: “Don’t leave the military and just go get another job. Plan early. Get your finances in order and really find something you’re going to love to do.”