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CHANGING HATS

by Annie Gray,
last updated 18/11/2010

As the armed forces and emergency services restructure, many personnel are moving out into businesses of their own. Annie Gray has been exploring the franchise option.

Eleven Reasons for Wearing a Franchise Hat

Every year, hundreds of highly-trained and highly-skilled men and women leave the services looking for a change of direction in their lives. People from the army, the navy, the air force, the police and the fire service are looking, literally, to change hats.

These ex-service people may have spent 15 or 20 years in their previous career. They are often in their late 30s or early 40s, and can have sizeable sums of money to help set them up in a new working life. They recognise the value of training and the need for assistance in their move into the outside world. Small wonder that many of them look to franchising as the best route into business.

Many franchisors also believe that ex-service people are particularly well suited to franchising. 'Services people are trained in teamwork, the application of systems, and the exercising of initiative,' says one observer. 'For many franchisors, that is close to their profile of an ideal franchisee.'

One franchisor makes no bones about the fact he specifically targets ex-service people as franchisees. Ray Fordham, managing director of the Kiwi Alarms and Kiwi Security franchise systems, is a big fan of people who have been in any of the services. Of his eight current franchisees, two are ex-policemen and one is from the air force.

 'I think the values such as discipline that they learn in the services are important. They often also seem to be more analytical towards problem solving. Perhaps it is just that they have learned to be more objective.'

Ray was in the forces himself in Australia, and he believes people trained this way are often more comfortable asking for help than non-service people, and are also good at integrating concepts. 'They are used to working in teams and keen on the "cross-pollination" of ideas. In addition, they seem more focussed and tend to take things a little more seriously.'

Other qualities he points to include coming up with creative solutions. 'They are not restricted, in any way, in their thinking.'

 'From my experience, they also make very supportive franchisees and are happy to help others out. I think in the forces you are relying on your comrades and this becomes an integral part of your discipline - it becomes ingrained into your personality.'

Ray Fordham is currently expanding his operation to include mobile patrol franchises. These were first put on the market in early July and, he freely admits, will target ex-service people as franchisees.

'I'm biased towards them, I can't deny it.'

While the connection between the security forces and Kiwi Alarms franchises is obvious, many personnel view the end of service life as the chance to embrace a whole new lifestyle. The ex-stores supervisor who buys a muffin franchise, for example, or the fireman who enjoys a more comfortable ride as a limousine driver. The mechanically trained will find plenty of automotive options, and some tools and parts franchises specifically target ex-services people.

Officers are no exception - one senior member of the SAS now operates two sports shoe franchises. And for many, buying their own business offers the first chance they will ever have had to work with their partners.

Examine Yourself

However, Margaret Wyn, a human resources specialist who works in the franchise profiling and selection area, warns that a services background is not by itself sufficient to ensure success as a franchisee. 'Whatever the franchise, it really does depend on the personality of the candidate themselves and whether they have the temperament to run this particular business,' she says.

 'The skills needed for franchising include the desire to succeed, the ability to manage yourself and others and, most importantly, a desire to work with people and to enjoy being with customers.' Franchisees, she says, also need a willingness to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

'Although it might be stereotyping, I think that a lot of people in the armed forces and other services would be good at following policy and procedures. In the fire service, following procedures can be the difference between life or death. While it doesn't come down to that in franchising, services people may find the transition to a franchise with reasonably ordered ways of doing things easier than someone from a less structured career background.'

In certain circumstances, services experience can be a disadvantage. 'We have a problem with one franchisee at the moment who is just awful with his staff,' says one franchisor who prefers not to be identified. 'He's used to being in command, and expects people to jump when he says jump. That works in the forces, but doesn't go down too well with a team of youngsters. Experience of leading a group isn't enough – you have to have the type of people skills which are appropriate to the business.'

Which is why, as Margaret Wyn notes, any franchisor must still base a selection decision on the personality of the applicant as well as their experience.

Out of Uniform

Eric Royle is a former Station Officer with the Fire Service. After a total of 35 years as a fireman, 23 of them in New Zealand, he retired two years ago and bought a Corporate Cabs franchise.

While he is now pleased with his decision and has learned to enjoy the flexibility of being an owner/operator with Corporate Cabs, the transition was tricky.

 'It was a bit difficult at first,' he admits. 'The biggest problem I found was that in the service you get used to always having someone else around, no matter what task you are doing. But in a taxi you are on your own most of the time.'

He found his service experience surprisingly relevant, though. 'In the Fire Service you really do get a general all-round education with skills in many areas. For example, you learn how to deal with people in difficult situations, and that can come in really handy in this business.' Another useful discipline he learned in the fire service was an ability to work at any hour of the day or night. 

Helping the Transition

Squadron Leader Mark Waldin of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at Whenuapai suggests that people who leave the forces are often very good at managing themselves. 'They have gone through an organisation that is very structured and very thorough, and that can rub off into their personal lives.' 

Mark runs the Education Squadron and is also the Resettlement Officer. Part of his role is to organise seminars for the 100 or so men and women who leave the airforce each year.

These courses are designed to help personnel find their future direction in business or the workplace. Many will leave with lump sums of between $175,000 and $250,000 which can be used to help set themselves up, and Mark is concerned that they should use the money wisely.

 'We put different ideas in front of them, and encourage them to take part in seminars which offer different business and financial options,' says Mark. 'There are also several small business courses that those preparing to leave the service can enrol in.'

While leaving your job after 20 years can be difficult, Mark Waldin believes those from the RNZAF go out with a lot of confidence.

 'People coming out of the service have a sense of their own value and their own worth. They also come with a lot of skills that are easily transferable and are well able to be put to good use.'

He says before most service people launch into anything they tend to have looked at it very thoroughly 'because they are very conscious they have worked long and hard for their money and want to make sure they don't waste it.'

Mark sees another strength from the armed services as being a philosophy which promotes the 'can-do' attitude. 'They are used to solving problems and used to a structured pattern of work.'

Decision Makers

'I think someone like me is very used to making their own decisions. At 19 I was flying old Bristol freighters with three other 19-year-olds up and down New Zealand. You develop a lot of self-discipline in those circumstances.' 

So says Bruce Tayler, a former commissioned officer in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Bruce, who had trained with the airforce as a navigator, now owns two United Video franchises in Auckland. He left the air force after a combined period of 26 years and his experiences included a stint in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. His last job was scheduling all of the force's air transport fleet throughout the country.

He bought his first United Video store in 1992 and the second store three years ago.

 'I didn't set out initially to buy a franchise but during the negotiations to buy the first store the owner decided to join the United Video franchise. Then I was accepted by the franchise group as well.'

He says the United Video franchise operated more as a co-operative venture back then. 'The pool of resources, the assistance and the guidance available to someone launching into a new business were invaluable. As we've been in it longer, we are now having our brains picked by newcomers and are able to put a bit back into the system.'

He believes his experience in the airforce has helped him in a number of ways but specifically with staff management, administration and problem solving.

The services, he says, gave a very broad understanding of how things worked but he needed real business experience before he dealing with such aspects of civilian life as the IRD and the Employment Contracts Act. 

Self Discipline

Someone who is enjoying a complete change in lifestyle is Murray Morgan, the Blenheim franchisee for the Spiderman system. The former police officer is having a ball with the pest control franchise which he bought in November after 19 years in the force.

'I'll admit that I was worried and tossed the idea around for a while initially. My main concern was how would I get the clients and the work - that's not something police officers have to worry about! I've only been going six months but I've had a good start and I am enjoying it.' 

He particularly likes the freedom to plan his own day around work and family commitments, something that was not always possible with the police force. Murray says his background has been beneficial and the first factor he points to is that it helps him in summing up his clients pretty quickly.

'The biggest thing I have noticed is that as a former policeman, no matter who I am talking to I seem to have the ability to communicate. I think you also bring a bit of self discipline from your service training and that's good - in your own business you need the ability to plan your day, organise yourself and stick to a schedule.

 'In the police we were all used to working within a system but a trend I have noticed is that few of my friends and colleagues who have also left have chosen to go back into big group situations. They might just go to a small company or into work for themselves. It is almost as if they are sick of the big office. Perhaps you get sick of crowds.'

A Good Option 

There is no doubt that buying a franchise can be a good option for the person leaving the forces or the emergency services.

Franchise systems offer many advantages over independent small businesses (see box) . Just as important is the fact that service experience can be, as we have seen, highly relevant to the franchise environment. Training in self-discipline, teamwork and systems are valuable for self-employment. The services encourage the use of initiative and the development of problem-solving skills. They have a focus on quality, and instil an attitude of 'do whatever the job takes' which often transfers well to commerce.

On the down side, some service people may lack business acumen or the sales and marketing skills which are crucial to many businesses. They can be too used to unquestioning obedience, and they may have unrealistic expectations of a small franchise system's support structure.

It would therefore be wrong to expect franchising to suit everyone. As Margaret Wyn comments, personality and aptitude for the business are still the key criteria, and it is up to the franchisor to select carefully those people who are most likely to suceed.

 However, like Ray Fordham many franchisors are increasingly regarding services personnel as a major source of high-quality franchisees. With continuing changes in their employment situation, we can expect to see increasing numbers changing hats from the helmet or the beret to the logoed cap and shirt of the franchised operator.

Eleven Reasons for Wearing a Franchise Hat

  1. Retraining. Buying a franchise means you will be trained in operating that specific business.
  2. Systems. Following a system will save you time and effort – particularly important if you have not run your own business before.
  3. Support. You will have someone to call on if you have a problem or need advice.
  4. Comfort Zone. Although you will be your own boss, you will still be part of a team working towards a common goal.
  5. Low Risk. Franchised outlets have a significantly higher success rate than independent small businesses.
  6. Variety. Franchises are available in all types of business, catering for a wide range of investment levels.
  7. Choice. Work in the business you choose, the hours you choose and the location you choose.
  8. Fresh start. Those coming out of the services in their 30's and 40's may find they are thought to be too old for some careers. These are the peak yearsfor buying franchises, combining experience and energy.
  9. Direction. A franchise ensures that all your activities are directed towards activities which are proved to work.
  10. Family. Many franchises offer the chance to work with your partner or even your children.
  11. Expertise. You are used to having specialists to call on – franchises offer that same support in buying, marketing, technical matters and so on.

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