MARY LAMBIE - LESSONS OF A NEW FRANCHISEE
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March 2008 - TV presenter and cover girl Mary Lambie tells us what she's learned in her new career as a Subway franchisee.
Sitting in a quiet North Shore coffee shop last September, I was about to leave when a voice from the next table said, ‘Simon?' I looked over and there was broadcaster and journalist Mary Lambie, whom I had talked to several times recently about her intended purchase of the local Subway franchise.
This was not the Mary Lambie we see on television or on the cover of women's magazines. To be honest, she was slightly dishevelled, her hair wild and a smear across one cheek. ‘Hello Mary, how's it going?' I asked. The response was instant and earthy. ‘Just opened and it's been the worst bloody week of my life. The support person has been taken off to another shop and I'm learning on the job.'
As the former host of TVNZ's popular Good Morning show devoured a muffin, we talked about the challenges and excitements that are an inevitable part of starting your own business. Drawing on a napkin, I took her through the six stages of ‘the franchisee curve of disenchantment' - Greg Nathan's famous E-factor model that describes the various changes in a new franchisee's mental attitudes and relationship with the franchisor that must happen before they reach a point of balance. ‘How long does it take to get through them?' demanded Mary. ‘Because I think I've done the first two stages already!'
I told her more about the benefits of getting to the mature ‘we' stage at the end of the process. ‘Wow,' she said, ‘What a great bit of teaching. Teaching! Oh no - I've forgotten to do the school lunch orders!' And with that, she was gone - back to a typical day in the life of a new franchisee.
Recently I sat down in that same café to talk with Mary again. I had told her I would like to talk to her about her real life experience as a franchisee. ‘Real life? Oh yes, I can do real life,' she had laughed hollowly. But this was a different person. Gone was the panic of the first weeks - now she looked in control, smiling about those early days and talking about how she was developing her business. What a difference six months can make.
Mary's journey is one that every new franchisee goes through. She had left a previous career for uncharted waters and she had a family to manage (husband Jim Mora, daughter Grace, who had just started school, and three year old twins Jack and Elizabeth). She had no experience in the food business and placed a lot of trust in the franchisor. Along the way, she discovered the hard work and determination needed to make a success of your own business.
Truth to tell, her Subway franchise is not Mary's first venture into business. While working on Good Morning she had started a company designing and manufacturing see-through plastic makeup capes because she had become frustrated that such a thing was not available.
‘That gave me a bit of an insight into business and taught me how much I didn't know,' Mary admits. ‘I didn't want to create an empire from it - I was just interested in turning something from an idea into a tangible something and I achieved that. But I had a lack of confidence about taking it the extra step and growing it into something bigger, so when a buyer came along I sold it. When I made the decision to leave Good Morning after they announced production was moving to Wellington, I knew it was time to try business again. The idea of a franchise appealed. I did consider going it alone but I didn't know what I'd actually want to do - or be able to do. I wanted to learn the fundamentals by working within the framework of a tried and tested system.'
Mary looked at a number of different franchise concepts and narrowed her choice down to two, but says Subway was always her number one preference because of its high profile and healthy image. ‘I talked to people about the product and their perception of it and only received favourable comments. No one said it was junk food or a crappy system, and it was clearly hugely well-developed. I felt that you'd have to be a complete moron to get it wrong and if you were reasonably ambitious - as I am - it offered the opportunity to own multiple stores. I had an odd confidence that I'd be able to make a fist of it.'
Rather than start from scratch, Mary took the opportunity to buy an existing store which had been operating for two years at Northcross on Auckland's North Shore. The location wasn't ideal, being about as far from her central Auckland home as possible without leaving the city entirely, but she felt the business had further potential for development and her advisors agreed. She took over on 29 August 2007.
Having signed the franchise agreement, Mary spent two weeks at Subway University in Brisbane, which is the global franchise's closest hub to New Zealand. ‘This was very intensive classroom-based training,' she says. ‘You can't cover everything in two weeks but it did cover the majority of how the system runs and included 40 hours practical training. That was the first time I'd ever stood behind a Subway counter. It was all new to me.'
In retrospect, Mary thinks that was a mistake. ‘I wish I'd worked in Subway then gone and done the owner training. Quite a few others had done it that way and they were really familiar with the system. They knew exactly what was being talked about all the time and were able to pick things up and relate them to their own experience. I knew a little bit as a customer, but seeing a business as a consumer is quite different from running one.
‘I'm the type of person who learns more hands-on. Without that, a lot of the course seemed to be "once over lightly" to me. For example, Subway has complex point of sales systems which can give fantastic information - they basically do everything but make a cup of tea. Someone like me wants to know all the details and how to use every part of it. But that would take a year so the training course has to teach you the basics you need to know when you start and then let you learn more on the job. The course wasn't perfect - how could it be? But then I came home on the Friday and was the owner/operator of my own store the following Wednesday (a practice that Subway has now changed). That's when the enormity of what you've done kicks in. It was up to me, now.'
Mary got an immediate taste of that responsibility. Taking over an existing store should have meant that she had an established team to work with, but problems struck immediately. ‘I had two weeks with the existing manager before they were due to leave. My assistant manager was in hospital with pneumonia and the senior shift manager had left to go to uni. I had known that these people were moving on but I hadn't realised it would be so soon or how long it would take me to get up to speed myself. I only had 17-20 staff in total and no managers.' At that point, Mary did what any new franchisee would do - she called for help.
‘Subway were great. They sent someone from their team to help me, and I started to get a handle on what needed to be done and how to run my store. But at the end of the week, she had to go and open a new store. It was shortly after that I met you,' she laughs. ‘No wonder I was tense!'
It took a little while for things to come together. ‘I was asked to talk to the Subway conference in November about my experiences, and I was still at the point where I was stressed about staff, the management of people, training them... I was still learning the business of ordering, sub-making and keeping the place really clean. I was like, "I get it but I just don't get it." The funny thing was that everyone in that room had been where I was - there were a lot of nodding heads. It's a stage that you have to go through before it all starts to come together.
‘But it does come together, and it happens the more you spend time at the coalface - it's the best place to learn. Yes, of course you still make mistakes but you learn from them. And you rely on the support from the franchisor to help you do that - at first I was always getting on the phone saying, "Help, I've done something wrong - now what do I do?" The support was really good and as a result I don't call on them nearly as much now. But I have developed friendships with some really good franchisees in Subway and I talk to them regularly. That sort of networking is brilliant.
‘I also have maybe 60% of the original staff team, which is great. A couple of them are really responsible for getting me through those first mad weeks and I am really grateful to them. When I was forgetting vegetable orders or whatever, they were the ones organising the mercy dashes to the supermarket or other stores - all those little teething things I now look back at and laugh.'
Mary combines her life as a franchisee with ongoing media commitments and, of course, being a wife and mum, but she is careful to avoid any impression of being the over-achieving ‘superwoman' of the type the glossy magazines are so keen to promote. ‘The truth is that I would have learned faster and probably have had an easier ride if I had been able to devote myself to the business full time, but that's not real life for most women - I'm no different.
‘I'm physically in my store some 20-25 hours a week - not necessarily on the front line, although I do work at the counter quite a lot. I'm there arranging rosters, working on accounts, organising marketing and so on.
‘The great thing about the Subway system is that I can have full remote access to the store from my home. That applies to the security system, the POS system, the in-store cameras and so on. I can sit at my desk or be making dinner and still watch my store online. I can even email them via the system so that my emails appear on the counter screen. They can email me back or call me or text me - it's very hands-on even when I'm not there.
‘But some things are not a science, like people. I made some mistakes in the early days, hired some people who were not right. I'm a lot less likely now to make those sorts of mistakes. I have got to know my staff now. They are youngsters leading 20 different lives and they have 20 different sets of issues, and I need to see them and meet them as well as talking to them over the phone every night.
‘This business is a very manual thing - you're making food for people, talking to them as you work, building relationships. It's very labour-intensive and there's a lot of communication involved. I think that's one of the things that attracted me. You can turn that contact into a real positive and personalise your business.'
They say that when a new franchisee takes over an existing store, the figures either go up or down. What's happened at Northcross? Mary smiles. ‘At the moment, we're doing exactly the same numbers as last year. I'm pretty satisfied with that, because more competition has come into the area and there are new Subways open on the Shore too, including the one at the massive Westfield mall just five minutes away. But now I feel I'm on top of the routine and am just starting to be able to work on the business, not just in it.
‘That involves all sorts of things. I'm thinking about margins, labour costs, food costs - that's a biggie. Once you've got a really good understanding of how the business operates and the dollars and cents, the information available from the computer system enables you to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your business and the opportunities you have for improving the bottom line. From then on, it's a matter of chipping away at it. For example, I've designed an incentive scheme for the managers around food costs. I've also taken ten hours out of the rosters.'
One thing Mary is particularly enjoying is the marketing side. ‘Getting the local marketing cranked up is exciting because you can see the results immediately. You can see what works and when, and you can also see what not to waste money on. It's a buzz.'
Mary Lambie, television personality, has no regrets about the choices she's made. ‘Mary in the media was one life, Mary in Subway is another,' she says. ‘I don't find it hard to separate the two, but I think some people in the media have difficulty understanding that there can be life after television. There was a point early on, when I was still stressed and trying to come to terms with the business, when the Herald on Sunday ‘outed' me in my Subway uniform on their social pages. Is it supposed to be a comedown to run a small business that employs 20 people and serves good healthy food? What's their problem?
‘The funny thing is that a lot of the kids I employ have never even heard of Good Morning. It's a complete mystery to them when people say, "Didn't you used to be on television?" Yes, I'll use my profile to help build the business - who wouldn't? - but this is who I am now. Not TV Mary but franchisee Mary.'
Mary Lambie is used to pushing herself hard whether raising her family, running marathons, working in the media or, now, managing her Subway business. ‘Being a franchisee is hard graft,' she says frankly. ‘You have simply got to learn the system, understand it and then apply it - properly. Subway has a very transparent system and the checks and compliance structures are rigid. You are checked, rechecked and audited, and I like that - you can get so familiar with a store you let things slip or don't see things yourself that your customers do see. Having that external eye helps you stay sharp and build a better business.
‘The system is nearly foolproof. Yes, it was tough - bloody tough - at the beginning but it was me that needed to get up to speed, not the store or the staff. When I needed help it was there and once I understood how everything fitted together then it all became easier. Now I can actually start to enjoy managing my business.
‘I don't think I'll ever resent paying the royalty, because the resources are first class and those are what you are paying for. The help and support are there if you tap into them but it's up to you how well you work the system. That's what real life franchising is about.'
Asked what advice she would offer other new franchisees, Mary instantly reels off a list - it's obviously something she's thought long and hard about.
- Choose a franchise that really suits you. If you're not into food, don't do food! Choose something that you believe in and that you like.
- If you're buying an existing franchise, before you take it over get in there and work it with the owner. If you're buying a new store, make sure you work in another one. Learn as much as you can.
- Familiarise yourself with the system as fast as possible. Ask lots of questions. People love to help and want to help if you are enthusiastic. I regularly get calls from franchisees I met in the early days asking how I'm doing.
- Find a couple of mentors within the system that you like and can ask anything. Make sure they are good operators themselves. I found two women who I can ring up and say, "How do I do this?" They aren't at all cagey, they say, "This is how we do it and it works for us." People like being a mentor.
- Never ever forget your staff are the backbone of your business. Choose them well, train them well, treat them well. Without them, you're stuffed.
- Finally, never lose sight of the importance of the paying customer. Keeping them happy is what it's all about. The customer is king.
This article was first published in Franchise New Zealand magzine Vol 17 Issue 02 June 2008
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