Gary Robins is a Supercuts franchisee operating over 60 locations in the US. He is also president of the Franchise Advisory Council of SuperCuts, and a board member of the International Franchise Association (IFA) and the Coalition Franchise Associations. He recently sat down with Taj Adhav, founder of Leasecake, to learn more about his journey in franchising, and his best practices, tips, and tricks for success to share with other franchisees.
How did you get started in franchising?
Gary Robins: Well, as I’ve been in franchising for over 30 years, and I’ve always been a believer in franchising. I’ve had a number of businesses over the years in retail, in food, service, in entertainment, in travel, but I’ve always gravitated towards franchising. I’m a believer in peers and mentors, and learning from the success and failures of other people, and copying their success. And that’s the beauty of franchising, isn’t it? It’s a lather, rinse, repeat.
You know, part of the story of franchising is the service, and giving back to franchising, whether that’s serving on the board of the International Franchise Association, or the Coalition of Franchisee Associations, or on my brand board, the SuperCuts Franchisee Association. Many years ago I took the path of getting engaged in franchising because I was a believer in it, and I wanted to protect it. I think it’s a great place to start an entrepreneurial career for anyone, and when you engage yourself in franchising, whether that’s in the industry through the industry associations, or whether it’s in your Franchise Advisory Board, you get the opportunity to meet the other leaders, the other thought leaders in franchising, and that has certainly helped my business. I urge you to get involved in the franchising community, in the franchising industry.
So what was that moment that you said, “Hey, let me let me open a franchise?” And why did you choose Supercuts of all the available franchises?
Gary Robins: There’s a lot of criteria that you have to go through in order to select the right brand. Before I started a Supercuts, one of my other businesses was video stores. I had a few West Coast video stores.
And one day, I’m reading Time Magazine, and video stores were on the cover of Time Magazine, and the article said that all the video stores will be gone because of technology. I knew it was a dying industry, and I knew that I had to choose a new business to go into and I didn’t know what we were going to do.
I had a list of criteria for looking for, things that I wanted in a business and things I didn’t want in the business, based on my prior experience. For example, I was in the travel business and had accounts receivable, and I couldn’t collect money. So I wanted a cash business where whatever service or product we’re providing we’re gonna get paid for at that time of service.
Because of what happened with the video business, I was cautious of finding a business that wasn’t gonna be impacted greatly by technology in a relatively short period of time. There was half a dozen other criteria, too, that I was applying to it, and I was looking at 20 different businesses.
Geography was included in the screening. I actually looked at Mcdonalds, and they said, “Sure, you can do McDonalds, but you gotta go to Russia.” So that was out.
Another criteria was I wanted a business that I could work on, not in. I’ll go back to some of my other businesses when we were much smaller, and if someone would call out, or something would happen, I would go in, and I would do the work of the business. I would be standing behind the counter. I would be taking travel reservations or in the. And when we were in some of the food service business I would be working behind the scenes there. I would actually be on the front line, working, covering shifts, doing schedules, whatever those things, the work of the business there. So I realized the power of working on it rather than in it.
So I was looking at 20 different businesses. If you’d asked me to rank them from one to 20 I would have ranked hair salons number 21. I had no intention whatsoever of getting into the hair salon business, but as I ran this criteria over and over, and then narrowed it down to 5 and Supercuts (no pun intended) made the cut.
It was really an objective analysis. There were business owners that were open and sharing, and the leadership team that I met at Supercuts shared my values and culture which was important, because it’s easier to get divorced than it is to get out of your franchise agreement.
Unit economics was certainly a big consideration, as well as the brand, and the operational simplicity. I needed something very simple and easily repeatable to execute on. So if it’s a very complicated business, that would not be something for me, and certainly the brand health and culture. Those were all factors that went into choosing Supercuts.
Who has the power in franchising?
Gary Robins: I believe the real power of franchising is the other franchisees. Whatever challenge you may be experiencing, somebody else has already been through it. When you join a franchise system, you have one unit, your very first one, and now you’re in the club with the people with 10, 20, 50 units. You can learn from their successes and their failures.
I’ve always been a big believer in peers and mentors, and that’s why I think franchising is such a great place to start an entrepreneurial career, because you automatically get peers and mentors, and you can learn from the wisdom of others.
Franchising takes some things off of your plate. If I were to do this on my own, whether it was in the salon business or another industry, I’d have to worry about designing the store, marketing, and every other aspect of the business.
Franchising brings a lot of resources to the table that frees you up to take your capital and apply it to growing faster. Yes, you probably could do all that on your own, but because you’d be sidetracked by all the other things that need to take place in order to be able to grow. It’s really easy to start a business, but it’s really hard to continue to run it and grow it.
Let’s talk about Growth. You say there are 3 avenues to growth in a franchise – can you expand on that?
Gary Robins: We’ve targeted growth in 3 areas: 1) organic growth, which is to build new stores; 2) increase same store sales; and 3) acquisition of other units from another franchisee.
Each one of those makes up a percentage of our growth at any given time. So early on, we were targeting growth rates of 20%. So if we knew we wanted to grow 20%, we needed to figure out how we were gonna do it.
Right now in the walk in non-appointment hair salon business, there’s not a lot of organic growth out there. So we’re focused on same store sales. And we’re focused on acquisitions to keep ourselves growing.
We have to grow, and we’re gonna keep growing aggressively, mainly for 3 reasons. One, you have to keep your competitors at bay. If you’re not growing, your competitors are growing against you, and they’re going to want to take your market share. And more importantly, today, they’re gonna come after your employees. So you have to keep your competitors at bay.
The second reason to keep growing is that over time we’ve become more efficient as a company. The way you’re doing things in the company can break down as you grow larger and larger. For example. when you have maybe 5 locations or 50 employees, how you do payroll is not gonna work when you have 20 locations and 200 employees. That system, whatever it may be, will break down. You will fix it, and it will become more efficient. That efficiency will flow to your bottom line over time so you can continue to grow.
But the number one reason beyond all other reasons, that we have to keep growing is because the best people want to work at growing companies, where they have a chance for a bigger future for themselves and their families. That’s where the best people want to go. And you need to create that opportunity and that security for the best people. If I went to my people and told them we’re just not gonna grow anymore, all my best people would scratch their heads and question it. And all my mediocre people would cheer.
You have to keep growing to keep your great people and create an opportunity for a bigger future for them. Because that’s where the great people want to work.
Let’s talk about your locations, and more specifically your leases. How do you manage them and how do you stay on top of all the important dates and details across your 60 locations?
Gary Robins: Real estate is so important to business success. One mistake that new franchisees make is they don’t learn the real estate market in their area. They don’t build relationships with the landlords and the brokers in the market. They sort of leave it to the franchisor, and I think that’s a huge mistake.
Real estate is far too important to leave to someone else in those relationships with the brokers and the landlords. Get in the car, do the broker tour and have lunch with them, and have a dialogue and communication with your landlords on a regular basis.
I think a third, if not half, of our real estate today is because of landlord and broker relationships that we’ve cultivated over years. As the business owner, I did not leave that to someone else. And because of the strength of those landlord and broker relationships, when that landlord built that new shopping center with the Target and the grocery store, and every single one of my competitors called to be in that shopping center, we were the ones because we weren’t just a lease. We had a relationship with them.
How do you find the right locations, beyond building relationships with your brokers and landlords? How do you know if a potential space is going to work for you?
Gary Robins: I think the saying in real estate, which you all know is location, location, location.
I think, in the salon business, it’s manager, manager, manager. The managers have a major impact on the success or failure of the salon. We have salons that are in the corner of a shopping center, and we put a great staff and a great manager in there, and we build a business.
No matter how good your site is, though, if you take the number one site in America, and you put a lousy staff and a lousy manager in there, you’ll fail. I don’t want to say that’s unique to the salon business, but it has an outsize impact on the salon business.
Choosing locations is art and science. The science has to line up: the demographics, the population, the traffic counts. But there’s also the art of it. When my kids were a little bit younger, we would go to a potential site and we would go into the supermarket, and we’d walk up and down the aisles. And I would ask my kids, “Is that our customer? Do you think that’s our customer? Is that our customer?”
Nothing replaces driving the neighborhoods and going to the other businesses, and seeing if that’s your customer, that’s the art of it. And so the combination of the 2, the art and the science, and they are both really important in finding the right locations. Which is very important before you decide to open another store.
Do you have any tips for improving efficiency as you grow?
Gary Robins: Systems break as you grow, and as you fix them, they become more efficient. Lease management is a perfect example. When I look back on those first few leases, all I did was put the lease end date in my Outlook calendar. Well, you can only do that so long before that breaks down. You can’t have 30 leases in your Outlook calendar.
So then, at some point, you have maybe 10 locations, so you put it on a spreadsheet. As you continue to grow, you grow beyond being able to manage your real estate on a spreadsheet. It breaks down. You miss a date.
Today, if you miss a lease date for renewal, and given the huge demand for space, there’s a very good chance that that landlord might re-lease that space at a much higher rent than what you’re paying right now.
You can’t leave that to a spreadsheet anymore. You’re risking a lot. And I went through the same thing, and I learned the hard way. Our old systems of Outlook calendar reminders and spreadsheets both broke down, because there’s a lot of things that happen in real estate management.
Today, with the size of our organization, we have many people who are accessing our Leasecake database. It’s one central place for everything For insurance certifications, for licensing, for our maintenance people who need to see the HVAC contracts. It’s simply not possible for us to do it without a system. So we’ve become more efficient.
We needed to have a strong systems in place to manage our real estate, not just for lease dates, but for many other things, and that’s where Leasecake has helped us tremendously.
My only advice to anyone considering it is that I wish I’d started earlier, because lease management software, it will help you. And it has helped us, and it can make you more efficient, relieve some burden relief, some stress. As a leader of your company, you will be able to delegate things that you’re that you’re doing that you’re doing right now to someone else.
Because they’ll have access to the information, and there will be one common area where everyone can go. It won’t be in a lease file in your house like it was for me for so long.
This just happened yesterday. The landlord was trying to collect, and said we had passed through rent, and. I knew we did the amendment. But we went right into the lease management software, pull up the information, and the problem was solved in under 2 min. Whereas in a lease file, hunting for the right thing without Leasecake would have taken 2 hours for us.
Somebody in the office always needs some sort of information, and because they all have access to the data in Leasecake, we have a 3 hour problem solved in 3 minutes.
What advice do you have for finding new locations?
Nothing trumps the landlord relationships, or even the broker. We operate in a bunch of different markets, so we have a few different brokers. But I have relationships with our brokers, because when I need them, when they’re building the new Target center, we need to bring their influence and their resources to make sure we’re the hair salon chosen.
If you’re not sure which broker to work with, it’s easy enough to find out. Just drive around, and you see who represents most of the shopping center. You do have to be a little bit careful sometimes, if the broker is representing the landlord and you at the same time. You want to make sure that both interests are being served appropriately. You want to make sure that the right language is in the lease, like making sure that the landlord has the responsibility to have appropriate snow removal or whatever other concerns you have.
What was your “aha” moment? What triggered to help you scale and have this growth mindset?
Gary Robins: There’s been so many Aha! Moments, but I can tell you to this day, when we’re negotiating letters of intent or leases, there’s about 5 or 6 things that we need. We know from experience that we need to get into lease that are nuanced, and we can just pull up the lease really quick inside Leasecake, then copy and paste into our document.
At some point a few years ago, I was managing the day to day of the business, and unfortunately, I had an event in my life where I had to step away from the business for over a year. But I kept my finger on the pulse of the business, and as I was away, the business kept getting better and better. And when I came back, then the business started going down, down, down, down. And that was my “Aha! Moment”.
It was the difference between leadership and management. When I started the company, there was one store. You can picture that org chart in your mind. It was Gary as President, and reporting to Gary was Gary, the director of real estate; and Gary the finance director who reports to Gary. As we grew, over the years I put people in those positions, but I never left the box with them. I was managing them. I was in their box, and they wanted to make Gary happy.
When I had to step away I actually had to step out of their boxes, and what they happened to do is they all lined to the top box, which is Gary, the leader of the company, and then everybody was rowing in the same direction, at the same cadence. And that was a point that accelerated our growth.
I’m not saying I’m a great leader, but the skills of leadership and management are different. The skills of management are perishable. My role as a leader is always working on my leadership skills. Leadership is very intangible. When you’re a manager, the whole world revolves around you. Look at all you achieve today with leadership, it’s more intangible.
I’ve moved to a leadership strategy of developing our people and trying to make them successful, focusing beyond my own self interest on their growth and development. And that turned us into a kind of a development company today.
What advice would you give for other potential franchisees?
Gary Robins: There’s a secret to franchising with your franchisor, and that secret is to get your franchisor to do things for you. Because they want to, not because they have to. They want you to succeed.
You want to develop constructive relationships with your franchise partners so that they do things for you because they want to, not because they have to.
My other advice is to engage and learn with other franchisees, share everything, you know. I’d even share it with your competitors, who are other franchisees, who you’ve developed relationships with because it’s all about the execution, you know. I’ll give you all my ideas, and all the great things we’re doing. Let me see if you can execute them, because by the time you’re around executing them I’m on to the next idea.