How Don Lowe has adapted to serve a changing market at Franchise Services Inc.

Don Lowe

Don Lowe, CEO, Franchise Services Inc.

Don Lowe used to run a simple business.

“We had a small offset machine, we printed black ink on white paper, and sometimes we would bind it for our customers,” he says. “It was that way for many years.”

Franchise Services Inc., which operates printing and marketing services franchises such as Sir Speedy, Signal Graphics and PIP, did one thing and did it well. For decades, it was enough to grow and remain profitable.

But as the 1990s advanced and gave way to the new century, technology started to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace, and Franchise Services quickly found itself at a crossroads: adapt or risk the long-term welfare of the business.

“The digital world changed our world completely,” says Lowe, the CEO of Franchise Services. “Our role is now to look at new technology and ask ourselves if it’s a threat or an opportunity. If it’s a threat, we decide what to do with it. If it’s an opportunity, we exploit it. It keeps us very busy, but it’s also very good for us.”

Lowe has needed to add new technology and new services to fill the expanding needs of his franchisees’ customer base — which comprises primarily companies with fewer than 50 employees. Facing their own battles for survival in an economic climate where nothing is a sure thing, the businesses in Lowe’s customer base need services beyond printing. They also need full-service marketing support with a heavy emphasis on creating and maintaining a strong Internet presence.

“That is why, over the recent years, we have moved from a print-centric model to one that focuses on both print and marketing services,” Lowe says. “We’ve needed to expand the products and services we offer to our customers. If you think about small business owners, they’re always pressed for time; they often can’t even spend time on building the business because they’re already wrapped up in managing what already exists. So they need help on multiple fronts, and our job is to provide that help.”

Providing that help has required Lowe and his team to listen to franchisees and their customers, and gain an accurate read on the best ways to serve customers in a challenging and ever-changing climate.

Know the game

The biggest game-changer for Franchise Services came in the proliferation of Internet-based communication throughout the ’90s. In the span of about a decade, the primary conveyance for the written word migrated from paper stock to computer screens. Items that were normally sent through the mail over the span of days could now arrive in your email inbox in a matter of seconds. Internally, filing cabinets gave way to servers as a means of storing data.

“A number of the products we were producing for customers moved to the Web,” Lowe says. “Customers could use the Internet to distribute price lists on a daily basis, and even some training manuals migrated to the Internet.

“If you think about it, even business cards, letterhead and envelopes, all that business declined from where it was in the ’80s and into the ’90s, because we don’t send letters anymore, we send emails. That was the first indicator that we needed to start finding some products and services to backfill some of the products and services that were losing traction.”

But to find new areas of growth, Lowe and his corporate leadership team had to get plugged in to what their customers needed in a print and marketing services company. For Lowe, that meant studying trends, and frequent conversations with franchise owners across Franchise Services’ spectrum of brands.

“You have to understand specifically what the customers’ needs and wants are,” Lowe says. “Everything starts with the customer. If you don’t understand the customer requirements, you won’t be able to fulfill them. So you need to listen twice as intently as you speak, so you can determine what those needs and wants are.”

You can look to macro-level observations in industry publications to get a read on the next big technology that could affect your industry. But to understand how your business is changing on a granular level, you have to make trips to the front lines. Sometimes, the change that satisfies the most customers in the shortest amount of time is decidedly low-tech and relatively inexpensive to implement.

When Lowe and his team speak with franchisees, they aim to find ways to better connect their services to customers, with an overall goal of improving the customer experience.

“For example, today we provide mailing services at most of our locations, and that is a direct result of understanding that 65 or 70 percent of what we print ultimately ends up in the mail,” Lowe says.

“So why don’t we go that last mile, provide mailing services to our customers, and even take the printed pieces in the envelopes and take them to the post office? That is an example of why you spend a lot of time figuring out what is happening in the market.”

In addition to frequent dialogue with franchisees, Lowe and his team also gather information from customer focus groups designed to provide feedback regarding whether Franchise Services is meeting their needs, and in turn, the needs of the market in general.

“The thing we always try to remember is we don’t produce anything at the corporate level,” Lowe says. “All of our services are delivered at the franchise-network level. So we have to maintain consistent contact with everyone involved in those relationships, both the franchisees and the customers. There cannot be an ivory tower anymore. If you’re not staying in touch with the customer, you’re not staying in touch with the business.”

Become a change agent

To change with the evolving needs of the market, you need to first construct an organization that is capable of visualizing change and realizing the need for change. At Franchise Services, Lowe developed a change-focused organization by hiring people who aren’t afraid of venturing into unknown territory while at the same time being creative enough to devise new solutions to meet ever-changing customer needs.

“It’s a big reason why you hire first for cultural fit, then worry about the skill set needed to complete the job,” Lowe says. “If the person you hired can’t fit the organization, or if the chemistry just isn’t right, it’s not going to work.

“You might be able to make it work for a short period of time, but you can’t build a company with that type of hiring policy. A lot of people know that Jim Collins wrote the book ‘Good to Great,’ where he talks about the need to have the right people in the right seats on the bus, and it’s true. It’s not necessarily just about having good people. It’s also about having the right mix of people, otherwise the organization is going to fail in the long run.”

If you can find employees who are open to and willing to facilitate change, it then falls on you as the leader of the company to provide an environment where they feel the freedom and flexibility to try new ideas and implement new innovations.

Lowe facilitates an environment that embraces change by developing a strong sense of trust throughout the corporate ranks and extending to the company’s more than 500 franchised locations. He develops and reinforces the trust factor by ensuring that communication remains transparent throughout the organization.

You and your people need high ethical and moral standards, which set the basis for the amount of trust that you can develop between management and employees,” Lowe says. “It’s also important that everyone understands what the goals are. We don’t have a large staff, so it is important that everyone is aligned with the goals, both on a corporate and franchise level.

“So we talk to our franchisees about their goals and aspirations for their business, and their results, and through that, we develop a team spirit. That helps to drive enthusiasm and gets people ready to show up for work and get busy doing what you get paid to do.”

Lowe’s willingness to change and adapt, and find people willing to do the same, has helped maintain Franchise Services as a strong presence in its industry. The company’s franchised locations generated $448 million in sales during 2011.

“There are certain skills that are required in this business, but beyond that, it quite frankly comes down to attitude,” he says. “The people that work well in our environment take instruction, but they certainly also understand the importance of dealing with and satisfying the customers. A lot of what we do comes down to how you adapt to customers and serve their needs, as is the case in just about every industry. A smiling face and a soft voice goes a long way in our business, every bit as much as the professional skills they need to have in order to get their job done at a high level.”

How to reach: Franchise Services Inc., (800) 854-3321 or www.franserv.com

 

The Lowe file

Don Lowe

CEO

Franchise Services Inc.

Born: Shelbyville, Tenn. I grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky.

History: I’ve been in business since I was 12 years old, when I was a paperboy. I’m 71 now, so I’ve been in business for almost 60 years. I’ve been a shareholder of this company for the last 40 years.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Hire good people, keep them informed and trust them. Beyond that, set the bar high for achievement, and make sure they understand your culture and promote it.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Vision would certainly be high on the list. You also need integrity, because people need to follow your lead, and it is very difficult to follow someone you don’t respect. And if your organization doesn’t agree with your vision, you won’t have a fair chance to be successful. Also, working hard is still a great trait in this country. If you work hard, it will put you in good places.

What is your definition of success?

It’s the opportunity to do what I want to do, when I want to do it and with the people who are important to me, and to get our franchise people to do important, meaningful things to help them sustain their businesses.

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