A clean approach Featured

12:19pm EDT September 28, 2005
There is a delicate art to running a franchise operation, to striking a balance between focusing on growth and focusing on service, to maintaining the integrity of a brand across many, many markets. Anthony “Tony” Strike, president and CEO of Martin Franchises Inc., seems to have found that balance. His company is the franchisor of more than 600 Martinizing Dry Cleaning centers across the United States and throughout the world. And with so many businesses under his company’s control, Strike had to develop a comprehensive, easy-to-understand management philosophy.

“We’re not in the business of running the businesses,” Strike says. “We are coaches and trainers, people who consult and help people run their businesses.”

And that is the bare bones behind Martin Franchises’ management style. The company isn’t hands-on, and it doesn’t micromanage. Instead, it places its trust in the store owners.

“Our feeling is that franchisees run a better store than we can run ourselves, because they are on-premise and focused on the success of that store,” Strike says. “We think our expertise is in bringing franchisees together in a way that works synergistically for everyone’s benefit.”

That highlights two of the main benefits to running a franchise operation — plenty of experience to draw from and the ability to specialize. Store owners are allowed to focus on what they do best —running the store — and Martin Franchises then has the time and resources to do what it does best — focus on the big picture.

And that is revitalizing the Martinizing Dry Cleaning brand. The first Martinizing Dry Cleaning stores opened in 1949, and by the 1960s, there were thousands. But when business started to dwindle, the company stepped back to take stock.

In 1987, it designed a new franchise agreement, offering improved support in the form of marketing and advertising packages, public relations consulting and equipment assistance in exchange for a royalty of 4 percent gross annual sales and an advertising fee of 0.5 percent monthly sales. And it’s taken steps to hone in on its target customer, households with median income of $60,000 or more. Martin Franchises does this by keeping prices pretty average — neither the highest nor the lowest in any market — while providing the best service.

“We’re not going to be the lowest-priced cleaner in a market; we don’t want to be,” Strike says. “That does not give us the revenue we need to provide our customers the service they want. We try to provide an excellent service, excellent quality at a very reasonable price — really provide an excellent value.”

This approach is one of the benefits of more than a half-century of business experience.

“It’s just a question of training,” Strike says. “[It’s from] working with a lot of stores over a long time and a lot of different markets, gaining that experience, sharing that experience between franchisees and developing slowly, over time, that reputation with customers.”

And today, the company is taking that experience and reputation into new areas in the United States and abroad.

“We’ve been around for a long time — more than 50 years,” Strike says, “and a lot of the stores are older stores, so as demographics change and neighborhoods change and stores and shopping centers change, a lot of those old stores are dropping out, closing. It’s just a natural lifecycle, if you will, and we happen to have a lot of stores that are nearing the end of their lifecycle.

“But we’re replacing them with new, high-quality stores in high-growth markets. So the total number of stores happens to be dropping down in the U.S., but it’s just part of a natural growth, a natural process of aging and change.”

But while the number of stores domestically has dropped over the past five years from more than 500 to fewer than 400, the number of international stores has steadily increased from just over 150 to almost 250.

“It’s kind of like pruning in some ways,” Strike says. “We prune the stores that are no longer in the markets or neighborhoods where our key customers are. And try to put in new stores in places where we want them.”

That includes places such as Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Hong Kong, Japan and Germany, in addition to a renewed focus on American cities such as Nashville, Orlando and Phoenix It might sound daunting to target such vastly different areas, but Strike insists that opening foreign markets isn’t all that different from opening domestic markets.

“Right now, our approach to foreign markets would be similar to what we’re doing in the United States, which is that we would like to find franchisees who are capable of opening multiple stores themselves to be the core in any particular market,” he says.

Strike says the biggest challenge to going international hasn’t been a language barrier or cutting through government red tape. The biggest problem has been distance.

“The challenge for us is being able to establish a big-enough presence in any foreign country to be able to justify the overheads involved, to provide support to the franchisees,” Strike says. “It’s more just a question of distance, distance requiring a sufficient size.”

And there are other considerations that go into market selection, whether that market is domestic or international.

“We look at markets which we feel have the potential to handle the growth of our putting in several dozen stores in a market,” he says. “And we look at stores where we have a kind of open territory, without a big presence, where we could find an area developer who really wanted to go in and put in multiple stores themselves, and we could offer them kind of an open field to do that.

“Most of these markets are areas where we’d expect there to be two, three, four area franchisees who would take parts of the market and develop them.”

Once Martin Franchises decides to open a new market, the most important factor becomes finding the right location.

“We look at the demographics, at the quality of the center, at accessibility, we look at visibility, we want to make sure we’re on the correct side of the street, we want to make sure, in short, that it’s easy for our customers to notice us, recognize us and get to us,” Strike says. “We want to provide as easy an experience as possible for them to drop their clothes off and pick their clothes up. We prefer drive-through locations, if possible, and we want to make sure there’s plenty of parking.”

Once markets are selected and store locations opened, the biggest issue becomes quality control. How, with so many different stores in so many different locations, can Martin Franchises guarantee they’re all living up to the Martinizing Dry Cleaning brand and reputation?

Training, training, training, says Strike.

“Working with our franchisees so they know what’s involved in providing a quality service to their customers,” he says. “Its not just about how you clean the clothes, it’s also about how you greet the customer, how you package the clothes, how you take care of them, how you make sure they get the clothes back, a whole variety of things that are involved in providing good customer service. Meeting the customers’ needs, promoting quick turnaround, quick service, all those.

“So what we do is, we train our franchisees and continue to work with them so that they know how to offer all those things at a price that’s reasonable and provides a good value.”

Each new franchisee must go through a training course before opening his or her store. The course consists of one week of both classroom and hands-on training at Martin Franchises headquarters in Loveland, and another 60 to 80 hours of training in the franchisee’s own store.

After the crash course in dry cleaning, headquarters keeps in touch with franchisees through multiple avenues, from annual regional meetings to a toll-free helpline. And the company drops in on owners periodically to see how they’re doing.

“We have regional managers who visit the stores, inspect, do quality checks and work to train the staff at each individual store to learn to recognize quality and produce it,” Strike says.

But there is some room for individuality in the franchise business. Strike tries to ensure that each franchisee has the power to make the business right for them, without straying from Martinizing standards.

“We try to establish a firm set of guidelines as to how to run a store,” says Strike, “And then tailor the implementation of that very specifically with each franchisee, allowing them to make decisions to run their own business.”

Built-in flexibility is essential in managing a franchise, says Strike. Because while there are definite benefits to operating through franchises — the ability to expand quickly, to have many stores and still maintain close contact with each through the owners — there are also disadvantages, namely dealing with varied personalities in an organization that relies on standardization.

“You have to work with multiple personalities to maintain one brand image and one approach to kind of servicing the customer,” says Strike. “And that’s the role that we play — coordinating the efforts of these multiple owners and helping them get the benefits of working together. It’s not easy.”

But that doesn’t matter to Strike. He says Martin Franchises will stay on top by continuing to tweak its approach to helping store owners and keeping everything in balance.

How to reach: Martin Franchises Inc., http://www.martinizing.com