The first year that Judy and Chuck Ruggeri were in business as Fantastic Sams franchisees, their operations manager suggested they might want to do something to boost the morale of their hair stylists and promote group cohesiveness.
That recommendation led to a "fun day" for their employees, who raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation by subjecting themselves to indignities such as getting doused in a dunk tank and taking a pie in the face.
The Ruggeris have participated in a variety of charitable activities in their 12 years in business, enough to have earned Entrepreneur magazine's award for social responsibility in 1999. But they are far from the exception at Fantastic Sams.
The owners and employees of 25 Fantastic Sams shops in the region are involved in charitable activities that range from collecting ponytails to be fashioned into hair prosthetics for young cancer patients to raising funds to build a memorial to World War II veterans.
One franchisee coordinates regular trips to Children's Hospital to provide free haircuts to patients and their families. Women in welfare-to-work programs get free makeovers at Fantastic Sams salons to spruce up their appearance in preparation for job interviews. The salons also raise money through bake sales and penny collection drives.
Franchise owners and their employees have spurred many of the local efforts. With all of the day-to-day responsibilities of running a high-volume service business, why do they do it?
"It's just the right thing to do," says Carol Venzin, who, with her husband, Art, operates DePAC Enterprises, the company that grants Fantastic Sams franchises in Western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia.
"As a group, we believe that assisting the local people is not a Sunday-only deal," says Art Venzin.
The Venzins participate in charitable activities including serving holiday meals at a Salvation Army kitchen and "ringing the bell" at Salvation Army collection points. In fact, they say they have made a habit of public service all of their lives, at various times serving as volunteer firefighters and paramedics, as well as volunteering with groups such as Junior Achievement.
Judging the results
The Venzins and the Ruggeris acknowledge that it's difficult to measure just how much their public service efforts affect the bottom line of their businesses.
"There's no way to tell," acknowledges Carol Venzin.
But the Venzins point to statistics which indicate that those activities are contributing to their success. Eleven of the 25 shops in their territory have reached the coveted $6,000-a-month revenue mark, and nearly half of the 25 are among the top 50 salons in sales in the 1,300-store Fantastic Sams chain.
In any case, the Ruggeris and the Venzins say there are definite intangible benefits. For one, the employees gain a sense of ownership, since many of the efforts are launched as a result of their suggestions. The franchisees, say the Venzins, demonstrate a cooperative spirit that in no small part results from their joint efforts on some of the charitable causes.
Fantastic Sams is by no means alone in its efforts to make community charity part of good business practices.
"Companies appear eager to demonstrate that they are willing to provide society with benefits beyond those resulting from their core productive activities," states a study conducted by Colorado State University.
A full 60 percent of American businesses have some kind of community involvement program, and nearly 80 percent have a volunteer program, according to the study.
Doing good, doing well
At Fantastic Sams, there appears to be something of a circular relationship between public service and business success. The Fantastic Sams operators have embraced charitable activities as an integral part of their business, a factor they believe has contributed materially to their growth.
In turn, their success has offered them an even greater degree of freedom to pursue their public service causes.
"Because we've got a known national brand and because we've got a really good position as the market leader in Western Pennsylvania, that frees up our time to do other things," says Carol Venzin., who is moving on to yet another cause: entrepreneurial education.
She decided that an opportunity exists to educate potential women business owners about franchising as a possible business model. She reached that conclusion after reading an article in a restaurant trade magazine which, while reporting that women are starting businesses in record numbers, noted that few are choosing franchises.
Now, she speaks to groups about franchising as a option for business owners. Among other audiences, she offers her expertise to eighth- and ninth-graders at a program at Seton Hill College that exposes students to business, and she meets with guidance counselors to answer questions about franchising.
Size doesn't matter
While large corporations can use their resources and influence to mount large charitable efforts, the Fantastic Sams franchisees point out that modest efforts can make a difference, and even small companies can have a positive effect on their communities. Ruggeri offers the example of his father, a barber who operated a two-chair shop in Blaw Knox and spent Sundays and Mondays, the days his business was closed, servicing his customers who were in the hospital or otherwise unable to travel to the shop.
Says Carol Venzin, "Probably every company, no matter how small, has a way to do some kind of outreach." How to Reach: Fantastic Sams, www.Fantasticsams-PA.com; Colorado State University e-center for Business Ethics, www.e-businessethics.com
Ray Marano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of SBN magazine.