Franchise Players is Entrepreneur's Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email email@example.com.
Baby, it's cold in Alaska. In Fairbanks, one of three Alaska cities where Mary and Larry Banning own franchise outlets, average winter temperatures hover around 17 degrees below zero. And just days ago, on September 29, Fairbanks reported a record 11.2-inch snowfall, leaving an estimated 7,000 households without power.
In short, Alaska's is a frigid climate that's hot for batteries, light bulbs and various hardware items fueling smartphones, motorcycles and other essential communications and transportation tools. Batteries Plus Bulbs specializes in those items; and it was a good, sound choice for the Bannings back in 2000 when they went looking for a business concept. In Alaska, it seems, a specialty business is the way to go.
Name(s): Mary and Larry Banning
Franchise owned: Batteries Plus Bulbs, in Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks, Alaska
How long have you owned a franchise?
[Mary responding] I chose franchising because it allowed me to be in business for myself, yet have the backing of a team with over 26 years of experience in helping its franchisees achieve their goals. The tools and ongoing support provided behind the scenes is truly remarkable and makes it possible for me to manage a successful business and juggle the everyday tasks of life.
What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
Before I stepped into franchising, I spent my early years specializing in payroll. As software became more efficient in this field, I became more involved in accounting management, increasing the knowledge that allowed me to set up and run [three] businesses with my spouse and partner, Larry.
Why did you choose this particular franchise?
There wasn’t a business like it in Alaska, and both Larry and I were excited by the niche market opportunity. We both saw a need to provide our local communities with simple access to specialty light bulbs, batteries and unique services such as smartphone and tablet repairs. We also knew there was great potential for growth as the battery and electronics environment is ever-changing, as technology continues to evolve
Additionally, Batteries Plus Bulbs had an impressive reputation. We spoke with multiple single and multi-unit franchisees that had nothing but praise for the company and its executive team.
How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
There were costs involved with researching the franchise opportunity, including travelling, touring stores and meeting with the franchisor to discuss all that went into becoming a franchise owner. There were also initial investment costs, including a franchise fee, real estate expenses, inventory, advertising, fixtures/equipment, a POS system and signage; all were necessary expenses in order to get the store open and running.
The dollar amounts have changed since 2001 when we opened our first store, and will vary in each market, but I’d say we invested between $220,000 and $250,000, which is pretty similar to the typical investment cost to open a Batteries Plus Bulbs franchise today.
Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
Originally, all of my research was done on the Internet. As my interest in the concept grew and the thought of owning a Batteries Plus Bulbs store was becoming more of a reality, Larry and I discussed the business opportunity in depth with the company’s franchise development team. What’s great about Batteries Plus Bulbs is that they make it easy for interested, prospective entrepreneurs to understand the franchising process and how their needs-based business model works. Learning about the many benefits owning a franchise could offer us and [learning] that Batteries Plus Bulbs was a rapidly-growing and evolving business proved to be valuable in our decision-making process.
Eventually, Larry and I took advantage of an opportunity to travel to the company’s headquarters in Wisconsin, where we had the chance to visit local Batteries Plus Bulbs stores. The executive staff took the time to meet with us and were beyond helpful in answering all of our questions. We were also pretty impressed by their extensive interview process. They wanted to know that we were committed and dedicated to growing, not just another person they could collect a franchise fee from. Not only were we investing in them, they were investing in us, and they understand that a franchise system is only as successful as its franchisees.
What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
Due to our geographical location, managing the logistics and freight proved to be more challenging than expected -- Alaska is not an easy market to navigate. We worked with Batteries Plus Bulbs’ logistics team to gain some efficiencies when shipping products to our stores from the Wisconsin distribution center.
Creating local brand awareness was also a challenge during our first store opening, as we had not taken advantage of the marketing and advertising assistance that the franchise offers. When opening our next two locations, we definitely took advantage of the media team expertise and worked with them to build an effective media plan that built greater brand awareness in our community.
Another challenge we’ve learned to block and tackle is retaining dependable, reliable employees whom we’ve put hours of training into. Due to the specialized and technical nature of the products we sell, we look for people who have great customer service skills as well as a passion for technology. We’re constantly growing our inventory and services, so we want people to grow with us.
What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
First, be willing to put in the work and hours. You’ll get out of the business what you’re willing to put into it. Running a business and franchise does not come with the typical 40-hour work week, so if you’re truly serious about being an owner, make sure you’re ready to take it on. I do enjoy the hustle and bustle as well as keeping busy doing a variety of things I enjoy. I’ve never been one to simply sit back, but having my family’s support has been a tremendous help.
I’d also advise taking advantage of any resources a franchise provides such as marketing and advertising. It’s important to follow the guidelines set in place since you’re representing a brand and its nationwide network of stores. Batteries Plus Bulbs does a remarkable job of offering assistance to its owners in terms of operations, sales and marketing to help them be successful.
What’s next for you and your business?
We are currently in the process of designing and building a new store for our Anchorage location. We hope to have this new building open by fall of 2016.
We’ve also had the pleasure of turning our business ownership into a family affair. All three of our children worked in our Anchorage store throughout their high school years. Our eldest daughter Amanda returned after graduating college as our regional manager overseeing the daily operations and inventory management of all three of our franchise locations. Our middle daughter Brianna is my accounting assistant, handling all aspects of the stores’ daily accounting needs, and her husband Vance is our Anchorage store manager.
I’ve spent a great deal of time training my family on the various aspects of running a business, and it is with great pride that someday -- fingers crossed, sooner rather than later -- Larry and I can step away to enjoy retirement and watch our family follow successfully in our footsteps.