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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Dick Neff was in charge of a used car lot, he would go to Creative Colors for his vinyl and leather repairs. He liked the company -- and the owners -- so when an opportunity to be a franchisee for the business opened up, he and his wife Jean jumped at the chance. Now, more than 20 years later, the Neffs look back on years of hard work and the resulting accomplishments, and they look forward to enjoying the rewards of a successful franchise business.
Name: Dick and Jean Neff, Creative Colors International
Franchise owned: We own the Creative Colors International territory in Northern and Central Indiana, serving accounts from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Seymour, Indiana.
Q: How long have you owned a franchise?
My wife and I joined the Creative Colors franchise family in July 1991, becoming the first franchisee outside of the Foster family more than 24 years ago.
Q: Why franchising?
I became good friends with Jim and Joanne Foster, the founders of Creative Colors, when I was a client of theirs. I worked in the car business for nearly two decades and was fortunate enough to experience the power of the Creative Colors business model as a customer first. I told them years ago that I’d be “in” as a business owner when they were ready to franchise the business model and that became a reality in 1991. My wife and I jumped at the opportunity to own a business poised for sustained success!
Q: What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?
I have worked in and around the car business since I was 13 years old. As a teenager, I worked at a used car lot and drove cars across Illinois to auctions. I have always been drawn to the auto industry and am thankful the Creative Colors franchise opportunity allows me to use my years of experience to my advantage.
I haven’t always worked with cars, though In 1966, I was drafted to the service and did a series of tours overseas for two years. When I returned, I worked alongside my grandfather in the steel mills before trying my hand at sales roles in the insurance and mutual fund industries. Those early years proved to me I possessed quality sales skills, but something was calling me back to the car business. And thus, I returned to the retail car business by the early 1970s.
I worked in all aspects of the car business, sales, management, part-ownership, etc. and I learned from very successful entrepreneurs. Working in a diverse set of roles within a blue-collar industry and learning from other hands-on entrepreneurs has been critical to my success as a Creative Colors franchise owner.
Q: Why did you choose this particular franchise?
As mentioned above, I was a customer of Jim and Joanne’s when I was running used car lots in the ‘80s. I remember working with one of their first technicians, Hal, and signing him up for about 13 used cars per month. In no time, we had ramped that up to 100 cars per month. I just couldn’t believe the effectiveness and efficiency of the Creative Colors repair and restoration projects Hal was carrying out.
By the early ‘90s, when Jim and Joanne had begun to franchise the business model, my wife and I were ready to launch our own business. Our three kids were off to college and I had reached a plateau within the car dealership world. The time was right for me to buy into the business I believed in so much.
Q: How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?
Like any other franchise system that has endured the test of time, the costs associated with launching a franchise have changed since we launched our location in 1991. Today, the all-in cost to open a Creative Colors International location is roughly $80,000. This cost includes the initial franchise fee, van lease/set up, pre-opening travel/training, insurance, office equipment/supplies, grand opening advertising, and all other start-up costs (inventory, stationery, marketing, graphics, etc.).
Q: Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?
I did my research for 7-8 years by building a relationship with Jim and Joanne Foster and watching a Creative Colors technician work his magic on hundreds of used cars. That’s all the research I needed to do. We had dozens of vendors working with us at the used car lots I ran as a GM and I knew I never needed to explore other options when it came to our automotive repair and restoration vendor.
Q: What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?
There were a couple of key challenges for us when we launched our franchise: limited brand awareness and effective territory coverage. Since we were one of the first to buy into the franchise model in the early ‘90s, Creative Colors was not yet known outside of the greater Chicago area where it was founded. We had to do a ton of leg work to prove to dealers in the Indiana territory we purchased that we could do the jobs we were selling. And secondly, it was difficult for us to prove we were reliable due to human limitations. Our territory is quite large -- extending from central Indiana to Southern Michigan -- and we often had to commute multiple hours a day to service customers in different markets. This became especially difficult in the winter when 1.5 hour commutes could turn into 4 hour commutes.
However, we were able to overcome all of these challenges because we are 110% committed to this brand and the business model. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to own and operate our own business, but we also knew we’d stop at nothing to make it successful - and we have!
Q: What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?
If you want to be successful in franchising, you have to commit yourself fully to what is required to be successful. For us, that meant we had to pick up and sell everything we owned in Chicago in 1992 so we could relocate 90 miles away to South Bend, Ind., and establish and build our new Creative Colors territory. Regardless of the business model, there is no better path to success than 110 percent commitment.
Q: What’s next for you and your business?
I’m 69 years old and my wife and I are very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last 25 years. We have built our business from the ground up and now have more than twenty Creative Colors trucks out on the road each day servicing our customers. Additionally, we have been able to recruit a bright, driven and loyal management team who will one day take over the company.
Today, we rely on our people to run the day-to-day, but always make ourselves available to help our team solve tough challenges. My wife and I have been married for 48 years and live a wonderful and peaceful life. We often travel the country in our motor coach and spend as much time as possible with our three daughters and 11 grandchildren. After spending much of my adult life working 12-14 hour days in the auto industry, I now have the opportunity to enjoy my time with my family and make up on lost time!