Some came because their boss is a military veteran. Others made the trip because a son or daughter served. Patty Conti, Vice President and General Counsel of Michigan-based Big Boy restaurants, rolled a colorful booth into the VA’s National Veterans Small Business Conference and Expo for the first-ever Franchising Pavilion in Detroit because, with the region’s unemployment rate over 16 percent, and thousands of veterans seeking work, it was just the right thing to do.
Army veteran and former combat medic Norman Theaker, who drove five hours from northern Michigan, was almost desperate for options after being unemployed for two years. “I was getting to the point where I thought I would have to give up,” he told the Detroit News. But the 53-year-old landed several promising interviews at the hiring fair of the unprecedented event, which included Two Men And a Truck, Aaron’s, FASTSIGNS, Big Boy, the Moran family of companies — about two dozen IFA members bringing in hundreds of opportunities — a franchising platoon of sorts that made up 10 percent of the total number of companies involved.
“I have been amazed at the resumes,” Conti said. “We told our stores to hold off hiring until we could meet with the veterans at this event. We are very serious.” Conti’s colleague Steve Facione said another surprise was the quality of franchisee candidates. “I didn’t come here thinking there would be a lot of [franchisee] leads, but we’re getting two to three serious ones a day,” he said.
Former Army Ranger Sean Oatney, EVP and Director of Sales at SIGNARAMA, knows first-hand the quality of candidates the military develops, having served under Gen. Colin Powell during Desert Storm. “We are meeting a lot of veterans who just never thought of franchising as they begin their civilian lives. One couple wants to start a business together. Franchising is perfect for them,” Oatney said. SIGNARAMA is waiving its franchise fee of $44,500 for a limited number of veterans, in addition to offering discounts that increase with years of military service.
Laura Hanis, wife of Marine veteran Chad Hanis and a new Decor & You franchisee in Grand Rapids, Mich., is an example of VetFran’s effort. Driving three hours to Detroit to participate in IFA’s press conference at the event, she said, “We are very grateful for the opportunity.” Her husband added that military values and characteristics can be found in veterans’ family members. “They get it through osmosis,” he said, thanking franchisors who participate in VetFran.
“We look in at least 750 resumes,” said Aaron’s National Director of Franchise Sales Greg Tanner. “We need managers, and these vets are great candidates. They were willing to take a bullet for their last employer. We would hire them all if we could.”
Another franchisor echoed the sentiment. “If all my franchisees were veterans, it would be ideal,” he said.
“Veterans have the discipline, the core values, the work ethic and the passion that make great franchisees,” said Two Men And a Truck chairwoman and IFA Secretary Melanie Bergeron, who brought a team to both the hiring fair seeking team members and the Franchise Pavilion to meet potential franchisees. “This is a highly qualified, diverse and exceptional group of candidates,” Bergeron said. “It is higher-level than we’re used to seeing at expos. It’s a whole new audience for franchising.”
Earlier this year, VA officials including Sec. Eric Shinseki and Executive Director of Small Business Development Tom Leney asked the International Franchise Association to participate in the Detroit event. Traditionally a small business conference run by the U.S. Army, the event never before included a hiring fair or “Open House” where franchisors could meet candidates. Until the end, no one was sure how many veterans would attend.
A dogged VA Public Affairs team led by Nathan Naylor in Washington and Alysse Mengason in Detroit burned up phone lines and bombarded the blogosphere in the weeks before the event, joining multiple franchise PR teams determined to reach the target audience — the region’s veterans. As TV trucks lined the streets around Cobo Center starting at 5:00 the first morning of the three-day event, veterans started to stream in. By 8:00, still two hours before doors officially opened, thousands of veterans were waiting to register. In the end, nearly 10,000 veterans met potential future employers at Cobo.
“A lot of trade shows are hit and miss, but we have done very well here,” said FranNet’s John Blair, which is moving aggressively to seek veteran franchisee candidates. “A lot of guys here want to work from home. You see vets coming back who just served and need an opportunity to start business lives.”
Finding good candidates was not the only reason to participate. “We realize how important veterans are to what we are able to do in this country. It’s because of those guys that we can put people into business every day,” Blair said.