How Community Service is at the Heart of this Franchisees’ Business Success

Welcome to another episode of Atlanta Franchise Today with host Leslie Kuban, expert franchise consultant and owner of FranNet Atlanta. Atlanta Franchise Today is dedicated to bringing entrepreneurs and business owners the best practices and tips for their franchise goals.

Today, Leslie is joined by John Barber, who has spent over a decade as a franchisor of several brands. Then in 2015, he joined the SpeedPro franchise as the franchise owner in Norcross, Georgia. John has become one of the top revenue-producing SpeedPro franchises in the United States and is recognized as the SpeedPro brand franchisee of the year for 2020. Most recently, he received a very special honor from the International Franchise Association as Franchisee of the Year for 2021.

Transcription: 

Leslie Kuban:
Welcome to the studio, John.

John Barber:
Thank you, Leslie. Nice to see you.

Leslie Kuban:
You too. That’s quite a trophy case. Congratulations.

John Barber:
Well, I will tell you that there’s no one in team. It’s all of us. I’ve got a fabulous team in SpeedPro Norcross.

Leslie Kuban:
Look forward to unpacking that with you here today. I appreciate you joining. So for our viewers who are learning about SpeedPro for the first time, let’s talk about your business. What do you do and who are your customers?

John Barber:
So SpeedPro, we are a brand that has about 165 locations across the U.S. and Canada. We are 100% franchise. There are no corporate stores or locations. And we basically do great big graphics. We do everything from banners to political signs, to building signs, a lot of vehicle wraps, wall, window graphics. So our customers literally are anybody that needs to communicate branding through wonderful, great big graphics

Leslie Kuban:
Sounds like a fun business.

John Barber:
It is. I didn’t know a lot about it. Years ago in the corporate world, I had big budgets where I bought great big graphics, but I didn’t know a lot about it when I got into the franchise and SpeedPro in 2015. It’s a lot of fun.

Leslie Kuban:
And, but this is not your first rodeo with franchising. I think this is interesting. You had a long history on the franchisor side. Tell us a little bit about your prior background.

John Barber:
I did. I spent close to a decade with multiple brands, primarily in the hospitality and food service industry. And it was really a third career for me. I found franchising through some people that suggested I’d be great at helping develop brands and grow those brands. And I really learned a lot as a franchisor or what we call them the franchising world, a sor. And the natural transition for me later on in my career, about six and a half years ago is I wanted to become a franchisee. I wanted to own my own business, but I also wanted the support of a franchise brand, which we can get into later. But I didn’t want … I wasn’t smart enough to go do it on my own. I wanted to be part of a brand that was already established that I could then step into and help grow. But franchising has been in my blood for probably 15, 16 years now.

Leslie Kuban:
So having come from franchising and worked in a lot of different industries, I mean, you are fully aware that there’s thousands of them. There’s any many of them that you could have chosen, but you chose SpeedPro. So walk us through the criteria list that you had that led to SpeedPro being the one that you wanted to own yourself as a franchisee.

John Barber:
So I absolutely having sold franchises and developed master franchise agreements and worked with FDDs and Item 19 disclosures and all that for a decade. I understood the franchising side of it, but I also understood the criteria that I wanted, which is I wanted to be scalable, one location, as few employees as possible, especially everything I learned in food service. And I wanted to be able to work B2B, not necessarily B2C. I still work with consumers, but my primary business is 99% B2B bankers hours, Monday through Friday. If we’re working on Saturday, trust me, we’re making money. And I wanted a close commute to home. And those were the criteria that I gave to some of my franchise broker friends that were calling me when I left the franchisor world. And they saw me as a potential franchisee. And SpeedPro absolutely met all that criteria for me out of the dozen plus brands I looked at.

Leslie Kuban:
You weren’t coming into this saying I’ve always wanted to own a sign and graphics business.

John Barber:
No.

Leslie Kuban:
And nor did you have any experience in it?

John Barber:
I really did not. That’s true. And my suggestion to anybody looking for a franchise, don’t fall in love with the brand or don’t go franchise a brand that you love and associate with. For example, I could name a lot of brands I probably shouldn’t on here, but let’s just say ice cream generically. There’s some great franchise brands out there in ice cream. Sandwich shops, same thing. I happen to be a regular at some of those franchises and I know the franchisees. But because I love the product doesn’t mean it’s going to fit the criteria I just gave you. So my recommendation is figure out what fits your lifestyle, fits your business acumen or your core competency that you have coming out of whatever your previous career was. Find something that fits your lifestyle, your family, and also fits your economic needs. And look for opportunities in an industry that still has growth potential. Don’t just fall in love with the brand. I love SpeedPro now. I didn’t know anything about SpeedPro when I started my franchise search.

Leslie Kuban:
And I think it’s important for people to see and hear from someone like you, a real live example of this that no, you don’t have to come from that background and it might benefit you if you don’t, because then you don’t get stuck in doing the wrong thing in your business.

John Barber:
In my specific industry, there’s individuals that have the background. And what do they do? They want to set up jobs and run printers. No. I want to hire people to do that so I can be out growing the business, involved in the community, building relationships and bringing business in. I’m a servitude leader as a SpeedPro. We’re there to serve others first and foremost, and we do it through great big graphics. So for me, I’m still a doer. Leslie, you know that. You’ve known me for a long time. But I also can get out of the way and let my team run the business so that I can help lead the business.

Leslie Kuban:
Yeah. Yep. So you’re doing great now, and I can’t wait to dig into some of your successes. I think there’s a lot to learn from that, but before we go there, let’s go back to 2015 when you went from franchisor and now you’re on the other side. You’re a franchisee. It’s not all roses. Not every day is great. There’s a learning curve, and oftentimes people find they have some humble pie to eat. So do you remember in those early days, just what was harder than you thought or any mistakes that you made?

John Barber:
How much time do we have? All kidding aside, it’s easy to collect a paycheck every two weeks working for somebody else, whether it’s a corporation or a small business. When you have to live and breathe your own business, especially in a franchise 24/7, it’s very, very challenging. I came in as a partner in an existing business that was struggling. Had a fabulous partner, super nice guy, but he was smart enough to understand that my skills complimented his and the things he was great at that I didn’t know anything about, like large format printing. So those days, I would take any $25 order. I was chasing any bit of business. We just needed to bring customers in the door. And it was very difficult because why would somebody come to us when they already had a relationship? But I found over time and this will help in any industry in every business vertical and any franchise.

John Barber:
There’s two key metrics that I focused on to dig our way out of it. And it took a long time, Leslie. It didn’t happen overnight either. There were some 16 hour days. I mean, there really were and collecting money on Friday so we could make payroll on Friday afternoon. I mean, it was pretty tough, but there’s two key metrics that I’ve lived by for a number of years. Order accuracy and on time delivery. If you deliver that at a fair price in any industry, in any franchise, you will get rewarded with more referrals and more business and repeat customers if you treat people fairly with dignity and respect, and you have order accuracy to the spec and it’s on time delivery, especially in the event business like I’m in.

John Barber:
We do a lot of major events. If you have a half a million dollar wedding on Saturday, those graphics better be right when they’re picked up at 5:00 on Friday. But yeah, it was … there were a lot of challenges early on, and I think that’s any startup business. You just have to be willing to put in the hard hours to get to the end zone and eventually reap some of that benefit reward. And I’m very fortunate. I have great people. I can’t say that in enough.

Leslie Kuban:
Do you remember just kind of thinking back into that, those early months, when you entered a struggling business. There’s cleanup that has to be done. In those moments of did I do the right thing, how did you persevere through any of those maybe moments of questioning if you did the right thing?

John Barber:
It happens all the time. At one point, I had seven different businesses going, including SpeedPro. But SpeedPro is where I primarily work with my employees. Two words come to mind. You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize and prioritize. You have got to be able to prioritize what matters and what will have the biggest impact for what I call the return on effort, not investment, but the return on effort of your time. Time’s finite. There’s only 24 hours in a day. And if you have 30 things on the plate like most franchisees do every day, and not all of them are directly related to you selling or running your business, right. You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize and get blocks of time to focus and knock things off the list. But more importantly, prioritize which ones are on the top of the list. And I think that works for in your family life, your business life, relationships, you name it.

Leslie Kuban:
Well, now let’s fast forward seven years later. Here we are. And you are acknowledged by your franchise. You’re acknowledged by the International Franchise Association. And that’s a big deal. I’d like to talk about that a little bit here.

John Barber:
Okay.

Leslie Kuban:
So IFA franchisee of the year. So tell us a little bit about what that award is, what the criteria are for it.

John Barber:
Well, there were four categories if I remember, and this was recent. It just happened in the last couple of months, and completely humbled. I mean, you can’t even get on a stage like that in front of that many people to receive an award without a great team of people around you. Right? I mean, I’m not an army of one. I’m an army of my team, and I just wear a different hat and I lead. I was selected for community involvement. And back in COVID, I think all of us … none of us knew what was going to happen. We didn’t know what we were dealing with. I went to my team and said, “Maybe we should shut down.” We went from being super busy, January, February, finished up those jobs March of 2020. And then in April, we had nothing.

John Barber:
And my team said quote, “Boss, we want to stay in the game.” I said, “Okay, then we’re going to utilize our tools and resources in the vehicle called SpeedPro. And we’re going to do something for the community.” So we started producing just little yellow signs that said, I’m open, drive through open. This was primarily for food service, pickup available. None of us knew where we could go. And especially in strip centers with a restaurant that was set back off the road. So we just went out and started. We printed 300 of them, just gave them away. And we did leave our card. Some people were scared of us when we walked in. I said, “No, we’re here to help.” But we did that.

John Barber:
And then that resulted in another project with a friend of mine and a customer. We started the program called Heroes Work Here, and we ended up donating about 235 eight foot signs to medical facilities, police stations, senior homes, fire departments. I mean, they were splattered all over Atlanta, and we got recognized for just donating and giving back to the community to help. We did do some financial contributions to help in COVID, primarily in Gwinnett County where my franchise is located.

John Barber:
And then one more thing I was asked to do, and by all means I was the smallest participant. But five companies, including SpeedPro Norcross, my studio. We’ve had 26,000 meals to displaced food service workers on Easter weekend of 2020. We had 85 volunteers. John Albers, one of our state reps where I live over in the Milton, north Fulton area, helped me communicate with downtown Atlanta. We closed off four streets in midtown by Cafe Intermezzo. William Pitts, good friend of mine and customer coordinated this. And we had 12 police officers assigned. It was amazing. And I was recognized for jumping in and really helping in the middle of COVID.

John Barber:
And really because I had a vehicle called SpeedPro that allowed me to take the business from making money and giving back to the community. And it resulted in … In the end of 2020, we ended up having a record year out of our … that would’ve been our 12th year in business. And it became a record revenue year in the middle of COVID. So sometimes do the right thing when nobody’s looking, and don’t expect anything in return. And we were rewarded handsomely with a lot of accolades and awards like IFA.

Leslie Kuban:
And awards and new business. That’s just amazing. And this is a really tangible example of how owning a small business gets you close to your community and allows you a vehicle to have real impact, and that’s something. In my work, I work with a lot of people who’ve been on airplanes, and they work in big companies and they feel very disconnected to the community around them. And what a great story of how you … owning a small business can allow you to do that.

John Barber:
I’ve been in really big business, huge business, Fortune 25 companies all the way down to I’m a single unit operator. I’m not a multi-unit franchisee at this point, and nor will I probably ever be. But the fact is big or small, we all can play our part. And there are so many phenomenal franchisees. There’s 800,000 franchisees in this country, according to IFA, International Franchise Association. I’m one. I’m just one, but every one of us can take the vehicle or the brand we have and contribute and give back. And what I found both as a franchisor and now a franchisee, those owners, those franchisees that really become part of their community get rewarded with business.

Leslie Kuban:
So, John, what do you say to that guy or that gal that really yearns to own their own business and the benefits of that, but they say, “Well, I’m not a networker. That’s not my, that’s not my deal.” What do you say to him or her?

John Barber:
That’s a tough one. I don’t want to be an infomercial for some of the networks I’ve been a part of, but I have been a part of Business Networking International, BNI. And in the early days, I was a pretty good salesman way back, but I don’t want to go knock on doors. I don’t want a cold call. It’s just not who I am today, but you have to grow your business. There are vehicles and tools out there in network groups where in your seat, in your lane, you can join that network group and have … In my case, I had 40 to 45 other sales people that were representing me and I was representing them. And they really helped me grow my business in 2016, ’17, ’18. I just left that group three weeks ago after six years, because we’re so busy now. But I’m still in touch with many of those individuals.

John Barber:
You don’t have to be a great salesperson, a great network or a great financial person, but it sure helps if you have a well-rounded background. And if you don’t, I strongly say number one, make sure you understand the financials and the unit level economics of the franchise as you’re going through the process and going through your FDD or franchise disclosure document. Make sure you at least understand those economics. From a networking standpoint, if you build it, they will come. You got to work it. I’m going to be honest with you. You got to work it, but you don’t have to do it alone.

Leslie Kuban:
And I think the message of your story is you’ve got to get out in the community. You’ve got to network. You’ve got to give to your community, and that’s going to take some time and money up front. But what it returns to you is well worth it, not just in dollars and cents, but how you go to bed sleeping. We’re going to start to wrap up, and I do have a due diligence question for you. And thinking back to your journey when you were considering SpeedPro and making the leap from the other side, from working in a big company to now being a small business franchise owner and someone … If someone’s in those shoes right now, and they’re in that process, what is your advice as to questions that person needs to ask themselves? What do they need to be honest about with themselves to help them determine what the right thing to do is?

John Barber:
Well, I knew I wasn’t going to play golf for a while. Let’s put it that way. That’s a great question. And I think that’s probably the million dollar question for anybody going into a Franchise or any business. And you have to have the wherewithal. Number one, you have to have the desire, the passion and the drive. And you have to understand that it’s not a 40 hour a week job. I mean, I remember one day at SpeedPro where I got up at 2:00 in the morning and I stopped work at midnight. It was just flat out. I remember the day very, very well. But I would say that you got to ask questions to yourself. One, at this point in my life, am I willing to try and start a new business?

John Barber:
Number two, you have to be very honest that it’s your responsibility. It’s not the franchisor’s ultimate responsibility for your success. You are responsible for the decision to buy a franchise and then to take the tools that franchisors give you and be successful and work those tools. And that’s not easy, especially for somebody like me who had spent many years in the corporate industry surrounded by all kinds of people doing all kinds of skills in functional departments. But if you really ask the tough question, are you willing to put in the time it takes, and it might be a year. It might be three years. It might be five years to get to your ultimate goal. I can tell you that the reward at the end of that is so worth it. Owning your own business, being part of a brand franchise.

John Barber:
I can send an email today. This is a little plug. I can send an email today and I can have 200 people see that email. If I have a problem at SpeedPro and my brand, my franchise partners, other studio owners, and my franchisor will answer me back. I’ll get five to 10 answers back on how to handle that. And that’s not just because I’m in a national brand. That happens in franchising period. We help each other. We are part of the same industry irregardless of the brand that we represent. I don’t view anybody as a competitor in printing, because I have 400 other wholesale print companies that I print for. But yeah, you got to ask yourself that tough question. That’s a great one.

Leslie Kuban:
You got to be honest about the level of work.

John Barber:
Got to be honest.

Leslie Kuban:
The work that it’s going to take, and it might be taking a step back in the short term to take a bigger step forward in the long term, and someone … they’ve got to be prepared for that. And they’ve got to be in a position where they can, and their family is supportive of them to do that.

John Barber:
Yeah. And there’s a lot of franchises that I’ve seen and franchisees that a husband, spouse, partners go into it together so they can help compliment each other early on. And I’ve seen that model work quite a bit. My wife would rather be playing golf than being at SpeedPro, and that’s fine with me, but because we did work together at one point in our careers. But yeah, it’s … Listen, the benefits at the end of owning your own business and then being a part of a franchise brand that’s proven, it eliminates a lot of the error and a lot of the concern of starting a business from scratch completely on your own. I am a huge advocate of franchising.

Leslie Kuban:
You’ve had a long career on both sides of the fence.

John Barber:
I have.

Leslie Kuban:
And you’re being acknowledged and rewarded for that.

John Barber:
Thank you, Leslie.

Leslie Kuban:
Well, I’m so pleased to have you back, and congratulations on your success and your contributions, and you’re being acknowledged for it.

John Barber:
Well, I am blessed and I am fortunate, and I’m just going to ride this out and continue to try and do good things in the community. But thank you very much for the time today. I hope this helps somebody out there.

Leslie Kuban:
I believe it will for sure. Thanks for joining.

John Barber:
You bet.

Leslie Kuban:
Folks, thanks for joining me on another episode of Atlanta Franchise Today. I’m Leslie Kuban, and I look forward to seeing you again next week.


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