21st Century Franchising, Watershed Changes
Within the next 15 years we will see dramatic changes in the franchising business. Today the business is saturated with “me too” so-called concepts that lack adequate business model legs to survive even at marginal profitability through the life span of their franchise agreements. Their FDDs are fiction and fantasy, and those who buy them lack relevant sophistication for small business investment (to put it mildly). In plain English, they are sold to fools who sign ridiculous draconian franchise agreements critically lacking in merit level consideration. Soon they are whining to be let out of the deals as realities they could have discovered pre-investment descend upon them and they recognize the terminality of what they did. This will begin to change.
The franchise business cannot grow on toxic deals that are just myths designed to fleece morons. The world does not need any more pizza, hamburger, sandwich, Mexican, Asian, ice cream, cake and fruit stores, print shop, single product, all other kinds of retail stores franchises. When what is sold through a franchise system becomes available through alternative distribution channels that do not pay franchise relationship expenses, or over the Internet, franchisees are detrimented and lose investment value. Anytime a franchise is configured so that the franchisor gets paid your revenue stream and then deducts what you owe from that and remits the rest to you, you will be robbed into bankruptcy. Moreover, every time it is suggested that some new government program is afoot, someone designs a fantasy concept to fit it. Someone is now, for instance, selling franchises in which the mythical profit opportunity is based entirely upon Obama care being upheld by the Supreme Court. Even if it is there will not be sufficient funding to cover the care services that will be provided, a return on that investment plus revenue sufficient to cover to costs of being someone’s franchisee.
The Old Model franchise business provided a living for legions of franchise lawyers who were essentially clerks grinding out template franchise agreements and FDDs, many hundreds of whom are now walking the streets looking for law jobs, presenting resumes that show they spent the last ten years being overpaid clerks. The economic meltdown we are now enduring has impacted franchising as well.
So what should we expect the next phase of franchising to become. Here is my take on it.
Investor quality will change. Fewer investors will charge into buying a franchise without competent pre investment deal due diligence assistance. The horror stories are now so pervasive that greater care will be taken before betting the farm on someone’s optimistic descriptions of so called “concepts”. To be sure, there will always be suckers, which means there will always be bozo franchise deals to be sold to them. As long as there are sheep there will be wolves.
But more intelligent franchise investing will mean that only revenue credible franchise opportunities will attract financially responsible operators. Revenue credibility will have to be demonstrated in the sense that there is a provable track record of financial success after the costs of being a franchise are accounted for – all the costs of being a franchise, not just those specified in what is laughingly called today a Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD). Franchises today that describe themselves as having a franchising expense of 10 % to 13 % of gross sales are in reality at 20 % to 25 % of gross sales. Such franchises have no legs and will only bankrupt investors.
Smarter buyers will force changes to the draconian terms of today’s franchise agreements. Among the clauses that will be modified or eliminated will be those that tie in purchases, that run revenue through the franchisor’s hands before the franchisee gets his share, that provide for so called liquidated damages upon termination, that prohibit group dispute resolution proceedings, that force acknowledgment that representations made were really not made at all, and no reliance provisions. Intelligent investors will refuse to accept terms that put them in a serious bind should things not be as represented. Courts will refuse to allow enforcement of contract provisions that exonerate fraud through the artful use of language. Bad facts will cause a re-examination of just how sacrosanct contract language has to be. It may be that this carve out is limited to franchise investment cases of certain profiles, but some way will be found to curb the “license to steal” provisions that are today in every franchise agreement.
Life cycle characteristics will become a more aggressive segment of due diligence. No one will any longer rely on the fairy tales told in franchisee interviews, as it is now sufficiently obvious that franchisees rarely tell the truth to prospective investors for many very valid reasons, including fear of franchisor retaliation. Expectations that franchisee associations will provide a reservoir of truthfulness for investors may not come to fruition in the next 15 years. The problem with that is that truthfulness is not attractive if it would result in making it more difficult for franchisees to sell their franchised businesses. Franchisees should not be expected to act contrary to their perceived interests in order to protect third parties. Will that aid and abet franchise fraud? Of course. The solution to that issue will again come only from competent deal due diligence in addition to legal due diligence. Those who offer only legal due diligence will find it harder and harder to attract franchise investor clients.
People will more maturely recognize that so called government regulation of franchising is a myth and that they conduct competent pre investment due diligence or face failure. Were it otherwise we would not just now be exposing the massive “liar loan” schemes in which franchisors insert fraudulently inflated financial performance information into the SBA loan application process to enable SBA backed bank loans for franchise offerings that haven’t the slightest possibility of providing return on investment. Similarly, realists will no longer expect real government assistance in improving the quality of franchise pre investment disclosure or of franchise relationship abuse restraints. Investors will know that if the franchise provides the franchisor the right to be a predator that is precisely what will happen. The vehicle for most of these changes will be the more substantial investors who can afford multi unit and area development deals. Single unit investors will continue not to have the bargaining power to get the best terms or the best deals. The single unit investor will continue to be the victims of franchise charlatans more often than not, as single unit investors tend to fail to purchase competent deal due diligence help.
Established multi unit operators often buy area deals from new or recent franchisors, believing that they know how to make the business model work and won’t suffer if the newbie franchisor isn’t up to speed on support. With all the bottom feeding going on in 2012, it should be expected that good operators may take advantage of the difficulty of a brand and buy it for nickels and dimes. Any new owner with franchise knowledge knows that you can always find ways in today’s franchise agreements to squeeze more money out of the franchisees, and that if you squeeze them to death that really isn’t much of a loss. The acquiring good operator company can take those locations and convert them to their brand. Those locations can be had with a mere swap of releases in most instances, as the starveling franchisees would see a walk away as a positive event compared to having to pursue bankruptcy as the way out of the franchise agreement with its liquidated damages and personal guaranty clauses.
When the new crop of toxic guaranteed failure franchise concepts dries up over the next ten years this will become less of a factor. Some of these going broke franchise systems are also conducive to money laundering by narco traffickers as well as a front system for drugs distribution itself. One day someone will do an expose on the use of decay stage franchise systems by narco traffickers.
By 2030 I expect to see franchising have a different and better look. It will be harder to bring a franchise to market, so only better franchises will make it. Charlatan franchise consultants who tout that anything can be franchised in order to get people to hire them to help franchise their businesses, usually drop outs from past over the hill franchise companies, will be less and less credible as they are exposed for over selling the ability of any franchise company to extract large extraneous revenue streams out of any franchise system, regardless of its success in attaining any significant measure of growth. More of these guys would already be defendants except that they usually are judgment proof and not worth suing.
There will be very few viable new franchises. The good ones will be extremely rare. Indeed, the good ones are already extremely rare, as certain popular categories are already too overcrowded and price sensitive to be investment worthy. That includes the all time favorites in the fast food business. None of them is worth having. The few good ones are not being franchised, like Chipotle Grill for instance.
Toxic new franchises will tend more to lean toward technological themes and be sold to nerds with no business savvy. You have to be really stupid to buy a food franchise today, or to buy any franchise that is already 20 years old. The few good old ones are bought by existing operators when they become available, and new buyers never get a chance to buy them. Why allow a resale to a newbie when someone who already has a positive operating history in that same franchise is willing to buy it?
Vulture capitalists are securitizing old franchise agreements in moribund companies and categories. Our obvious Republican Presidential candidate’s company Bain Capital is scamming the public into buying stock in over the hill Dunkin Donuts, saying that this regional geriatric has new life in expanding westward. That ought to be a great lesson in what not to invest in. Bain reaped millions in fees; risked nothing; and the price of the stock is already crumbling. It is the franchise version of the mortgage backed securities scam that created so much damage in 2008. If Lord Romney becomes President, this will be his legacy to franchising.
One could posit that, having learned nothing from the mortgage backed securities fiasco, franchising is headed for its own royalties backed securities disaster, and that is certainly not unlikely. If so, the ball should drop within the next few years. It is unfortunate that evil begets evil until the roof falls in, but so it seems goes life these days. This is the kind of abuse that I expect to assist in turning the market in franchising from a thieves market into a more rational market over the next 15 years.
In an intelligent investor’s world, no one would go near any franchise related investment without extremely competent deal due diligence in addition to the legal due diligence. When asked what in franchising today is worth investing in, my usual response is NOTHING for the moment. There may be isolated niche opportunities, but only extremely competent deal due diligence could possibly perform the tests necessary to identify a real opportunity from a false opportunity masquerading as a real opportunity.
Within a year or two I expect to see one or maybe two new real franchise opportunities. They will be buried in a sea of investment garbage and will have to be dug out of the mire. The law at this moment is skewed drastically against investor protection, so extreme deal due diligence will remain indispensible. Once signed, the franchise contracts of the next ten years will be like a voyage on the Amistad if one decides to invest on guesswork rather than competent due diligence. If one follows the threads regarding franchises issued by the likes of Quiznos, UPS, Cold Stone Creamery (and any other franchise affiliated with Kahala Corporation), various weight loss and exercise franchises, that are daily discussed on Blue MauMau, the intensity of suffering by their franchisees can be seen in all its cruel agony. That is the kind of journalism that investors should follow before deciding to wing it in the franchise world.
Franchise law practice now is centered more upon people wanting to find ways to escape from the franchises they invested in. I look forward to the positive changes I anticipate in the next 20 years or so.