The Story Behind VetFran

The Story Behind  VetFran

There’s a great story behind some of the best ideas. Dr. John P. Hayes tells how a shower created franchise opportunities for 6,500 military veterans. It’s the story of VetFran 

I got this great idea this morning in the shower. This will change franchising, and it will give hope and opportunity to thousands of deserving people. Here’s what I need you to do. . . .

It was about 6 a.m. during an International Franchise Association (IFA) annual meeting and I was doing my best to look alert at breakfast. The voice giving me direction was my client, Don Dwyer, founder of The Dwyer Group which has multiple home-repair and restoration franchise brands including at that time Rainbow International, Mr. Rooter (aka Drain Doctor), and Worldwide Refinishing (now DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen).

Don got a “great idea” just about every time he showered. I listened intently while poking into my oatmeal. Don, forever health conscious, enjoyed some egg whites in between giving me my orders.

Write a letter from me then call the Department of Defense and tell them we want every service man and woman in the Gulf War to get a copy. My letter will explain that when the soldiers come home all they’ve got to do is call me and I’ll help them become franchise owners. Whether they buy a Dwyer franchise or another brand, we’re going to help them because we’ve got to look out for our veterans.

Just as I took my last bite of oatmeal he added: You need to get this done within two weeks. I said, as I always said to a client, “I’ll handle it,” but I’ll admit that in the back of my mind I was thinking that tomorrow’s shower couldn’t come soon enough because by then Don might change his mind and we’d move on to the next great idea. One, perhaps, that would be a tad more likely to succeed.

He didn’t change his mind and my orders were never revised. I quickly drafted his letter, and then began the arduous process of finding someone in the Department of Defense who would talk to me about Gulf War logistics. When I made contact, problems of logistics were promptly pointed out to me. My next step was to phone Don and explain why his great idea wasn’t working the way he had envisioned. But I knew better than to think that was the end of a great idea. A shower or two later we were back on the phone:

Turn that letter you wrote for me into a brochure. Give it a title that says something about franchise opportunities for veterans. Then get with your guy at the Department of Defense and figure out how to give the brochure to every soldier upon re-entry to the United States. But I want you to get IFA and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to sponsor this project. IFA needs to tell every franchisor to give discounts to veterans when they buy a franchise. IFA needs to help us get President Bush to talk about this program in the Rose Garden. Tell SBA they need to give every veteran a loan to buy a franchise. Get the publicity going and arrange free ads in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Then you and I are going to call all the franchisors we know and tell them they need to help veterans buy franchises. We’ll add their brand names to the brochure and they’ll get leads from veterans. But they’ve each got to contribute $1,000 to help defray the expenses. Got it? Get it done in 30 days . . . John, this is the best thing franchising can do for America.

Every franchisor to this day looks for opportunities to sell franchises to veterans and for several good reasons: they’re disciplined; they get things done; they’re orderly; and best of all, they’re used to learning and following operational systems. In addition to all of that, Don saw the opportunity to reward veterans for their dedication and sacrifices while serving the USA. Placing veterans in franchises was indeed the best thing franchising could do for America at that time.

So why did almost everyone resist the idea?

Because it was unconventional, and it asked people and institutions to do things differently. “We can’t just give every veteran a loan,” the SBA snapped. Even the then president of the IFA scoffed when I told him about the project. He said, “Don’s a creative guy, but franchisors won’t go for this idea. Good luck.”

He wasn’t entirely wrong. Of the many franchisors I called to ask for their support for what we now referred to as the Veterans Transition Franchise Initiative (VetFran) most said no. Oh, they wanted their brands listed in the brochure because they wanted the leads, but they refused to contribute money. Others said they would contribute, but never did. Their collective fear was that Don would see all the leads first and pitch his brands.

Of course, any forthcoming lead was made possible by Don’s personal pocketbook. He might have collected $3,000 from franchisors, but the expenses easily exceeded $50,000, not including travel costs and my fees. Eventually, everyone came around. IFA, SBA and the Department of Veterans Affairs all supported VetFran to the best of their abilities, but Don funded it all. The expenses included a fee paid to Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly who delivered daily televised news briefings about the war. All of America knew General Kelly so we hired him as spokesperson to announce VetFran at the IFA convention in 1992. But it didn’t make much difference. 

Only a small number of franchisors showed up for General Kelly’s announcement and while everyone loved the idea, it remained pretty much Don Dwyer’s project. Eventually, several dozen veterans became franchisees, but what we thought would change franchising for the good of America didn’t. Within three years, Don was dead, and, with the war over, so was VetFran. Without Don, and especially without a war, no one seemed to care about VetFran. Or veterans, for that matter. The word “VetFran” never crossed the lips of President Bush. Had it, Don was certain the incumbent president would have beaten Bill Clinton in 1992.

For the next decade and more, VetFran remained a “great idea” conceived by one of the most under-appreciated franchisors in history. And all it would take to actually fulfill its promise was the next generation of leadership. And, of course, a war!

Enter President George W. Bush. Like his father, he also never uttered the word “VetFran” while he occupied the White House, but in 2003 he sent American troops back to the Persian Gulf to invade Iraq. Once again, America would be faced with thousands of returning veterans who would need jobs and opportunities to care for themselves and their families. And this time, the American franchise community was not only waiting to help, but perfectly prepared.

Shortly after Don’s untimely death, he was succeeded by his daughter, Dina Dwyer-Owens, who is now co-chair of The Dwyer Group. Dina had been elected to the IFA Board of Directors and she suggested that IFA re-ignite VetFran. IFA agreed and hundreds of franchisors jumped on board, and since that time VetFran has indeed changed franchising, changed the lives of thousands of veterans and their families, and changed America.

More than 650 franchise brands support VetFran today. They voluntarily offer financial discounts, mentorship, and training for aspiring veteran franchisees and veterans seeking employment. More than 238,000 veterans and military spouses have landed jobs with franchise companies, and more than 6,500 veterans have become franchisees just since 2011 (no records were kept in the prior years).

Today, franchisors are eager to support the program. Tariq Farid, founder and CEO of Edible Arrangements, said, “Through the years I’ve found that veterans have the exact qualities that make a great franchisee and I’m always proud to work with them.” Gary Findley, CEO of Restoration 1, said “Veterans know how to follow systems and procedures, have a strong work ethic and tremendous integrity. All of this translates very well into owning a small business. Veterans are in a league of their own.” And Charles Willis, co-founder and president of Pinot’s Palette, said “We’ve found that the veteran’s way of assessing and tackling problems is invaluable to the strength of our system.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment to VetFran, and to Don Dwyer, occurred just recently when Gordon Logan, founder and CEO of SportClips, donated $500,000 to the program. Don would be smiling knowing that his initial investment resulted in a huge dividend. He’d be all the more pleased to know that so many veterans have already benefited from VetFran, the “great idea” that people said couldn’t be accomplished. 

What makes this story all the more remarkable is that it occurred as the result of one man’s shower at an IFA convention. God bless Don Dwyer for his foresight and determination. And may VetFran continue to support veterans and their families worldwide.



Prof. Dr. John P. Hayes is the Titus Chair for Franchise Leadership at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. He tells more stories at HowToBuyAFranchise.com and on the How To Buy A Franchise Show.

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