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From Student-Painter to Franchise Magnate

By Elaine Sambugaro |

Steve RogersStudents who begrudge the idea of leaving the comfort of school for the summer workforce should take special note of Steve Rogers.

At 25-years of age and fresh out of university, he decided to work as a franchisee of Canadian-based College Pro Painters, a company that recruits college students to run their own businesses. He attended a seminar, made an initial $200 deposit and started to learn, first hand, about the pluses and pitfalls of being a small business owner. Little did he know that twenty-three years later – at 45 – he would be the president of the Franchise Company, which owns and manages seven franchises in 40 different countries and anticipates system-wide sales of $600 million in 2001.

Rogers is among the cr̬me-de-la-cr̬me of Canadian entrepreneurs who start young, use simple skills and mammoth amounts of energy and determination to make things work Рeven in the most trying circumstances. What follows is a true story about how this entrepreneur achieved so much in such a short period of time and what he learned along his journey.

The Early Years
Before launching into the franchise business in his mid-twenties, Rogers spent two summers roughing-it-out at a log company on the north shores of Lake Superior, directing floating logs and on their way to the mill. This is where, he says, among poor weather conditions and treacherous fly swarmings, he learned about the simple things that make a company run like clockwork – like the importance of listening to people and understanding what motivates them and makes them happy.

"The place was a bit of an armpit, but for me, the time I spent there was more valuable than my college education. I learned to work with people of all kinds … highly educated university students to people who didn't get through sixth grade. I learned to survive and thrive."

Rogers' best summer was yet to come. In 1978, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario, Rogers found a summer job as a franchisee of Canadian-based College Pro Painters, which recruits college students every year to run their own painting business. Eleven years later, he rose through the corporate ladder to become the company's president. When FirstService Corporation acquired College Pro Painters in 1989, it provided the fuel for the growth of The Franchise Company, for which he is now President and CEO.

Today The Franchise Company oversees seven home-service franchise systems: College Pro Painters, Certa ProPainters, Nutri-Lawn, Action Window Cleaners, Stained Glass Overlay, Paul Davis Restoration and California Closets.

Challenges along the way
Those fundamental survival skills came in handy for Rogers when he was trying to run and grow The Franchise Company into the half-billion international business that it is today. Rogers admits that doing business in Canada and in the US hasn't always been a walk in the park. Many times, he said, he thought that he just wasn't going to make it because of the amount of beaurocratic red-tape and political behind-the-scenes maneouvering that was preventing him from setting up shop.

At one point, Rogers explains that he wanted to expand College Pro Painters into Alberta. The plans were made, but when he approached the recruiting agencies on the various university campuses, they rejected the idea on the grounds that it was an 'Ontario concept' and wouldn't work in Alberta.

"They wouldn't let us set up and try it," Rogers explained. "But the reason was ridiculous. I was devastated and I told them that we'd sue them for the right to be able to work there," he said. His tenacity paid off and within three weeks he was able to start recruiting university students from Alberta campuses.

But, Rogers didn't know what he was up against until he decided to set his sights on more lucrative markets south of the border.

"It was tough – really tough. We had boatloads of trouble," he admitted. Rogers says his mistake came when he assumed that the US market was one, huge homogeneous state. He said he didn't realize that there were more differences between U.S. states and U.S. state regulation than between Canadian provinces. He underestimated the amount of tailoring that had to be done to his business strategy to meet state regulations and cultural differences.

"The hardest state to break into was California," Rogers explains. "They have excessive regulations and requirements. So, we ended up buying two businesses – California Closet Company Inc. and Stained Glass Overlay Inc."

Now 80% of The Franchise Company's profits are made in the United States.

What made things bearable is that Rogers loved what he was doing – right from the first day that he began as franchise manager at the Scarborough-based site.

"I like the very nature of franchising," he explained. "You have a lot of very independent people that question everything. Franchising is definitely not for everyone. A corporate CEO can sit there and say, 'I think we should make all of our letterhead purple today.' You simply cannot do that in franchising. You have to talk to everyone and get him or her on your side. It's their business and you're dealing with a lot of strong-willed people. They want to know why the color purple was chosen and who will pay for it".

Recipe for success
Rogers dosen't seem to have followed any magical formulas while he transformed an otherwise mundane student-painting business into a half-billion international company. He says that he simply loved doing what he was doing and was willing to do just about anything and go just about anywhere to get the job done.

"In my 20s I was lightning in a bottle," Rogers said. "I was pretty wound up. Between the ages of 20 and 25, I really didn't have what you would call a 'conventional life' because I worked so much. I got to the dance because if someone else put in 15 hours of work, I put in 18 of work. I hire presidents of companies now and I still look for the same drive and determination. You have to want it," he said.

Aside from hard work, however, there seem to be a few philosophies that guided Rogers down the road to success. What follows are three simple lessons we gathered from our interview with him that might help young entrepreneurs thinking of starting up a franchise of their own.

Lesson #1: Rogers said that if you get the chance to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age – take it. If what you want to be is a small business owner, do it. He says that's how a person learns and grows.

Lesson #2: The more adaptable a person you are and the more you like chance, the better rate of success, according to Rogers. Within his company, he encourages employees to bite off more than they can chew and move into positions with greater challenges and responsibilities. Motivation is key to employee retention.

Lesson #3: Rogers says that mistakes are bound to happen along the way as you grow your business – sometimes stupid and costly mistakes. The key, he says, is to learn from them and do your best not to repeat them down the road.

"You have to want it and be willing to pay your dues."

Rogers is also a big fan of the school of hard knocks when it comes to understanding how a business operates. His philosophy is that you have to have that hands-on experience to understand the implications of underlying economic theories. "Business school people will talk about balance sheets and accounts receivables, but you never quite understand what an accounts receivable is until someone isn't paying you … that's going to make meeting your payroll difficult. And you can't predict how you're going to behave when someone won't pay your bill," he said.

The snowball effect
Although Rogers has to have his eye on the bottom line at all times, what's interesting about this entrepreneur is that it doesn't seem to be his entire focus. Rogers takes pride in helping younger entrepreneurs who are gifted with the talent and drive to create a bright future for themselves.

"I don't take people under my wing – that's not me," Rogers said. "I believe in people making their own choices and their own way – and that's what the term entrepreneur means. I'll help by giving them an environment for success and if asked I'll give them my unfettered two cents worth," he said.

"I was a kid in my early 20s and I was earning between $20-25K in my pocket in one summer [after paying 15% royalty]. I could afford a cleaning lady when I was going to university," Maingot said.

Paul Clements, VP Finance with The Franchise Company says that the good thing about becoming a franchisee is that the infrastructure of the business is already set up. That means that an entrepreneur can focus directly on building a loyal client base rather than waste time worrying about effective marketing tools, building financing, and other distracting managerial issues. What's more, Clements says that the affiliation with the larger company can provide support to individual entrepreneurs who run into difficulty.

"Franchises are cookie-cutter operations," said Paul Clements, VP Finance with The Franchise Company, who also began his career as an independent painter in the early 1970s. "It's a business in a box … basically the tools are given to entrepreneurs to work with," he said.

Take Stephan Maingot, 37, of California Closets in Vancouver, B.C., who started with College Pro Painters while he was a student at the University of Montreal. Although Rogers didn't personally mentor Maingot, the French-Canadian entrepreneur says that the Franchise Company gave him remarkable hands-on and educational training to nurture and grow his business.

Maingot said he was embarrassed at the amount of free training he was given before and after he started to run his business. "I became certified in 14 different managerial skills – ranging from interviewing, to conflict management, selling and coaching – which I used to my advantage," he said.

"What Steve's done is build a company where if you want to become an entrepreneur – you can. They hired me while I was in university. Who's gonna give you a chance to run a business in university? They also gave me world-class training," he said.

Today, Maingot owns and operates a California Closets, a storage-solution/home organizing company which he hopes will rival The Franchise company in million-dollar sales.

Roger's final word
To maintain a loyal and high-performing staff – a difficult task in any type of business, but particularly challenging when dealing with young entrepreneurs, Rogers says that you have to really know your staff and help them get to where they really want to go.

To retain a loyal staff Rogers dangles a huge carrot in front of them. He helps them get to where they want to go by developing a concept that allows them to weave in and out of different parts of the company and work their way up the corporate ladder by increasing their skills and earning equity as they go.

"It's called the human resources highway," he said. "There's a fellow who started out as a franchisee in Fredericton, then became a manager and was transferred to Los Angeles, then became a franchisee at Certa Pro, then a general manager and vice-president with Certa Pro and is now president at Stain Glass Overlay," he said.

But for Rogers, knowing himself and how he defines success is just as important as knowing his staff.

"The most important thing in business is to know thyself; to be able to look in the mirror and say, 'I don't want to be Donald Trump or a Bill Gates.' It's enormously freeing the day you can say, 'I Don't Want To," he said.

"Success in business can be an overbought thing. You have to be cautious in defining success. I meet a lot of people who paint for us, perform trades work and in my eyes, I think they're very successful. They're doing what they want to do and they bring a real integrity to their job. They don't want my job. They're doing their deal, and that's great."

Interesting Statistics

  • Franchising employs more than 1 million Canadians directly, represents $100 billion in sales and continues to grow at double digits in the last four years.

  • Canada is one of the franchise capitals of the world, led only by the U.S. In Canada Franchising accounts for over 45% of retail sales and 35% of restaurant sales.

  • For information on franchising in Canada , call the Canadian Franchise Association at (905) 625-2896 or 1-800-665-4232. You can also visit their website at

Source: Canada Newswire

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