Vets serve country, customers: Franchises offer breaks to would-be entrepreneurs leaving the military

November 26, 2007

On Veterans Day this year, retired U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Robert Flores didn't attend parades or reminisce with friends. Instead, he worked from open to close at his Little Caesars Pizza store at 11530 Westfield Blvd.

"I've been here every day since we opened," Flores said, who debuted the Carmel shop Oct. 31 after receiving assistance from a Little Caesars program created to help veterans become franchise owners.

As part of the program, Flores, 45, received a discount of almost $68,000 off startup costs because he's a service-disabled veteran. He declined to share financial details, but Little Caesars said startup costs usually run between $200,000 and $250,000 depending on store size and location.

Detroit-based Little Caesars started its veterans' discount program in fall 2006 because owner and founder Christopher Ilitch, a former Marine, wanted to do something for others who have served their country.

"Mr. Ilitch is really hopeful that other business leaders will look at this program and see that it's possible to make opportunities for veterans," said Little Caesars spokeswoman Kathryn Oldham.

Little Caesars is one of many companies hoping to turn veterans into entrepreneurs. More than 260 franchise operators nationwide participate in the International Franchise Association's VetFran. Members-ranging from Baskin-Robbins to Meineke Car Care-offer a discount for veterans buying a franchise.

The program started during the first Gulf War but was placed on hiatus when the conflict ended, said association spokesman Terry Hill. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, IFA revived the program.

Each company decides the terms of its discount. Under the Little Caesars program, service-disabled veterans can save up to $68,000 and all honorably dis- charged veterans can qualify for up to $10,000 in discounts, plus additional financing assistance.

Flores is only the second veteran in the country to open a store using the Little Caesars discount. The Buffalo native retired from the U.S. Air Force in Texas in 2000 and worked several jobs both during his service and afterwards, including owning a night club and a nail and tanning salon. When looking at his next step, though, he wanted to be near his sister, a central Indiana resident who also retired from the Air Force.

"We were always far apart," Flores said. "We've ... not really been able to see each other."

Flores, who used loans and personal savings to open the store, said the discount was key in helping get the last of the financing together.

"It helped me out substantially," he said.

And so far, business has been good.

"The community's been so supportive," he said. He said he's happy with his choice of franchise options because Little Caesars has lined up so much publicity that at times he "almost felt like a super star."

And when needed, he can get corporate advisors on the phone on the weekend or in the evening.

"They've been truly amazing," he said.

IFA's Hill said member firms seek out veterans in part to do something for those who serve and in part because they tend to be a good fit for franchise ownership.

"[Companies] seek veterans out because of the discipline and training they got in the military," Hill said. "They have a sense of mission and built-in work ethic that comes from being trained by one of the best systems in the world. And franchising is a system."

But veterans often don't have much cash, he said, so the discounts make franchise ownership possible.

It was the mix of drive and a corporate-structured plan that attracted Karl Lundberg to open a Fishers location of North Carolina-based Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in early 2005 through its veterans' assistance program.

"I think veterans work well within a system with rules and regulations and a methodology," he said.

Lundberg served in the U.S. Marines and U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. While owning a business has been hard work, he said it is going well. Outdoor Lighting Perspectives offers custom-designed lighting for commercial and residential properties.

"I think that deep inside, I always wanted to be in business for myself," he said. "There's a sense of independence that one yearns for."

At first, though, Lundberg wasn't sure how to reach that goal.

"I wasn't on the cusp of inventing the next widget, I didn't have lots of money, and I wasn't an expert at plumbing-or an attorney," he said.

He met with a consultant who helped find a good fit, and got a 20-percent discount on Outdoor Lighting Perspectives' $59,000 franchise fee.

"My heart goes out to veterans who support their country," Lundberg said. "Even if they go back to their previous jobs, their peers have moved on. Even in the best of circumstances, it's tough to catch up."

Franchising is just one option. There are also several government-backed programs to help veterans with small-business plans.

Federal lawmakers recently passed legislation setting a goal of 3 percent of all federal purchasing to be from veteranowned small businesses. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers fast-track loans for veterans to help with start-up costs. And SBA-sponsored business counselors-including Small Business Development Centers, the Service Corps of Retired Executives and the Women's Business Centers-must keep stats on how many veterans they're helping.

"Veterans have always been one of the markets we watch to make sure that we're reaching out," said SBA Indiana District spokeswoman Ronda Crouch.

In 2006, central Indiana's Small Business Development Center moved its offices to the Lawrence campus of Ivy Tech Community College, where a local office of the Indiana National Guard is also located.

Now many servicemen and women stop by to pick up information and have sought counseling to start a business. Of last year's 580 counseling clients, 45 were veterans, said Executive Director Victoria Hall.

"Most of them are career military looking at what they want to do when they retire," Hall said.

Flores' Carmel pizza store was just the first step. He hopes to open four more Little Caesars outlets by 2010, and he has talked his sister and her husband-who also retired from the Air Force-about whether they should open their own Little Caesars. The perk for Flores is that while they decide, they've pitched in at his store to get a feel for it.

"I want them to see what you can do with the business," he said.
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