Franchise program gives veterans a break: Marine Reserve colonel taps VetFran initiative to open lighting business

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After resorting to a home-equity loan to finance the roughly $100,000 he needed to open an Outdoor Lighting Perspectives franchise, Karl Lundberg still fell short of cash.

But, fortunately for Lundberg, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, the North Carolina-based company honors the Veterans Transition Franchise Initiative, known as VetFran.

The program, reintroduced almost three years ago by the International Franchise Association and supported by the Office of Veterans Affairs, gives financial breaks to veterans wanting to purchase a franchise.

No government funding is involved. Instead, franchised companies commit to the program through the Washington, D.C.-based IFA and offer their own assistance. Most let veterans acquire a franchise with a down payment of 10 percent or less of the franchise fee, or provide them a discounted fee.

In Lundberg’s case, he became the owner of the local Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in March by saving about 20 percent, or $11,800, on the company’s $59,000 franchise fee.

“Not that I ever ask for a handout because of my military experience, but that was extremely helpful,” said Lundberg, a fit 46-year-old who ran his first Mini Marathon last month in just over two hours. “It would have made purchasing the franchise more of a challenge [without it].” The IFA introduced VetFran during the Gulf War in 1991, but the program faded about as fast as the conflict itself. Following 9/11, the association resurrected the program and has had more success-as military operations in the Middle East persist-promoting it to franchises the second time around. The VA alerts veterans through its channels that the assistance exists.

Currently, 164 companies are participating, 70 of which have granted a total of 360 franchises to veterans, said Terry Hill, a spokesman for the IFA. Locally based Ritter’s Frozen Custard, which boasts 60 locations, is a member of the program.

“People coming out of the military normally don’t have a lot of money,” Hill said. “We left the program flexible so the franchise companies that participate can structure the deal that works best for them.”

Duty to serve

Lundberg’s situation is different from that of younger recruits looking for a first career following a standard four-year enlistment. The Olean, N.Y., native earned a degree in business in 1981 from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. But Lundberg opted to join the Marines following graduation and traded a suit and tie for camouflage fatigues.

The United States had just endured the Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 people were seized from the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held for 444 days. Routine flag burnings by Islamic revolutionaries during the time, and what Lundberg viewed as an apathetic public, led him to join the Marines.

He became a platoon commander and was stationed at Okinawa from 1982 to 1983. He left active duty after nearly a four-year stint and returned to Grand Rapids, where he met his wife and earned a teaching degree.

He taught eighth grade in the Chicago area for a year and did some substitute teaching. He returned to Olean and got a job as a training director for a company that made ceramic capacitors. After a Japanese firm purchased the company in 1990, Lundberg enrolled at Saint Bonaventure University in Olean the following year to pursue his MBA.

He completed the degree four years later, and bounced between a couple of jobs and active-duty stints in the Marines. In 1998, Lundberg, while stationed in Hawaii, was the planning officer for a humanitarian exercise in which the Marines refurbished a pediatrics hospital in Vladistok, Russia.

Returning once again to New York, he learned through his church of a job in Indianapolis at the locally based Wesleyan Publishing House, a publisher of religious books. He arrived in Indianapolis in November 1999 to begin his duties as marketing director for the publisher.

After 9/11, however, he was called to active duty and spent two years at Camp Pendleton, Calif., part of the time as a supply officer. Lundberg returned to his job at Wesleyan in March 2004. But at that stage of his life, he began to realize he might be better suited working for himself.

Getting something in return

With no entrepreneurial idea of his own, he contacted Minneapolis-based Fran-Choice, an outfit with more than 100 consultants that help match people with franchises. Lundberg was paired with Mason Copeland, a consultant in Toronto who introduced the veteran to the VetFran program.

“It gives an opportunity to the people who served the country to get something back,” Copeland said, “and Karl has been giving back his whole life.”

Besides serving in the Marines, Lundberg started a “Christmas in July” program in which contractors volunteer their time to renovate peoples’ homes.

Based on Lundberg’s skills and interests, Copeland suggested Outdoor Lighting Perspectives might be a good fit. Lundberg met with company President Tom Fenig and completed the necessary training in March.

“The whole VetFran program is a personal cause of mine, since my father was a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” Fenig said. “What I like about the veterans in general is that they are a lot more disciplined than the average person. They take responsibility for their own success.”

In the roughly four months since Lundberg became Indianapolis’ only Outdoor Lighting Perspectives representative, he has hired one full-time and two-part time employees. His work is on display at the Home-A-Rama at Zionsville’s Stonegate community, where he lit homes for custom home builders such as locally based Petty Custom Homes. Company President Chris Petty said he is pleased with Lundberg’s work and has added him to his subcontractor list.

Lundberg became a colonel last July and thinks his military career will aid him in his new endeavor.

“Hey, you just suck it up and do whatever it takes to do the job,” he said. “You don’t get to be successful in the Marine Corps by sloughing off.”

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