As a teen-ager, Joseph Lewis swept floors and cleaned bathrooms in a hometown paint and decorating shop.
After high school, while in the Navy, Lewis went to work running Uncle Sam’s laundry, barber and other service-type shops aboard ships. Now the 36-year-old veteran of Desert Storm is the one in charge.
“I wouldn’t say I planned it but I always dreamed it,” said Lewis, a PostNet franchisee with a single shop in Encinitas.
Lewis is one of several San Diegans to enter the small business community after receiving an honorable discharge from the military thanks to VetFran, a national incentives program.
In Lewis’ case, like many, the transition back to civilian life was rocky. So rocky, in fact, that Lewis spent three months living in his car before landing a retail sales job in 1993. Although he rose to the ranks of management early on, the dreamer who joined the Navy out of high school as a means of getting out of Mississippi said he wanted more independence and control over his future.
Fast-forward to today and Lewis is a proud franchisee, having opened a copy, print, postal and other business services shop in July after he received 15 percent off his start-up fees.
“It probably doesn’t seem like a lot but that can be a couple months rent or can cover your payroll until you get things up and running and start making money,” Lewis said, referring to the several thousands of dollars he saved in the VetFran program.
VetFran is run by the International Franchise Association, which works with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Small Business Association and various corporate franchise offices to make it easier for veterans to buy into everything from Baskin-Robbins to 1-800 Got-Junk. In total, 169 corporate franchise offices offer discounts, fee waivers and other incentives to veterans interesting in running a franchised shop and more than 480 veterans have been attracted to the program in the past four years.
“The idea is veterans don’t typically have a lot of financial resources, especially when they just get out, so we’re trying to help make it easier for them to get started,” said Terry Hill, vice president of communications for the IFA and director of the VetFran program.
The program was initially started in the early 1990s in response to Desert Storm as a way of thanking troops for their service, but Hill said because that war ended so quickly, the program lacked momentum and became inactive. VetFran, also known as the Veteran Transition Franchise Initiative, was revived in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the start of the current war in Iraq.
Steven Dodge, a Vietnam veteran and soon-to-be 1-800-DRY-CLEAN franchisee with territory rights in Orange County, said he heard about the program on the radio, and although he personally could afford to do the business without incentives, he’s thankful for the help.
“Every bit helps,” Dodge said. “Without a doubt, there’s a lot of us (Vietnam vets) in the street living on trash cans and things like that and it’s just sad. Fortunately, I think this generation of Iraq war troops are going to be better off.”
As of this month, 360 veterans have completed franchise agreements through the VetFran program and another 120 are in the process of acquiring rights. Advertising for the program primarily falls on the shoulders of the International Franchise Association.
“What we do here is more of an informational role,” Hill said, referring to the association’s efforts to convince corporate franchise owners into offering veterans incentives, and the association’s efforts to relay information to veteran affairs offices that can pass information to troops before and after they are discharged.
“We met with people at the VA early on and they are promoting there as well,” Hill said. “It’s important to know that this is not just limited to vets who are recently getting out. As long as you are an honorably discharged veteran, you are eligible.”
The International Franchise Association through its membership fees and other revenue generators pays for funding for the program, but Hill said volunteers do most of the work and the costs of running it are low.
Despite being happy with his experience as a VetFran program participant, Lewis said that he thinks the program could easily be bigger and better.
“I don’t think it’s advertised enough,” said Lewis, who found out about the program while surfing on the Internet. “It really seems like a no-brainer to do it. It makes no sense that more franchise owners aren’t on the list for veterans to meet.”
In addition to showing appreciation for a soldier’s service, the program makes good business sense from an operation standpoint because veterans make ideal franchisees, according to Hill.
“Veterans are people who have been trained and educated through one of the greatest training systems in the world, which is to say the U.S. military,” Hill said. “So they know how to operate within a system and that’s basically what a franchise is , a system.”
“I firmly feel that way because the first thing you learn when you go in the military, the first thing they beat into your head is that you have to work together and you have to rely on other people and know that they’re relying on you at the same time,” Lewis said.
Of all the U.S. states, California currently leads in the number of VetFran veteran participants. According to self-reported numbers from corporate offices, there are 35 veteran-run franchises in the state, nine of which are in San Diego County. Texas follows California on the list with a total of 27, while the total number of participants across the country is expected to grow by at least 120 in the next few months.
Hill said efforts to make the program more attractive are also under way in Congress. The International Franchise Association is backing efforts that would allow veterans to spend their Montgomery GI Bill money on franchise training programs in addition to using it for college tuition.