Ron Lichwala and Bob Qualters, both senior managers with Fortune 500 companies, had similar quandaries. Each lived in Florida, and each commuted long distances on a regular basis: Lichwala to Washington, D.C., and Qualters to Dallas. Both had extensive experience in sales, marketing and operations management in high-technology manufacturing industries, and neither wanted to relocate out of state.
For two years Ron and Bob discussed options. In 2002, they got serious about making a change. The booming home construction market in Central Florida held strong appeal. The home organizing industry was growing quickly, and mid-Florida was not fully serviced by that type of business.
The pair purchased a Closets by Design franchise in 2003.
The Orlando team first sought help from the U.S. Small Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Then they heard about SCORE, where they were put in touch with Orlando SCORE Mentor Stan Becker.
Through several discussions with Stan, Ron and Bob solidified their plans. They decided to purchase an existing business rather than start from scratch. After they narrowed the field to three or four options, Stan helped with due-diligence reviews and provided accounting expertise that enabled them to read between the lines on the balance sheets. In the end, they focused on a local Closets by Design franchise.
Stan consulted with Ron and Bob through the negotiation with the franchisor and provided valuable insight based on his vast experience. He also advised them on how to promote their business through zoned advertising in areas with higher incomes, and suggested they make direct contact with custom builders.
"SCORE really helped us get started on the right path," Qualters says. "I think our relationship with SCORE is going to pay off in a big way.”
Through careful marketing, hard work and implementing a strategy of providing a quality product at a reasonable price, the pair sold and installed more than 1,500 organizational systems in 2005. The franchise now has more than 30 employees, and the prognosis for strong future revenue is excellent. “We are now receiving many referral leads from satisfied clients,” Qualters says. (Qualters later left the company in 2010.)
“The team that we put together – SCORE, our accountant, and lawyer – was instrumental to our business," Qualters says. "When we made our decision to purchase the franchise and get to work, we had already identified areas of concern and had a business plan in place to ensure our success. We were confident, and I think that helps when starting a business, particularly in an industry that was somewhat new to us."
Mentor Stan Becker played “devil’s advocate” during his discussions with Lichwala and Qualters. “Stan put our feet to the fire asking: Do you really want to be in this business? Are you really confident about what you are planning?” Qualters says. “And, of course, the really big question: Can you be successful operating a Closets By Design franchise in Central Florida?”