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What a difference a year makes


I don't know if it's like this in your neighborhood, but in my neck of the woods, teenagers are the umpires for the local Little League Baseball games, after much training and coaching by the "head ump," an adult volunteer. Fifteen-year-old son Sam decided he needed a little extra scratch this summer, so the "umping" gig would work out nicely for him, thank you. As I write this, Sam is umping his third game of the season, a competition between fourth grade teams. It's 68 and sunny, what could be finer?

Well, pretty much. After presiding over another fourth-grade game last night, Sam gave me an earful on coach behavior and the rules of baseball. Before he could start the game, Sam had to ask one coach to leave the field. It seems this coach wanted to stand in back of the pitcher's mound to observe. Observe what, I'm not sure – the pitcher, the batter? Who knows, but I can't remember the last time I've watched a game where the manager was allowed to stand on the field to watch Johan Santana throw a strike. At Sam's first request, the coach replied that, no, he wouldn't leave – he really did want to stand behind the mound. Sam said he was polite to the coach, even calling him "sir,"  –  but he couldn't start the game until the man stepped off the field. The coach finally complied. Batter up!

It was a fairly uneventful game, but coaches from both sides made comments on some of Sam's calls. Part of the job, I guess. But what's really interesting is Sam's perspective now that he's standing on the other side of the plate. For years, I've heard both sons talk about the umpire's calls after the game is over. His strike zone was too small, blah, blah, blah. What a difference 12 months makes: Sam's perspective on the game has changed dramatically.

It's a bit like that in franchising – all of us in this sector have a different perspective than 12 months ago. Today, financing has become more scarce due to banks tightening their credit standards. Commodities are more expensive for not only restaurants and other businesses, but for the consumer, as well, which affects whether they pull out their checkbook at franchised businesses. And gas prices hovering at $4.00 in many areas of the country affects retailers and consumers alike. It's as if our collective perspective has been whacked across the head. Are there more whacks to come?

That being said, it's not as if there is no good news out there. Check out our coverage of the Franchise Finance & Development Conference, which was held in late April. Yes, financing is tight, said the experts, but not impossible to find. As many of the lenders in attendance emphasized, you need to form relationships with them now more than ever. Let them know who you are and what your franchise is all about. Good companies will always find capital.

Read FT Executive Editor Nancy Weingartner's overview of the conference. In addition to growth topics, nine franchisors talked about their company's journey, and how they are bobbing and weaving through the economy. It was informational, and often motivational. Take Pollo Campero's master franchisee Jose Cofi–o, pictured on our cover this month. His story is no less than inspirational: He applied lessons from his journey as a Cuban immigrant in his teen years, as well as past foodservice company positions, to his business today. How does he motivate staff? Where does he see opportunity? You'll change your perspective after reading his story, as well as those of the other franchisors who presented their company story at the conference.

Mary Jo Larson

Mary Jo can be reached at 612-767-3200 or at mlarson@franchisetimes.com

Our franchise focus this month targets the sandwich business. As FT reporter Jonathan Maze writes, consumers are eating more sandwiches – they're perceived as a healthy alternative (thank you, Jared) and fit any budget. The down side is that the sandwich makers are feeling the squeeze of rising commodity costs. (Even the cost of straws is going up, since they are made out of petroleum products.)

But, Jonathan also reports that franchisors are becoming more creative and finding ways to do things differently in order to help their franchisees remain profitable. Instead of just lamenting about commodity costs, some are taking action to combat them. Just what are they doing? Read his story – as the old saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention."

Yes, it's hard out there right now. Our perspective has changed and we'll probably get whacked upside the head a few more times this year. But one of the things I've noticed about entrepreneurs, and franchising for that matter, is that once the collective perspective changes, innovative ways of doing things emerge, new businesses are formed and ground-breaking opportunities arise.

Get on the field and play ball. Just don't expect to stand by the pitcher's mound.

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