New tone at IFA as franchisees storm Capitol Hill
Taco John’s ‘zee Tamra Kennedy, left, with Libby Foley in MN Rep. Betty McCollum’s office.
When Robert Cresanti replaced Steve Caldeira as president and CEO of the International Franchise Association in the fall of 2015, a cooling vibe washed over the industry-leading association as it switched from red-faced partisanship to a calmer, more bipartisan approach.
Such a shift is important for an industry representing 2.5 percent of the American GDP. In the 14 months of Cresanti’s leadership—with an assist from NRD Capital’s enthusiastic Aziz Hashim who is the IFA’s current chair—the American franchise industry has become noticeably more savvy at throwing its weight around Washington, D.C. at a time when franchising is facing significant, existential threats from new national laws and regulations.
In the overheated climate of an historic election year, the IFA took the wraps off its new, more inclusive tone that includes increased outreach to the media and elected officials and a new round of stats touting the industry’s significance. The IFA also invested significant resources into training the 300+ attendees of its annual DC Fly-In in September on how to effectively lobby their congressional representatives without alienating them or engaging in hyper-partisan histrionics.
The united goals centered on reversing the National Labor Relations Board’s so-called joint employer ruling, delaying a change under the Fair Labor Standards Act that doubles the annual salary threshold for workers exceeding 40 hours and encouraging a bipartisan collection of congress people to join the newly formed Congressional Franchise Caucus.
“It’s a critical time for you guys to be here in Washington and we have a very short window of opportunity,” Cresanti said in his opening address. “It’s going to take your collective voices pulling together in this room to make the joint employer issue happen.”
Building enthusiasm after Cresanti, Hashim added his view that franchising is so uniquely beneficial to the country and is the largest vocational training system in America. “When there is a business model that’s doing so much good for the country, why would politicians and other special interest groups attack it?”
According to a comprehensive research study from the IFA on the economic impact of franchising, there are 732,842 business format franchise establishments providing more than 7.6 million jobs, generating $674 billion in economic output and 2.5 percent of the GDP for the U.S. economy.
The audience was primed for action. We received a crash course in the do’s and don’ts of congressional lobbying from Chris Kush, CEO of Soapbox Consulting, the DC-based firm hired to educate the attendant pack of franchisees. “You picked a good year to come, and I’m going to give you some inside information,” Kush said.
“It’s a special kind of year here in Washington—election year—which means nobody’s going to be grilling you or humiliating you, everybody’s going to be so sweet.”
We were then loaded into buses heading for the U.S. Capitol as a coordinated phalanx of press releases landed in the inboxes of reporters across the nation—including sponsored ads on Politico. This was an impressively orchestrated invasion.
Climbing the Hill
As we departed our home base, the ultra-posh J.W. Marriott that’s a stone’s throw from the White House, I chatted with fellow attendees who helped this newbie make sense of maps showing where our meetings would take place in the various halls of power adjacent to our neoclassical capitol that’s been standing for more than 200 years.
My first stop was the office of North Carolina’s Virginia Foxx, representative for the state’s 5th congressional district. I tagged along with a group of franchisees from the state, as well as attorney Ted Pearce who took the lead in calmly taking Rep. Foxx through the talking points we were coached on earlier in the day.
This was Pearce’s 10th time attending the IFA’s lobbying event, and in a later interview he said his experience has proven that congressional representatives respond to such face-to-face meetings, especially after multiple meetings over the years.
“I think that the Congress has always been very approachable,” he said, stressing that striking a calm, welcoming tone is the key. “You are trying to educate them on something they may not have complete facility with, so any way you can get them to understand it and find it to be important works much better than getting in there and getting angry.”
He added meeting with representatives in D.C., as well as staying in touch or even inviting them to events back home further deepens that relationship, which aids the lobbying process.
“Every year you go has some impact,” Pearce said. “As soon as you stop going people forget very rapidly—it’s just human nature.”
My next meeting was with my home delegation, that was informally led by Tamra Kennedy, a Taco John’s franchisee based in Roseville, Minnesota. We met with Libby Foley, a legislative assistant for Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota’s fourth district.
Kennedy, who Foley said had the natural charm of a lobbyist, said she’s been pleased with her reception by her various representatives over her four years attending this event.
“There has to be a belief that it’s both our responsibility and our opportunity to visit with lawmakers about not only what is important to us as small-business people, but our communities that we operate,” she said. “At different offices for both the Senate and the House, they are willing to listen, ask questions and I think really do mean it when they say they work for the people and want to hear what some of their concerns might be.”
While McCollum was busy voting, which we monitored on a small TV mounted in the corner, Foley listened to the Minnesota delegation’s concerns, took notes, asked follow-up questions and showed a genuine interest in the franchisee perspective on issues the congresswoman will ultimately vote on.
“It’s important to understand the conversation you want to have with them and frame it in a way that’s from your perspective,” Kennedy said of the 15-minute meeting. “You have to go in open minded and with a positive attitude that you can influence decision makers by educating them on your personal perspective as a businessperson.”
Before leaving McCollum’s office, I snagged two recipes printed on notecards from the congressional hot dish-cooking competition—casserole for non-Minnesotans—including “Sweet Potato and Wild Rice Hot Dish” and “Making Hot Dish Great Again.”
Maybe they really are just human beings like the rest of us.
Gravitating toward the positive
On my way to the nearby Capitol Hill Club for some lunch and a bottle of water on this 95-degree day, I ran into Cresanti and Matt Haller of the IFA, who delved deeper into the organization’s change of tone.
“We have to find a way to talk to the Democrats,” Cresanti said. “And the answer is very simple—we want the same thing. They want quality jobs created and we need good employees. You can’t hate employers if you want employees … unless the government’s going to employ everyone.”
In a follow-up interview, Haller expounded, saying the IFA’s board has made a concerted effort to focus its engagement to issues that directly impact franchising, while also taking care to reach a wider audience.
“We can continue to point out all the problems with the regulatory overreach of the feds, states and cities, and advocate for or against policies that make it harder to franchise, but at the same time, we can also push a positive message about what franchising is all about,” Haller said. “As we know, people tend to gravitate toward places of positive association.
“We knew we had this major economic impact report coming, which is a twice-a-decade report,” Haller said. “So we simultaneously had a new messaging platform, new data and new audience to educate with the incoming administration and a new Congress—it was a natural opportunity.”
Judging by the actions of 300 franchisees, it was also an opportunity enthusiastically seized.